Last year at this time, the Colorado Springs Business Journal published a series of stories about stalled downtown redevelopment dreams and what it would take to reinvigorate them.
Mayor Steve Bach had just established his downtown taskforce. Downtown advocates complained about homelessness, panhandlers, parking and a lack of residential projects. Many lamented a lack of action on reams of studies and reports about downtown redevelopment.
Others insisted it would all turn around with the economy.
A year later, there’s still no baseball stadium downtown, no new residential development or a bridge to America the Beautiful Park, but advocates say change is happening now and the momentum behind it is fierce.
“Enthusiasm about downtown is the best I’ve seen it in many years,” said Sam Eppley, president of the Downtown Partnership board of directors and owner of Sparrow Hawk Cookware at 120 N. Tejon St.
In June, the Downtown Development Authority and community donors paid $125,000 to bring an Urban Land Institute advisory panel to develop an action plan for the city. The panel of 10 downtown redevelopment experts from across the country, led by former Indianapolis mayor Bill Hudnut, interviewed 120 residents, reviewed reports and issued recommendations even though the Waldo Canyon fire raged throughout the panel’s visit.
The city already has implemented several of ULI’s smaller recommendations — putting art in the windows of vacant stores, lengthening the maximum time visitors can stay at downtown meters to two hours and passing an ordinance for a no-solicitation zone downtown. City Council passed the final reading of the ordinance Tuesday in hopes of curbing panhandling.
Following a ULI suggestion that local universities have a stronger downtown presence, the University of Colorado Colorado Springs is organizing a basketball game against Colorado State University-Pueblo at the downtown City Auditorium.
“Some of the other recommendations are longer-term projects,” Eppley said.
But that doesn’t mean people are waiting to start working on them.
Even before ULI recommendations came back, the city applied for grants to complete the emerald necklace — a circle of parks and green spaces originally designed to surround the downtown core. The city received a grant to study Fountain Creek at America the Beautiful Park and possibly develop a water feature there. It didn’t get another grant it applied for to study closing the necklace.
“We haven’t lost momentum on that project, though,” Eppley said. “We can find another funding source for that.”
One of ULI’s primary recommendations was to find a champion to lead the downtown renaissance.
Ron Butlin stepped down as executive director of the partnership in October. Hannah Parsons, a real estate agent and owner of Epicentral Co-working downtown, is the interim director.
The job, which Parsons says she doesn’t want permanently, should be posted in mid-December. She says the committee will look first for someone local who can hit the ground running.
“The stage is set for someone to do really great things here,” Parsons said.
Other ULI recommendations — like changing the name of America the Beautiful Park to Olympic Park with a memorial wall covered in the names of American Olympians or building an iconic bridge to the park over the railroad tracks — will take more time to materialize.
“You can’t wait for that all-or-nothing bridge,” Eppley said.
Business owners are making a nonphysical connection to the park, offering restaurant and drink specials when there are events there, he said.
Residential development is a top priority in the ULI report.
While nothing has come out of the ground yet, there have been increasingly intense rumblings about apartment projects on the verge of being announced. Bob and Karen Elliot, who developed the Two Eight West lofts along Monument Park, bought land near Costilla Street and Nevada Avenue in the El Paso County Public Trustee’s foreclosure sale Oct. 31. They say they plan to build apartments.
“They bought that land at a good price and they’re willing to commit,” Eppley said. “They do what they say they’re going to do, and they will probably be the first out of the ground with a project. And they’ll probably benefit from that.”
Dan Robertson also plans to start construction in early 2013 on six new lofts in the Giddings Building at 101 N. Tejon. The lofts will be around 800 square feet each, smaller than other downtown lofts, so they can be more affordable. They’ll be priced at $275,000 to $350,000, he said.
“The ULI had great recommendations,” Eppley said, “but we were working on a lot before the ULI report.”
Events like the USA Pro Challenge cycling race and Olympics kickoff party drew thousands while building awareness and excitement about downtown, Parsons says. Those and other undertakings that weren’t mentioned in the ULI report are building momentum behind downtown, she adds.
“People are just taking the initiative and doing it,” Parsons said. “We’re not pushing it. There are more things popping up now, where we’re like — what is that? Who is doing that? And that’s a great thing.”
Among those projects is a push to build a public market in southwest downtown, similar to the Milwaukee Public Market, where people can buy locally produced food and goods. It would serve residents and draw tourists. Mike Callicrate, who owns Ranch Foods Direct, is spearheading the idea.
“We’re getting a bunch of energy around this thing,” Callicrate said.
He’s had more than 20 people at regular meetings about how to move forward. Green Cities Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to making El Paso County more sustainable, has stepped in as a guiding nonprofit.
“We want to fix a sore spot, that blighted area and at the same time create a new focal point for excitement,” Callicrate said.
The location he’s considering is an empty Crissy Fowler Lumber building on the southwest side of town surrounded by other empty buildings. Nor’wood Development Group owns the building and President Chris Jenkins has been working with Callicrate.
There’s more research to do before moving forward, Callicrate says.
The newly formed Colorado Springs Urban Intervention nonprofit is talking about running some demonstration markets during the summer.
Urban Intervention started as a nonprofit when John Olson and Raymond Winn, the group’s president and vice president, realized they would need a way to collect money to pay for their Better Block demonstration, which closed off two lanes of traffic and several parking spaces on Pikes Peak Avenue between Nevada Avenue and Tejon Street in its September debut.
That project showed how traffic would flow and parking would work if that stretch of road became more pedestrian-centric, Olson said. There were no issues with people missing lights or finding parking, he said.
They’re not trying to make the change permanent. “We just wanted to get the conversation started,” Winn said.
They have established a board and meet to talk about how they can use their organization in tandem with other innovative ideas and projects. In addition to discussing demonstrations of the public market, they have talked about demonstrating a trolley system between downtown and UCCS or some urbanization on South Academy Boulevard.
“Scale back the budget 80 percent or more,” Olson said. “Do it temporarily and use that as evidence it works when you try to get funding.”
Leadership Now, a young professionals class of Leadership Pikes Peak, is organizing a demonstration project to show how an alleyway improvement project launched more than a year ago by HB&A Architects could enhance the city.
For the First Friday Art Walk on Dec. 7, the group will close the alleys on either side of Bijou Street between Cascade Avenue and Tejon Street to traffic, clean them up, string lights, set out bistro tables, invite food trucks, musicians and Starbucks, and hang weather-proofed art, including renderings of how the alleys could look, on the cement walls of buildings and the public parking garage.
“We’re all in our mid 20s,” said Chelsie Reynolds, spokeswoman for the class. “We all want to see the artistic community flourish and we want it to be more a part of downtown.”
At the same time the alleys will be bustling with activity, there will be public skating in Acacia Park. From Dec. 1 to 9, there will be a synthetic ice rink set up on the shuffleboard courts complete with music and the lighted Christmas tree.
“This is the kickoff year to bring winter activities downtown,” Parsons said.
She hopes the park will have a real ice skating rink in Acacia Park all winter next year and that the Downtown Partnership will be able to partner with U.S. Figure Skating before the 2014 Olympics.
“This is kind of the believe-in-downtown year,” Parsons said.
Tejon Street Christmas Stroll
When: 5:30 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 5
Description: Retailers and restaurants will offer prizes, events and discounts
Festival of Lights Parade
When: 5:50 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1
Skating in the park
When: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays and 12 to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, Dec. 1 to 9.
Alley Arts District demonstration
When: 4 to 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 7
Description: Leadership Now will clean up alleys north and south of Bijou Street between Tejon Street and Cascade Avenue, hang art, display renderings of what the alleys could look like, string lights, provide seating, music and food trucks.