Academy Blvd. progress report: No progress

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The annual report about progress of the South Academy Boulevard revitalization project is a mixed bag.

City planners presented the report to City Council this week, and while new retail development along the corridor is planned, job opportunities are on a downward slope and overall progress seems to have hit a red light.

“I like to think of it as two steps forward and one step back,” said Carl Schueler, a city planner in the comprehensive plan division. “It’s going to be a long road — literally and figuratively.”

Good news about Lowes opening in the largely vacant Citadel Crossing shopping center was tempered with bad news about Sam’s Club closing. News of new Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart neighbor market stores in the corridor was balanced with news of a U.S. Postal Service facility closing down and eliminating 250 primary jobs in the area.

A growing population and new housing development at Sierra Springs was countered with increased residential vacancy.

The long-range plan that calls for more commercial development, diverse transportation options and streetscaping was just approved six months ago, Schueler said. And it will take time.

Many of the negative factors, like school graduation rates and test scores, are harder for government to guide, he said.

Some of the activity in the area happened without any help from the city. Both Wal-Mart stores announced plans to move in without an incentives, Schueler said. And they were amenable to orienting their stores so they would be closer to the road, which is part of the streetscape plan. Lowes did negotiate some tax incentives with the city when it decided to locate in the corridor, Schueler said.

Going forward, he said he would like to see the city consider making some preemptive streetscape improvements. Normally developers have to pay for improvements, Schueler said. He proposes having the city make some changes that would attract business.

“We’ve spent a lot of time identifying possible funding sources,” he said.

There is $30 million the area could get through the Pikes Peak Regional Transit Authority, Schueler said. The South Academy Corridor wouldn’t have to worry about competing with other regional projects for that funding as long as it’s on the A list, which already includes rebuilding Pikes Peak Avenue near downtown and a South Academy redesign near Martin Proby Parkway.

There’s another $30 million the corridor could compete for from the Colorado Department of Transportation that’s allocated in 2035 long-range plan. That funding is already earmarked to pay for improvements to I-25 in the 2013 fiscal year, Schuler said. And in 2014, it would have to compete with other potential projects like a new interchange at the I-25 and Cimarron exchange.

That competition with other area projects is what will most likely lead to significant delays in accomplishing any of the South Academy plan goals, said Colorado Springs city councilman Tim Leigh.

“It would be cool to see bump-outs at intersections and flowers and manicured medians along South Academy,” Leigh said. “Some of the plans, while they’re well-intended and look cool, I just don’t know how realistic they are. I mean, we’re trying to find money to pay for potholes.”

The corridor needs economic development and Leigh said he’s grateful planners are looking at the issues along South Academy. But funding projects will be the true challenge.

“Looking at priorities, the Cimarron interchange is a competing critical need,” Leigh said. He said downtown projects, major transportation issues along Highway 24 and improvements to no-man’s land near Colorado Avenue and 30th Street will likely be prioritized over South Academy Boulevard for now.