Downtown suggestion: start with residential

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If enthusiasm about downtown revitalization survives fire devastation, city leaders will have to balance a downtown renaissance with rebuilding the scorched northwest side of town.

A group of 10 downtown-redevelopment specialists from the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit that studies best practices in real estate development across the country, spent an intensive week studying Colorado Springs and made recommendations on June 29 that they say could light the path to a downtown renaissance.

Residential development topped their list of suggestions.

Walter Bialas, a real estate analyst from Detroit, said there is pent-up demand for workforce housing downtown. He said now is the time to act because rental housing is insufficient across the country and especially in downtown Colorado Springs, where he said there is less than 5 percent vacancy.

“Housing is in critical demand,” he said. “The downtown core could support 200 to 300 units with rents ranging from $800 to $1,200 a month.”

He recommended that developers start with smaller projects of 50 to 75 units each rather than reaching to large high-rises that might not be in keeping with the city’s character.

He said introducing housing along with other improvements could increase residential demand to 3,000 units within 10 to 15 years. If it could take off as happened in other cities like Denver, demand could grow to as much as 6,000 units.

“Clearly you have a lot of good single-family housing all around Colorado Springs,” said Tom Eitler, ULI vice president of advisory services. “But if you want to entice employers, they want to have a wide variety of housing types for their employees to choose from.”

Nor’wood Development Group President Chris Jenkins said he believes downtown residential development is on its way, though his company is already building four apartment complexes in other parts of the city.

Nor’wood raised private money to pay for about 40 percent of the $125,000 ULI fee. The rest was paid for with tax money from the Downtown Development Authority.

A sense of place

The residential need topped a list of priorities that experts laid out for city leaders. But it was not the only recommendation.

They also prioritized bringing a critical mass of cultural and artistic development together in clusters downtown and the establishment of a champion to oversee the many different downtown agencies.

Jan Minami, former executive director of the downtown association for Fresno, Calif., said Colorado Springs has too many groups duplicating efforts and that it needs to “break down the silos” and choose one entity to lead the charge.

The panel recommended the Downtown Partnership for the task, but said they might need some new or different staff and board members with the right backgrounds and experience to lead the renaissance.

Panelists also recommended building up greenways and connecting them around the heart of the city for a 10-kilometer ring with gateways that open obviously into the downtown core.

Mike Higbee, managing director of the DC Development Group in Indianapolis, said Colorado Springs should market its assets and use its downtown as a place to celebrate them.

“This is one of the fittest, healthiest cities in the country,” Higbee said. “If Wisconsin can market cheese and beer, Colorado Springs should market the opportunity to participate in Olympic training clinics and health and wellness retreats.”

ULI member David Gazek, a real estate developer from San Jose, Calif., said Colorado Springs is missing a focal point.

“It has great highway access,” he said. “It’s easy to get in and out, but there’s little to let you know you have arrived.”

The panel collectively recommended turning America the Beautiful Park on the southwest edge of downtown into Olympic Park and building a monument with the names of all the American Olympians throughout history, along with an iconic pedestrian bridge connecting the park to the rest of the city.

“You need a sense of place and a focal point that tells the region and the world that there is a ‘there’ there,” Gazek said.

They also echoed the oft-heard suggestion of building a minor-league baseball stadium for the Sky Sox downtown.

“I’m a big believer in baseball,” said Jim Claor, a scholar at the Penn Institute for Urban Research and former president of the International Downtown Association.

He said many cities have spurred downtown renaissances with baseball stadiums. He recommended a 12,000- to 14,000-seat stadium.

“But not just for baseball,” he said. “This city is in crying need of an outdoor performance space.”

What’s next?

City leaders said when they set up the ULI panel that they hoped for concrete recommendations that would guide the way to implementation of past good ideas.

Much of what the panelists presented June 29 was a vision. It was more ideas.

“I’m hoping for and expecting more clarity around the priorities in the written report,” said Susan Edmondson, executive director of the Bee Vradenberg Foundation and president of the Downtown Development Authority.

Eitler said the clarity will be there. The panel will offer funding recommendations in its report and will lay out more distinctive paths to implementation. He said the 90-minute presentation last week was an overview of the full report, which will be complete in August or September.

He said the city has more money available for redevelopment efforts than it realizes.

“Obviously Colorado Springs is a little different than other places about how they use their government money,” Eitler said.

He said he knows the city is unlikely to bond for improvements, though it has a virtually untapped line of credit it could use for capital projects like the pedestrian bridge, Olympic Park, a new Sky Sox stadium or incentives for downtown residential developers.

Those projects most likely will have to be funded in partnership with nonprofit organizations and donors, Eitler said.

Jenkins said he believes some of the panel’s suggestions come with a sense of urgency, like the recommendation to connect America the Beautiful Park with the rest of the city.

“It’s an obvious deficiency that it’s not connected,” Jenkins said. “I think the sentiment in the room was the sooner the better.”

Mustering the energy

Panelists were clear that they understood the city would have its work cut out for it, especially following the devastating Waldo Canyon wildfire.

The panelists arrived June 23 — the same day the fire broke out west of the city.

The ULI said it would send a disaster advisory panel at a later date free of charge. ULI disaster panels have advised cities like Oklahoma City and New Orleans on rebuilding efforts in the past.

“We were all dealing with so many different things last week,” Edmondson said. “Our hearts were northwest of the city. But we know we have to move forward and that moving forward downtown will help the entire community.”