Outsiders could light path for downtown

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Colorado Springs has studied its downtown and come up with ideas for improving it. Now, city leaders are hoping one more study will show them how to implement those ideas.

The Urban Land Institute will send 10 experts in downtown redevelopment, urban infill projects and public-private partnerships from throughout the country to Colorado Springs, arriving Sunday. The team, led by former Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut, will spend one intensive week evaluating the city and all of the past research done on downtown.

At the end of the week, the panel will write a draft report and present its recommendations to city leaders and residents.

“This is the piece that’s been missing,” said Susan Edmondson, executive director of the Bee Vradenberg Foundation and president of the Downtown Development Authority. “We have all kinds of terrific ideas for what’s good for downtown. But they are all more complex than they seem.”

There has been no shortage of studies on how to improve downtown Colorado Springs. From the Imagine Downtown Plan in 2007 to visions in the Operation 6035 study for economic development and the recent American Institute of Architects city-wide evaluation, groups have looked into what’s missing from downtown and why it isn’t the vibrant city center that residents want it to be.

Plenty of recommendations have come out of those studies.

“And we have implemented some of them,” Edmondson said.

Imagine Downtown resulted in adoption of form-based code in the downtown core, which makes building downtown more predictable for developers and requires a more urban feel to new development. That plan also led to creation of the Downtown Development Authority, supported with tax-increment financing and a 5-mill tariff on business and home owners downtown.

DDA will pay for 40 to 60 percent of the ULI panel and Nor’Wood Development Group president Chris Jenkins found business sponsors to cover the rest of the $125,000 price tag.

For the most part, though, previous studies have resulted in a lot of ideas, but limited action.

This study will be different, Edmondson says.

“This does build on the work that’s been done before,” she said. “It’s a much more directive and proactive process.”

Even the short one-week duration is designed to make this study one of action, she said.

“It’s very different from a process that can drag out where a certain kind of fatigue can set in,” Edmondson said.

Ron Butlin, executive director of the Downtown Partnership, says the Urban Land Institute is a prestigious organization known for recommending achievable action steps leading to meaningful change.

“We have done lots of studies,” Butlin said. “What we’re looking for in this is the one, two, five, 12 steps we can take to get there.”

Panel of experts

ULI panels are designed around the specific needs of the communities that contract them, said ULI spokesman Tom Eitler. The organization has been doing these panel studies since 1947.

The team of experts will spend Monday and Tuesday touring the city and interviewing 50 to 100 key leaders in the city about priorities for redeveloping downtown. Then they will review the data and spend Wednesday and Thursday drafting recommendations.

The experts, all volunteers, are ULI members. They have backgrounds that make them specially equipped to teach other city leaders what they have learned through experience.

“There are a lot of good things in Colorado Springs,” he said. “But over the last 20 years the focus has gone out of the city center.”

He said the common theme among economically healthy and viable cities throughout the country is that they have a thriving core filled with both daytime and nighttime activity. He said Colorado Springs can probably achieve that.

“Orlando and Indy did it,” Eitler said.

This is the time

The decision to commission ULI came quickly, Edmondson said.

“We ended up with a really unique window of opportunity here,” she said. “If we couldn’t seize this one window, we might have had to wait until next year.”

The window appeared shortly after the authority decided it wanted to contact ULI. The local group was looking for answers and trying to identify the steps toward some of its revitalization goals. DDA didn’t shop for an organization to do a study, Edmondson said. ULI was a clear choice from the start.

The authority wanted to act right away to take full advantage of the current buzz about downtown.

“There seems to be a groundswell of interest in downtown,” she said. “This is a sort of intangible thing, but I sense that there is a greater understanding that a thriving downtown is important to a strong community.”

Urban Land Institute panel

Chairman — William Hudnut, former mayor of Indianapolis

Hudnut served as Indianapolis mayor between 1976 and 1991. He used sports to leverage economic growth and is credited with the city’s 1980s resurgence. He later served as a congressman and now runs his own consulting firm, Bill Hudnut Consultants.

Walter Bialas, senior real estate strategy executive in Washington, D.C.

Bialas is known for his creative problem solving in the consulting, banking and development arenas. He has been evaluating real estate throughout the country for more than 25 years and is known for being able to quickly assess market conditions and dynamics that could impact project feasibility.

James Cloar, scholar at the Penn Institute for Urban Research

Cloar is the former president of the Washington, D.C. International Downtown Association and former CEO of downtown associations in St. Louis, Tampa and Dallas. He has served as a consultant or advisor for more than 50 cities in the US and abroad.

Dave Gazek, real estate and organizational development

Gazak has more than 20 years of experience in commercial, residential and mixed-use real estate and land development. He directed the Downtown Development and Redevelopment agency in the city of San Jose, Calif. from 1996 to 2000.

Mike Higbee, managing director at DC Development Group in Indianapolis

Higbee’s expertise is in conceptualizing development and seeing it through construction. He’s designed many urban projects.

Glenda Hood, president of Hood Partners in Orlando, Fla.

Hood is a former Florida secretary of state and former mayor of Orlando. As mayor from 1992 to 2003, Hood concentrated on revitalizing downtown centers and infill development.

Jan Minami, principal of AMI Concepts in Fresno, Calif.

Minami has led downtown associations in Visalia, Calif. and in Fresno. In Fresno, she rescued the dying business organization and improved business services.

Ralph Nunez, president of the Design Team in Southfield, Mich.

Nunez, an architect and landscape architect, is known for innovative and creative designs for difficult projects.

David Stebbins, vice president of Buffalo Urban Development Corp. in Buffalo, New York

Stebbins specializes in nonprofit urban brownfield redevelopment projects. His firm is currently redeveloping two former steel manufacturing facilities. He formerly served as president of the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp., a nonprofit responsible for all redevelopment efforts in the city.