‘Barriers’ block downtown redevelopment

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Blocking development: The streetscapes that border Acacia Park highlight downtown’s varying architectural designs.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series about downtown Colorado Springs. The first story explored ideas about how to rejuvenate downtown. This story examines some of the barriers to revitalization, and the final story will look at what’s being done to overcome those barriers.

Ideas about how to make downtown Colorado Springs a lively, fun, beautiful and enticing place for residents and tourists alike has been at the center of city discussions  for more than 30 years.

While the discussion was happening, a host of cities such as Denver; Portland, Ore; and Austin, Texas; Chattanooga, Tenn., Raleigh, N.C.; and Louisville, Ky. successfully revitalized their city centers.

So what’s the problem here? What are the barriers?

A survey of city leaders, engineers, architects and developers says it’s a mix of attitude, infrastructure, parking, architectural design, homelessness, and the economy that has put Colorado Springs behind the curve.

Attitude

Many of downtown’s visionaries say they believe the city is its own worst enemy when it comes to making the dream come true.

“It’s that can’t-do mindset,” said City Councilman Tim Leigh. “I look at things and I dream. I’m an idea-smith. I push those ideas out and people always say, ‘We can’t do that.’”

The City of Colorado Springs has long prided itself on operating a lean budget, and residents do not favor tax increases.

Faced with turning off streetlights and closing public parks, residents voted down property tax increases in 2009.

Colorado Springs is a city that tightens its belt and does without, Leigh said.

After decades of going without the frills other cities have and living in the shadow of much larger and shinier Denver, the city has developed what First Properties broker Rich Walker calls an “inferiority complex.”

It’s an attitude that Downtown Partnership executive director Ron Butlin said likely accounts for resistance to a high-speed rail connection to the state’s capital.

A connection like that would make it easy for people from Denver and other cities along the Front Range to visit. But it would also make it easy for people from Colorado Springs to leave and go spend their money in the big city to the north instead of here.

For the idea to gain support here, the public would have to believe there was a reason for traffic to go both ways.

“The difference in this city is that we don’t dare take the first step,” Leigh said. “We haven’t believed in ourselves and until you believe in yourself, you can’t invest.”

Those investments don’t stop with rail connections; Leigh said he knows it will be hard to garner support for his vision of a downtown sports complex. Butlin said he’s afraid his dream of a steel wheel trolley traveling from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs campus to downtown will probably remain just that — a dream.

Infrastructure

But there are good reasons for the “can’t-do attitude,” according to some who see the obstacles.

“Our city does suburban really well,” said Andrea Barker with HB&A Architects. “I’m not knocking it. It’s great. But we’ve got a lot of that. Suburban development is simple in a way because you have to do everything. Downtown is hard. It’s complex. There are 100-year-old buildings downtown.”

Building remodels of 100-year-old structures are held to the same building code standards as new construction.

Outfitting a historic building with fire sprinklers in every room and using enough fire-resistant material in a building filled with hand-carved wood can get expensive in a hurry, said Bob Croft with the Pikes Peak Regional Building Authority.

It can also diminish the character of the structure. He knows that and the Regional Building Department has been asked to examine its codes and consider adopting more forgiving rules for historic building renovations.

“We’re looking at some other model codes like in Philadelphia and New York,” Croft said. “We might see if we could bring some of those allowances in because it’s downtown, and it’s close to a fire station.”

The Regional Building Department is in the beginning stages of code review. Until the codes are sifted through, they remain barriers to anyone who aiming to renovate a downtown building.

“It’s expensive to do a project downtown,” said Dan Robertson, who built several small high-end downtown loft projects — Giddings and Carriage Lofts — before the economic downturn.

“You’re digging up streets and alleys and nobody knows what you’re going to run into. You can’t just park a crane out in the street the way you can in green field development.”

While there’s enough urban infrastructure downtown to make development hard, there’s not enough to give it that urban feel.

“We have undeveloped parking lots in the core of downtown,” said Nor’Wood Development Group President Chris Jenkins. “Those are prime for redevelopment when the market comes back.”

Parking lots and blank walls interrupt the streetscape said Colorado Springs City Planner Ryan Tefertiller.

“You want a fairly consistent street wall,” he said. “It’s uncomfortable for pedestrians to walk past big void areas and parking lots.”

Parking

While some of the parking lots could be redeveloped and replaced with tall mixed-use buildings, doing that could create a whole new problem.

People already complain that it’s hard to park downtown, Butlin said. In our sprawling suburban culture, drivers are accustomed to pulling up right in front of the store or mall they plan to patronize.

They’ll still have to walk to their destination once they’re inside a mall, but people don’t think about that, Butlin said.

There are varying attitudes about parking meters and tickets.

“Someone comes down for lunch and gets a $20 parking ticket, that becomes a really expensive lunch,” Butlin said. “And they’re not going to feel good about downtown.”

The downtown partnership and the City Parking Enterprise are considering several different parking strategies, but no decisions appear to be on the horizon.

Parking is one of the biggest barriers to residential development, Robertson said.

There are three public parking garages downtown and a number of private garages. One of them is the 50-space garage attached to Robertson’s Gidding’s Lofts at 101 N. Tejon St.

People can park down the road or across the street from their offices or shops, Robertson said. But it’s a lot harder to get them to do it when they’re carrying groceries into their homes.

“And a garage costs a fortune to build,” Robertson said.

Robertson said spaces at The Gidding’s Lofts’ garage cost $20,000 each to build.

The building on the south side of Bijou Street across from Acacia Park that Robertson hopes to one day turn into another loft project, The Bijou Lofts, would cost even more based on what Robertson paid for the real estate and what it would take to get a garage in behind the building.

“That would be $30,000 a spot,” he said. “And that’s just for the garage.”

That makes parking one of the biggest barriers to residential development downtown, which visionaries agree is one of the most important ingredients in creating a thriving downtown.

Architecture

One reason Colorado Springs has seen little residential development downtown over the last three decades when other cities were building thousands of apartment and condominium units in their cores is that we didn’t have the existing architecture.

“We’re missing that inventory of grungy old warehouses and high ceiling industrial buildings that can be converted into dwellings,” said Steve Engel, president of real estate firm Griffis Blessing.

Tefertiller said he agreed that the absence of those easily converted, grungy, hip warehouse buildings has hurt Colorado Springs’ downtown resurgence because those kinds of conversions have become the very symbol of urban living.

Blame it on the town founder Gen. William Jackson Palmer,

“That’s just not how this town was designed,” Tefertiller said. “Palmer wanted this to be a resort community. We just never had those industrial buildings.”

Not only are those buildings missing, Barker said, it’s missing a general inventory of visually interesting, exciting and engaging buildings.

“We have so much downtown that are sort of one-story trash buildings,” Barker said. “That’s kind of a harsh word, but we’re missing the three to four floors above that would bring vibrancy and a 24/7 feel to downtown.”

Many older buildings downtown were razed as part of urban renewal efforts in the 1970s.

Those efforts left holes in city’s urban fabric, said Barker, who added that buildings should be knit together to create a collective atmosphere and architectural character.

The area around Acacia Park is a problem area, she said.

“Let’s start with Acacia Park and go out from there,” Barker said. “Looking north — where Carl’s Junior is.”

There’s a beautiful brick building from the early 1900s on the northwest corner. It’s housing for the elderly. Just next door, there is a scraggly glass and metal structure circa the 1960s. Next to it is a treeless concrete slab prominently featuring a suburban fast food restaurant.

It’s a waste of prime downtown urban real estate. It’s unattractive and uninviting, Barker said.

“There’s no reason Carl’s Jr. couldn’t stay there,” she said. “But it could be on the first floor of a multi-story building.”

There are some attractive buildings on the streets facing Acacia Park, but most of them are drab one-story edifices.

The east side is home to an abandoned gas station turned car lot and the stout and stoic YMCA building featuring a cold windowless brick wall nearly three quarters of a block long.

Homelessness

And then there’s Acacia Park itself. The park is home to the popular Uncle Wilber Fountain, where families can romp in the water during the summer, but it’s also a gathering place for the homeless.

Many believe the park is a homeless attractor due to its proximity to The Marion House, a soup kitchen east of the Interstate 25 Bijou Street exit.

The Marion House, operated by Catholic Charities, offers meals and other services to about 600 people a day.

“The Marion House’s location right there at the entrance to our city is a barrier,” Butlin said.

“They do very important, fabulous work,” he said. “And I wouldn’t ever hope for them to stop. But their location — right at the gateway to downtown.”

That makes it easy for the homeless population to come over to Tejon Street and to Acacia Park between meals. They mill around and sometimes ask for money, Butlin said.

Panhandling is a common complaint among downtown merchants.

Linda Hunter, who moved her Johannes Hunter Jewelers earlier this year from downtown to the new University Village Shopping Center northwest of Garden of the Gods Road and Nevada Avenue near UCCS, said she did it in part because the homeless population was a nuisance to her clients.

“There are homeless people in every downtown,” Butlin said.

In fact there are probably fewer here in Colorado Springs than there are in most cities this size, he said.

Some say the problem isn’t that there are too many homeless people, but that the homeless population is concentrated in downtown’s relatively few blocks where there are likely fewer shoppers than other city’s downtowns see.

“We just need to get more people to come downtown and get activities in the park to dilute the homeless population,” Butlin said.

The economy

Developers such as Jenkins say they’re just waiting for the economy to turn around before they make redevelopment moves.

“Obviously, this protracted recession we’re in and the lack of job growth is holding back progress,” Jenkins said. “Once the market improves a little, I do believe there is a groundswell of community interest in improving downtown.”

Several projects were in the works with city approval, including Robertson’s Bijou Lofts south of Acacia Park and Jenkins’ multi-story mixed-use Pikes Peak Place near at northeast corner of Pikes Peak and Nevada avenues.

“The economy just fell off a cliff,” he said.

Read the rest of the series here:

Downtown dreams still struggle toward reality
Downtown’s bright spots break barriers