By Amy Gillentine and John Hazlehurst
For decades, the steam from the Martin Drake Power Plant has dominated the Colorado Springs skyline. It’s so much a part of the city’s landscape, it’s hard to imagine a time when vast clouds of steam wouldn’t envelop downtown.
Those clouds are both literal and metaphorical, because the now-controversial, coal-fired behemoth is a mystery to most city dwellers. Aside from the 82 employees of Colorado Springs Utilities who work at the facility, the plant is rarely visited.
Drake has a long history in Colorado Springs. It was first built in 1925, and the current generating units were installed at the site during 1962, 1968 and 1974. But the much-expanded and often-altered building has housed electric power generators for nearly 90 years. Four previously installed units, dating from 1925 to 1948, were retired and scrapped. Once a simple brick building, Drake is now a hulking conglomeration of blue tin and steel, steam pipes and chimneys.
One thing seems certain — sooner or later, the plant will close, and it’ll be time to pose another question: What do you do with a shuttered downtown power plant?
The ever-obliging folks at CSU gave us a tour of the facility. We wanted to see the interior and imagine what purpose a reborn Drake might serve. Could it be a museum of contemporary art, amusement park, science museum, retail complex or a new City Administration Building? Maybe a set of condos or a public market?
The building’s entrance offers no clue to what’s inside. A low-ceilinged waiting room that might be attached to a suburban dentist’s office adjoins an equally nondescript conference room, where we were equipped with hard hats and earplugs.
“We’re actually in the 1925 building here,” said George Lewis, who manages the plant. “We’ll start with older sections of the plant.”
Are there, we inquired jocularly, vast underground caverns where CSU stores its secret hoard of gold and silver bars?
“There isn’t any gold,” Lewis replied, “but yeah, there are lower levels — nothing there but old parts and machinery and pipe runs. We call them the catacombs.”
Two long flights of metal stairs lead to the catacombs, a series of high-ceilinged spaces filled with ancient parts racks, long-discarded machinery and, snaking overhead, networks of pipes and cables. A fine layer of grit covers every surface. No footprints are visible on the floors — how long has it been, we wonder, since anyone visited?
Brewpub? Bowling alley? Shooting range? Restaurant? Twenty-foot ceilings, at least 30,000 square feet — room enough for any one of them.
Back up the stairs, through doors and passageways, and we’re in the boiler room. On paper, the process is simple: Conveyor belts transport coal to a bunker, where it’s pulverized into a fine powder, blown into the firebox and ignited, transforming water in the boilers into superheated steam that turns turbines, thereby generating electricity.
Yet the reality is as complex and baffling as Piranesi’s 18th-century etchings of imaginary prisons or M.C. Escher’s four-dimensional geometries. The ceaseless thrum of machinery drowns out conversation, and the scale and complexity of the vast interior cannot easily be absorbed.
Spidery steel catwalks and stairs cross and intersect while vast pipes rise from the floor and merge in sinuous whorls. A light film of coal dust covers every surface. Suspended metal halide lamps throw an intense white light on the work floor, while sunlight filters weakly through a row of ancient windows six stories above. It may be 10 degrees below freezing outside, but it’s well above 80 degrees in the plant, even with all the windows open. At floor level, black-on-white analog gauges monitor the state of squat hulking machines, apparently left over from the first industrial revolution.
The basic process of generating electricity by burning coal dates from the early 19th century. Even after two centuries, it’s still dirty, messy, noisy and potentially dangerous.
But the control room is clean, quiet and vibration-free. Large-scale flat screen monitors give technicians real-time views of plant operations. The plant never shuts down, although individual generating units are periodically taken offline for maintenance and/or upgrades.
How much longer can the plant continue to operate? Given that the newest unit is 39 years old, won’t age take its toll eventually? Is there a 20-year shutdown plan?
“We don’t have a 20-year plan,” Lewis replied. “There’s no technical reason that the plant can’t operate for another 50 years, or longer.”
The units on the floor, Lewis stresses, have been continually updated. Technological advances have created components that are far more reliable and longer-lasting than those they replaced.
“Even in your car, things don’t wear out at the same rate,” Lewis pointed out. “You might need new brakes, new tires, a new timing belt — but your engine block is probably OK. If you constantly replace and upgrade, you’ll be fine.”
Despite the obvious affection that plant managers have for the faithful old coal-burner, it seems likely that it will be retired within the next decade. The buildings are grand and forbidding, featuring spectacular interior spaces that, once gone, will never be duplicated. Can they be effectively re-used?
“There’s still some asbestos lagging on the pipes,” said Lewis, “so most of the wiring, pipes and machinery would have to be removed. The site itself has problems — there’s an area between the plant buildings and Fountain Creek that was used as a dump, and that may have to be cleaned up. And maintenance will have to continue — for instance, if you retain the smokestacks, they’ll have to be maintained.”
Other Utilities officials point out the noise, constant trembling from more than 1,300 trains that pass very close by Drake each month.
“Only 22 of them are ours,” said spokesman Dave Grossman. “You’d have to keep that in mind with any re-use. The Trestle Building’s bolted together because of vibration.”
At first glance, the problems seem insurmountable. Developers around the globe have turned power plants into creative new purposes — but not without effort.
“It’s brain-damaging,” says Larry Peel, an Austin-based developer who turned a 1925 coal-fired power plant in New Braunfels, Texas, into a mixed-use development. “The floors aren’t exactly right, they’re confusing — so you have to pour new floors. And you have to work with people, with the city, with the town, to get it cleaned up before you can even start.”
Depending on the project, and the needed cleanup, the Environmental Protection Agency is ready to help out with technical expertise — how exactly do you clean up a 66-acre site that’s been burning coal for decades? — and financial help.
“We do have grants available to clean up brownfields, if the project’s viable,” said Rich Mylott, spokesman for EPA’s Region 8, located in Denver. “But that depends on what the initial study shows. Really, the state takes care of that, with its voluntary cleanup program. We’d step in if needed.”
That help might be needed — but it might not. One potential use for Drake would be a power plant run by natural gas. Lewis says Drake is ready — with some limitations.
“We can run two of the three boilers on natural gas without adding any pipeline,” he said. “We can run the third, but not at full capacity. At full capacity, we’d have to have some additional pipe. We’re doing a study on what that would take right now.”
But while that would turn off the “cloud maker” — named by generations of Colorado Springs’ children — it’s not the most imaginative idea.
“My thought, every time I drive by it — and I’ve driven by it daily for the past 25 years — is, wow, that’s ugly,” said Bruce Barr, a Colorado Springs architect who specializes in adaptive re-use at Klein Construction. “It’s too good a location for a power plant.”
Still, he’s intrigued by the idea of keeping the shell — and some of the industrial “feel” of the building — and creating something new and different.
“It’s right there by the creek, it’s close to downtown, it’s close to the Interstate,” Barr says. “And we’ve turned our backs on Fountain Creek. Study after study shows that people gather around water. If you could do some sort of mixed-use development that included a water feature — that’s a great idea.”
What about an art museum? Not so fast, he says. Downtown Colorado Springs already has art galleries and the Fine Arts Center. Why divide and conquer? And, he said, don’t turn it into a stadium. It’s too close to Interstate 25.
“Maybe a convention center?” he mused. “Or a hotel?”
Artists have other whimsical ideas. In the past, local artist Sean O’Meallie suggested keeping the plant — and the billowing clouds.
“He suggested just manipulating the smoke,” said Susan Edmondson, director of the Bee Vradenburg Foundation. “Creating swirls or puffs — you know, something out of Dr. Seuss.”
For less whimsical ideas, Colorado Springs will have lots of examples — from a nuclear power plant in Germany that’s now an amusement park, to the mixed-use development created out of Lowry Air Force Base in Denver. And there’s the old power plant in New Braunfels, eight stories tall. Now, it’s home to a soaring atrium where visitors look up to a glass ceiling, with balconies and apartments lining the sides. Windows face a river and a park.
“When I walked in 10 years ago, I looked up and said, ‘wow,’” Peel recalls. “And now, visitors do the same thing. It’s airy and open, but there’s still some of that industrial feel.”
Closer to home, Lowry AFB once had big, industrial hangars that are now an aerospace museum and an ice rink. Its former steam plant now houses condominiums. A community college and an elementary school are housed in former industrial structures.
And the SteamPlant in Salida, though much smaller than Drake, is now home to a theater, art gallery, restaurants and meeting spaces, complete with an on-site caterer. There’s an outside sculpture garden and room for all sizes and kinds of meetings.
So what could Drake become — once the coal dust and asbestos are gone, and the industrial machinery removed? It won’t happen overnight, even once a decision is made.
“It took them about six years to clean the building,” said Peel, of his now fully leased, upscale condo development. “And then we took it to the Texas Historical Register, then to the park service for national designation. That meant working within certain boundaries — and it took six years to get it finished. We went to the mat more than once over issues. A project like that, though — it’s always fun.”
John Hazlehurst contributed to this story.