Sixty years ago, the western entry to Colorado Springs was picturesque and beautiful.
Emerging from the two-lane highway that snaked down Ute Pass, motorists found themselves on Manitou Avenue, where historic buildings lined the streets. Continuing east, travelers passed through the thriving motel district between Manitou and Old Colorado City, brightly illuminated by colorful neon signs.
The bars of Colorado City beckoned weary visitors, but another two miles down Colorado Avenue brought them over the Colorado Avenue viaduct into the heart of Colorado Springs.
Visitors could choose from more than a dozen downtown hotels — including the Antlers, Acacia, Alamo or Alta Vista — stop for a meal at Ruth’s Oven on Tejon Street, shop at three department stores, and get a drink at bars offering a beer and a shot.
But as traffic increased, it was clear that Ute Pass had to be widened and a new western entry had to be created. Planners decided on a route that bypassed Manitou entirely, soaring above the town to the north and vaulting over Manitou Avenue east of Crystal Park Road. The route then followed Fountain Creek to Colorado Springs, mostly along the old Midland Railway bed.
Hence the name: the Midland Expressway.
There had been little development along the right of way, bordered by junkyards, dilapidated warehouses, a slaughterhouse and the long-abandoned Golden Cycle Mill. Beside the mill’s iconic smokestack, a towering, sandy hill of mill waste was furrowed with deep rills.
Half a century later, the two miles between the Interstate 25/Cimarron exit and 21st Street are relatively desolate. Today’s weary travelers might think themselves on the outskirts of Flint, Jersey City or any drab industrial city that has seen better days.
The festive intersection at 21st Street, featuring the newly renovated Midland Roundhouse on the southwest corner, the iconic prospector sculpture of a miner and his burro on the northwest side, and Anglers’ Covey on the northeast corner, seems to promise great things, but the promise has yet to be fulfilled.
Instead, there are two miles of urban grunge.
Junkyards still line the low bluffs to the north of the highway, barely hidden behind crumbling corrugated steel fences. Along the highway, auto repair shops and shed vendors occupy a narrow strip of land between the bluffs and the highway. A little farther west, storage yards, ancient warehouses, a recreational vehicle dealership and a small tank farm brighten the landscape.
At Eighth Street, a strip shopping center occupies the southwest corner, while the northeast corner is given over to a 7-Eleven with Shell gas pumps and a Borriello Brothers pizzeria. That’s encouraging — but across the street stands a boarded-up motel, once a Holiday Inn, later the Express Inn. After the motel, nothing — just the dingy, bizarrely designed interchange.
Why such urban decay?
“It used to be worse,” said County Commissioner Sallie Clark. “When Welling and I moved here [in the 1980s] there was a junkyard where the Shell station is now. There have actually been some improvements, but the motel is a problem.”
After a long decline, which culminated in its use as temporary housing for homeless campers who once lined the banks of Fountain and Monument creeks, the motel was closed for good two years ago. At a foreclosure auction, a local investor acquired the property for $1.2 million. The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), which will need the property as part of the rebuilt interchange, also entered a bid.
“He’s hoping to sell it to CDOT,” said commercial real estate broker Tim Leigh of the investor, “but he may have to wait for a while.”
“Rebuilding the interchange is the No. 1 priority on the regional transportation improvement plan,” Clark explained, “and they’ll need that property. They’re already doing preliminary design work, so I’d expect that they’ll be under contract soon.”
The state Transportation Commission approved $6 million in project funding last fall for preliminary design work and right-of-way acquisition. Most of the estimated $108 million price tag will come from federal funds. Absent funding problems, the interchange should be finished by 2017 — but the price tag doesn’t include any money for improving the U.S. Highway 24 corridor.
“It really is unsightly, isn’t it?” said Clark. “The center median is asphalt, it’s dirty and deteriorated. CDOT proposed a plan for improving the corridor, widening it and redoing intersections. I had some problems with it — they drew up their plan first, and then presented to the (Westside) community. Real public input was lacking. But there’s no funding for the project — I don’t know when it could happen. Not for a long time.”
Access restrictions have also inhibited commercial development.
“You can’t enter and exit directly onto 24,” said Leigh, “so those corners on Eighth and 21st can’t be developed to their highest and best use.”
It seems likely that U.S. 24 will remain as it is for the foreseeable future — soon to become a cluttered cone zone. Unsuspecting visitors won’t see the glories of Manitou or the bustling shops of Old Colorado City — but if they keep going, they’ll make it to south downtown.
And, with Oscar’s, the Warehouse, McCabe’s and Southside Johnny’s to greet them, one thing hasn’t changed. They can still get a beer and a shot.