Downtown’s bright spots break barriers

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Editor’s note: This is the third in a three-part series about downtown Colorado Springs revitalization. The first story listed dream projects for downtown. The second story explored the barriers keeping those dreams from becoming reality, and this story looks at recent successful projects and policy changes.

Many who have participated in downtown redevelopment discussions during the last 30 years say they are more optimistic than ever that the revitalization plans are about to spring into action.

Numerous barriers have prevented redevelopment, and city government, engineers, developers and urban advocates are working to address those issues, which include the economy, architectural code, infrastructure, housing and attitude.

Economy

Many involved in the downtown’s redevelopment discussion believe there is just one bowling pin standing in the way of a win — the economy.

But that means all the others have toppled.

“We sometimes forget to pat ourselves on the back for all the success we have had,” said Chuck Murphy, who was recently appointed by Mayor Steve Bach to lead a downtown solutions team.

Kevin O’Neil of The O’Neil Group moved his company, Braxton Technologies, from a site near the Colorado Springs Airport to 6 N. Tejon St. this summer.

He said he felt it was important to bring it to the city center.

“It’s happening here,” O’Neil said. “This is where all the decision-making in this town happens. If we’re going to come together as a community and have a hub, this is it.”

Other companies that envision plans for such a move are blocked by lack of financing.

“That is the No. 1 biggest barrier,” said Perry Sanders, who is scheduled to open the Wyndham Grand Mining Exchange Hotel near the intersection of Nevada and Pikes Peak avenues this spring.

“The biggest and hardest barrier for anyone to overcome and do anything in the last few years has been financing,” he said.

Sanders took the Mining Exchange project over at exactly the wrong time, he said. The original financing went through in May of 2009, which was a bad time for getting funding. But it just got worse from there, Sanders said.

“This ran way over budget and it took a lot more time than we expected,” he said. “When you’re budgeting for a historic construction project, you need to have the ‘big surprise’ category in your budget.”

The original lender folded and Sanders had to get new financing.

“I always knew this project would get finished,” he said. “I just thought it might take a long time.”

The project would have been a lot easier to do in a more hospitable economy and it probably wouldn’t have taken as long, Sanders said.

But his Springs Orleans restaurant, which has been open just over six months, has been successful even without much marketing, Sanders said. And several parts of the hotel are finished. It should be opening in the spring.

“Downtown Colorado Springs has proven it has an appetite for culturally enjoyable things in a fun atmosphere,” Sanders said. “That’s what I believe this downtown is going to become.”

That appetite will carry Colorado Springs into downtown revitalization projects when the economy improves, Sanders said.

While it’s just one barrier, the economy is a big one. All the groundwork the community has laid — the planning and the dramatic changes to the way decisions are made at the most basic level — have gone untested due to lack of activity.

Colorado Springs needs more jobs, new industry, fresh young entrepreneurial blood, or maybe just time to get out of this economic slump.

It’s the barrier that Mayor Steve Bach blames for a lack of revitalization activity downtown.

Nor’Wood Development Group President Chris Jenkins said he believes the city has all its other ducks in a row.

Architecture

Among those ducks are the city’s one-story buildings.

“The old zoning code is one of the biggest barriers to urban development downtown,” said Ryan Tefertiller, a city planner assigned to the downtown area. “And it’s been addressed.”

“The city implemented its form-based code with a special downtown review board for the urban center two years ago. Unfortunately, it was finished just in time for the economic meltdown and the city hasn’t had a chance to use it yet. No one has come forward with any new downtown projects for the last two years.

‘We’ve even allowed some temporary permits for things we wouldn’t normally approve downtown,” Tefertiller said.

That includes a five-year conditional permit for Nor’Wood to build and operate a parking lot on the land it owns near the northeast corner of Pikes Peak and Nevada avenues. Jenkins has long-term plans to build his Pikes Peak Place, a multi-story mixed use skyscraper there. Tefertiller said the permit was issued in 2010 and Nor’Wood will have to revisit options for that space in 2015.

City planning just did a two-year review and update of the code. It was supposed to be a one-year review, but the commission delayed it hoping someone would submit a project that would help bring any issues or problems to light. Two years later, most of the changes deal with grammar and syntax and not at all with the process, Tefertiller said.

Never the less, the new code should make redevelopment efforts easier.

Instead of the standard Euclidean zoning code, where approval is based on the use of the building and what neighbors think of it, form-based code is based entirely on the look of the building.

“We don’t care as much about what goes on inside of the building,” Tefertiller said. “It’s highly objective. There are easily measured standards and if you meet them, your project will be approved.”

There’s no need for big public hearings where neighbors can object to the type of traffic a Whole Foods or a head shop would bring into their area. All that matters is that the building butts right up against the sidewalk, has windows for pedestrians to peer into as they walk by and is two stories or taller.

The applications are reviewed by a separate downtown-specific board, which should expedite the process.

“It increases predictability for the developers,” Tefertiller said. “That lowers the risk-level of a project and it makes banks more comfortable.”

Jenkins said the change in the code will make a big difference to developers like him.

“The old zones that required people to get variances just to build what was natural for downtown,” Jenkins said. “It used to be so easy to say, ‘oh, it’s too hard to build downtown.’ That’s not the case anymore.”

Infrastructure

While changing the zoning code is almost unanimously viewed by downtown movers and shakers as the magic bullet just waiting to be fired, city leaders quietly work to make further improvement easier.

Sanders said he’s experienced tremendous delay and had some serious problem solving challenges in redeveloping the Mining Exchange building. He’s hopeful that some of his experience might be helpful to Pikes Peak Regional Building if the body decides to revamp building codes so they’re more amenable to those who want to restore historical downtown structures.

Bob Croft with regional building said the body is considering revising the codes and creating a special category with a separate review board for old downtown building rehabilitations.

Other infrastructure improvements aren’t so grandiose.

“I think two-way Tejon Street makes a huge difference,” Jenkins said.

He was instrumental in turning the main artery through downtown Colorado Springs into a two-way street several years ago.

Ron Butlin, president of the downtown partnership, said there are dozens of other small improvement projects underway. The Business Improvement District planted flower boxes on most of the street corners throughout the downtown core, which adds to the beauty of the area.

There are also plans to build up the median in Nevada Avenue so it will break up traffic and provide a more pedestrian-friendly feeling.

Additionally, the Downtown Development Authority was established in 2007 as a special tax district. The taxes raised in the district go to fund grants for redevelopment.

Butlin said the money has accumulated in the absence of businesses aiming to make major improvements or move in downtown. It will be ready and available when the economy turns around to can help fund some bigger private improvement projects as the pot has had a chance to grow during the slow times.

Housing

Most of the downtown dreamers say the number one intrinsic barrier to a thriving downtown is housing. No one lives downtown, which makes it harder for businesses to draw customers.

“If downtown is going to be a success, we need that 24/7 atmosphere,” said Andrea Barker with HB&A Architects.

Bringing rooftops into the urban fabric of the city is no small task. Dan Robertson has faced serious challenges building high-end luxury lofts with adjacent parking garages downtown. But they have all been successful. His Giddings Loft buildings and his Carriage House Lofts sold and most have retained their value even in this depressed market, Robertson said. None of them have gone through foreclosure.

Murphy said he knows of a handful of downtown residential projects in the concept stages, including his own idea to create an arts district between Bijou Street and Colorado Avenue east of Interstate 25.

“That’s more than a dream there,” he said. “We have a lot of cash money invested there,” he said. “That’s going to happen.”

The plug was pulled on the project when the economy turned and John Q. Hammons backed out of building a luxury hotel at that location.

But the project is not dead, Murphy said.

“We’re going to get going on that again in 2012, maybe 2013 at the latest,” he said. “At my age, I don’t want to wait too long.”

Other grassroots projects are popping up, including one Darsey Nicklasson is working on. She owns a real estate consulting firm and lives downtown. While she is not a developer, she plans to pursue building a downtown apartment complex and has her eye on a lot within the urban center.

Attitude

It’s that attitude — that go get ‘em spirit, that buzz and energy around reviving downtown — that most people say is the real difference between the conversation today and the conversation at other periods over the last 30 years.

“I do think it’s going to happen this time,” Jenkins said. “It’s palpable. You hear the mayor talk about it. Young people are engaged in the dialogue. There’s a hunger for seeing this that I haven’t felt before.”

That’s a current that runs through most downtown dreamers. They all say there is an energy about downtown, a deep craving to make it better.

Once that final bowling pin topples, downtown developers say they will be poised for a strike. Several projects from Pikes Peak Place, Murphy’s arts district, City Gate and Robertson’s Bijou Lofts project are already on the book. The desire is there. The demand is there. Now it it’s just about the economy, most say.

But then again, what is the hold up? Sanders went through with a major downtown hotel project in the midst of the worst borrowing market ever. O’Neil brought jobs to the city center.

“There are no barriers,” O’Neil said. “Just do it. People need to just do it.”

Read the rest of the series here:

Downtown dreams still struggle toward reality
‘Barriers’ block downtown redevelopment

One Response to Downtown’s bright spots break barriers

  1. Good series, thanks.

    Bryce Crawford
    December 24, 2011 at 1:18 pm