Colleges could make downtown better

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Amid the hoopla last week surrounding the Urban Land Institute’s downtown recommendations, most attention focused on residential development as well as a proposed arts and culture district.

But one detail slipped by during those presentations without the followup it deserved. That was the mention by the ULI’s project leader, former Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut, about enhancing the local colleges’ presence downtown.

Part of the concept, which actually did come out, was adding several hundred affordable rental units that ideally would appeal to older students at both Colorado College and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. That sounds promising, because it would put those young adults within walking distance of so many restaurants, bars and entertainment venues.

That wasn’t all.

Hudnut reported that he and others from ULI also had met with those two institutions’ presidents, Pam Shockley-Zalabak at UCCS and Jill Tiefenthaler at CC, about an additional idea. With more students living in the downtown area, perhaps the two schools could combine forces and share a building as well.

Such a building could house some administrative offices for both CC and UCCS, and it also could include space for classrooms and/or rooms that students might use for reading and studying.

Of course, Pikes Peak Community College already has facilities downtown, in the area just west and downhill from Penrose Library. That wasn’t part of the ULI report, but as the city decides its strategy on moving forward, PPCC also has to be part of that conversation.

Perhaps the answer should start with a bigger plan. Mayor Steve Bach could appoint a solutions team for education — or just add an agenda item for the downtown team, though a new group seems preferable — with representatives from UCCS, CC and PPCC. (The team might even reach out to for-profit schools like Colorado Tech and the University of Phoenix, unless that creates a philosophical problem.)

The goal would be to create the framework for a coordinated higher-education presence in and around downtown. It might be a complex with separate areas for different institutions, or perhaps even a loose-knit collection of buildings and other commercial property. But the vision won’t have a chance of moving toward a new reality unless our Big Three — UCCS, CC and PPCC — are on board.

There’s one very convincing reason for making higher-ed a focal point in revitalizing downtown Colorado Springs: raw numbers. Add together the total enrollments of the Big Three, and it comes to a little more than 27,000 students. The breakdown is approximately 15,200 at PPCC, 10,100 at UCCS and 2,000 at CC.

Granted, the majority of those students will be living elsewhere and going to classes at the different campuses. But drawing from them, and providing different opportunities for them in the city’s center, should be too tantalizing a possibility to ignore.

Just an observation: When the ULI’s Bill Hudnut, describing his report at the Mayor’s Breakfast last week, mentioned that he had met with the UCCS and CC presidents about his ideas, both Shockley-Zalabak and Tiefenthaler nodded in approval. They may not be ready to commit yet, but they’re at least interested.

Let’s not allow that interest to fade away.