ULI’s downtown suggestions start with new housing

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With more people living downtown, businesses and restaurants would obviously have a larger base of nearby customers.

If there was any doubt of what downtown revitalization means to local leaders, the Downtown Partnership’s Annual Mayor’s Breakfast took care of that Wednesday.

Mayor Steve Bach, in his keynote speech, told a crowd of about 225 people at the Mining Exchange Hotel that downtown’s future would be a top priority for his administration.

Former longtime Indianapolis mayor Bill Hudnut, visiting to help push those plans forward, introduced Bach at the event. Hudnut was in town to present an Urban Land Institute report on creating a downtown renaissance to the mayor and other elected officials.

The Downtown Development Authority paid about half the $125,000 price tag for the ULI and International Downtown Association to bring 10 experts in different elements of downtown redevelopment to Colorado Springs in late June. After an intensive, one-week look at the city, ULI put together a clear guide, with action steps, to revitalizing downtown.

The report emphasizes five priorities:

  • Incentivizing residential development downtown, potentially including rentals for students at Colorado College and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs;
  • Redeveloping America the Beautiful Park into Olympic Park with a Vietnam War Memorial-style wall commemorating all U.S. Olympic athletes and an iconic America the Beautiful Bridge connecting the park to southwest downtown;
  • Creating an arts-and-entertainment activity center, including several museums and a new Sky Sox baseball stadium downtown that also could be a performing arts venue;
  • Capitalizing more on tourism in the downtown area, with a new, full-service, 200-room hotel and more convention/meeting facilities;
  • Completing a 10-kilometer “emerald necklace” loop of parks, trails, bikeways and green space around the downtown core.

The ULI group first visited from June 24-29, which happened to be the week of the Waldo Canyon fire. Hudnut said ULI has offered to come back and advise the city, free of charge, on rebuilding efforts, but the city has not yet followed up on the offer.

Housing potential

As usual in discussion about downtown revitalization, the panel stresses housing.

“A renaissance downtown will depend upon additional residential that brings with it daytime and nighttime activity, street animation and vibrancy,” according to the report.

Hudnut suggests 150 to 200 units in the near term along with encouraging student housing for CC and UCCS. It’s something he discussed with the two schools’ presidents this summer, and both supported the idea, he said. The concept might even include a downtown building with shared office space and college classrooms.

“Retail follows rooftops,” he said.

And a healthy downtown retail environment depends on downtown residential development.

Bach said at the breakfast that he has been speaking with a couple different developers interested in building housing downtown.

“We have to have housing downtown,” he said. “I hope this time next year we’ll be able to make some positive announcements about that.”

There is pent-up demand for new medium-income apartments, and the panel recommended starting with up to 300 housing units priced between $800 and $1,200 per month.

While the report lists housing as a priority, it doesn’t say a lot about how to lure developers downtown to build it.

Tom Eitler, vice president of advisory services for ULI, says the first step will be getting city officials to prioritize housing and create a political culture that welcomes developers. He said a lot of other cities have done some infrastructure improvements ahead of time and made it shovel-ready for developers.

“There are native Colorado Springs companies there that could do it,” Eitler said. “But the city might also want to look more broadly.”

Ron Butlin, Downtown Partnership executive director, says there’s already a lot happening that will make downtown housing more likely. The form-based code makes housing an accepted use rather than one requiring a variance.

“We’ve been in conversations with Colorado Springs Utilities to see what they can do,” Butlin said.

Sam Eppley, president of the Downtown Partnership board and owner of Sparrow Hawk, said conversations about housing might need to wait until the economy improves and developers feel like they can move forward on projects they already have planned. They might hold off until there is more drawing people downtown.

Arts and culture

The panel also prioritizes the idea of fostering arts and culture venues like a baseball stadium, children’s museum, science center and other venues clustering in southwest downtown.

Hudnut said that was how he led a renaissance in downtown Indianapolis. The city started working on getting a major stadium before it even had a team. The planning began in earnest in 1979 and the Hoosier Dome opened in 1984. And the city became home to the football Colts, spurring other development.

“Let’s stuff the suitcase with all kinds of cool stuff that will ultimately make people want to be downtown,” Eppley said. “We need to create a center of activity. People want to live downtown because that’s where the action is. They don’t go downtown because there are apartments there.”

Building up an arts and activity district could create a sense of destination, Eitler said. The city also should play up its natural setting and affiliation with the Olympics, according to the report, and market itself as a wellness destination.

Organizing the organizations

“We were astounded by the multiplicity of the organizations and boards focusing on downtown,” Hudnut said.

The panel recommended choosing one leader, probably the executive director of the Downtown Partnership, to coordinate the groups’ missions more effectively.

The board also recommended having an outside body, like Mayor Bach’s downtown solutions team, do an independent evaluation and write up specific job descriptions for the partnership.

“This whole thing of a downtown renaissance is going to need a champion — someone to devote himself or herself full-time,” Hudnut said.

Emerald necklace

The panel also recommends closing gaps in the ring of green space surrounding the city, often called the emerald necklace.

“That’s something the city will just have to work on a little at a time,” Eitler said.

And there is activity. Butlin said the city just received a $240,000 state grant to build an environmental playground in the southwest corner of America the Beautiful Park that will make improvements to Fountain Creek and make it accessible from the park. The city just has to find $40,000 in matching donations.

He said the city also has applied for a planning grant to complete a master plan for the emerald necklace.

Paying for progress

The big question is how to make these projects happen.

“The city has a wide range of effective legislative and regulatory tools for encouraging and incentivizing development, but they have been largely untapped,” according to the report.

Funding options always seem limited in Colorado Springs.

“Hmm,” Butlin said. “We might have to ask for some clarification on that.”

But he said there are a lot of state and federal funds that the city is just now realizing it can access. While GoCo funds come from Lottery dollars, the city has not historically accessed much of that money.

Eitler said the funds the panel was talking about were, in part, the city’s $300 million of untapped bonding capacity.

“We understand Colorado Springs does things a little differently than other cities,” he said.

But other mayors, like Hudnut, have accomplished a lot with small bond issues to invest in and revitalize their downtowns.

Hudnut said he funded the Hoosier Dome with a revenue bond that was paid off with income generated from the stadium. A metro-area 1 percent sales tax on food and beverage paid for a lot of other improvements. Those weren’t voter referendums in Indianapolis, he said.