Colorado Springs School District 11 and its neighborhoods have problems with a declining population.
Student enrollment is dropping, property values are low and retail centers have high vacancy rates.
The area, which covers the geographic center of the city, is ripe for revitalization, and some believe it’s on the verge of happening. Others, though, believe whatever renaissance might be coming is years away.
National trends suggest a move toward urbanization — families and young couples opting for older urban homes in traditional city centers. And while that could happen in Colorado Springs, it doesn’t seem to be happening yet.
City Planner Steve Tuck says many Colorado Springs families want big, new houses and big yards close to new shopping and new schools, things that are scarce in D-11.
“There aren’t really large expanses of land left in D-11 where developers could build new homes,” Tuck said. “It’s not unreasonable to think the declining populations there are going to continue.”
He added that a lot of the young professionals interested in older, more urban areas nationally aren’t necessarily those with children, which means a resurgence in the D-11 neighborhoods still might not bring students back to the schools.
And even if families do come back into the city’s geographic center, people don’t have as many kids today as they once did, said Senior City Planner Carl Schueler.
“When those houses were built, people had four kids living there,” Schueler said. “People don’t have as many kids anymore. It will never be like it was when those neighborhoods were originally built.”
District 11, which reaches from Airport Road to Dublin Boulevard and from Manitou Springs to Powers Boulevard, has lost 14 percent of its student population in the past decade and more than 500 students in the past year — the biggest enrollment drop in the state.
That exodus has left a lot of empty seats in the district’s schools.
As a result, the school board voted earlier this year to close Bates and Lincoln elementary schools this fall and to repurpose Wasson High School as a home for its alternative programs. That should boost the student population there from 800 to 2,000.
That’s a good step toward revitalization, said Dave Munger, president of the Council of Neighbors and Organizations.
“I do think in the long run, any district that demonstrates it is using its resources effectively and efficiently and students are learning and excelling, that does make a difference to homebuyers and residents,” Munger said.
D-11 is also home to 16 charter schools, which are among the highest-rated schools in the city, according to greatschools.org. Charter schools get the same per-pupil funding from the state that district schools receive, but aren’t subject to district oversight.
District officials have historically been critical of the charter schools for stealing students and resources from traditional public schools, but many now see the charter schools as an asset, especially to the older neighborhoods.
D-11 school board member Al Loma said he expects enrollment to continue declining as low as 20,000 students. He said charter school enrollment within district boundaries could go up to 10,000 students.
Together, traditional and charter schools will make the city’s core real estate more marketable, he said. Two charter schools — James Irwin Charter Academy and Global Village Academy — bought two empty elementary schools that D-11 closed in 2009. That will help keep the neighborhoods feeling cohesive, Loma said. And the building sales will bring in about $7 million to the district.
“It seems because of lack of money we weren’t able to really take care of certain areas, and it created a void and that void was filled by charters and they kept the area alive,” Loma said.
Lei Lonnie Watts, a residential real estate agent with ERA Shields, said she has worked with a lot of families that have kids in some of the central charter schools. And those schools are a draw for central real estate.
“I worked with a family that had kids in the Colorado Springs Charter Academy,” Watts said. “They didn’t care about the school district. They loved their school and they wanted to be as close to that charter academy as they could be.”
The school is at 2577 North Chelton Road, not far from today’s geographical center of Colorado Springs — Maizeland Road and Academy Boulevard.
Whitney Apodaca is an eighth-grade teacher in Falcon School District 49. When she and her husband were looking for a house last spring, she wasn’t pregnant yet. (Now they have a baby daughter.) But school district initially played a role in their house hunt.
“We tried to stay out of District 2,” Apodaca said. District 2 covers the southeast part of Colorado Springs. “We did look in 12 and 20 first and we looked in D-49. But anything we could afford in District 20 was a fixer-upper and we didn’t have the resources or know how to do that.”
The young couple bought a District 11 home built in the 1950s, close to the D-49 line. It’s a big house, fully remodeled, with a great yard, views of Pikes Peak and mature trees.
“In the end, I knew the school district didn’t really matter, because it’s easy to choice in,” Apodaca said.
Watts said she wonders why homebuyers make school district requests at all anymore, as it’s becoming increasingly unimportant in how families decide where they want to live.
“The overriding factor when people are looking for homes now is the everyday enjoyment factor,” Watts said. “The first thing they do is go right to the windows and see what they can see.”
Joe Clement, broker-owner of Re/Max Properties, said District 11 properties have a lot of selling features for today’s buyers.
“Whether it’s an old Victorian on the West Side or a 1950s rancher around Wasson, they’re appealing products to some people,” Clement said. “They have hardwood flooring and brick and trees with foliage, where out east there are no trees yet.”
Bobbie Rupp, a Re/Max Properties agent, said home price is usually the deciding factor. People will buy what they can afford and school districts, especially with school choice and charter academies, isn’t that important.
When it comes to home prices and inventory, District 11 has a lot to offer. Average home prices there are lower than in districts 20 or 12 and just $5,000 higher than in 49, according to Pikes Peak Association of Realtors data.
Beyond price, though, there are just more homes for sale in District 11 than in 12, 20 and 49 combined, with 671 homes on the market in District 11 in 2012 compared to 118 in District 20, 33 in District 12 and 278 in District 49.
Young buyers and families across the country are moving into older homes near the hearts of their cities.
“In general, good schools have affected property values and where families are going to live,” said Ed McMahon, a senior analyst with the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C. “But 76 percent of American households have zero school-age children.”
And urban areas are magnets for young professionals. Whether they have kids or plan to have kids or not, they’re still moving into old real estate in Washington, D.C., McMahon said.
“We have the worst schools in the country,” he said. “And D.C. is now the fastest-growing urban center on the East Coast.”
At the same time national trends are bringing populations out of the suburbs, there will be a lot of opportunity in District 11 residential real estate. More than 18 percent of the population within a mile of Wasson High School is 65 or older.
“Right now we can see a change in some of these neighborhoods where some of these people who have lived there 30, 40, 50 years are going to assisted living or moving into condos — and those houses are now going to a young family with kids and a dog,” Clement said.
In Colorado Springs, Schueler said there seems to be increased interest in infill projects. There are no plans to annex more land on the eastern and northern fringes of the city, he said.
And there are at least a dozen infill projects of various sizes in the works. Infill and redevelopment projects like Gold Hill Mesa on the West Side, University Village on North Nevada Avenue and the Marketplace at Austin Bluffs at the intersection of Austin Bluffs Parkway and Academy Boulevard are all within D-11 boundaries and suggest new projects in old areas can work in Colorado Springs.
Gentrification of the city’s core could happen, said Tom Binnings, economist and partner with Summit Economics. The tide could easily shift toward a desire for more affordable housing near the city’s core.
“If a school system is too far gone, then gentrification requires a quality private school system,” he said. “But District 11 has been able to maintain a reasonable quality school system. Colorado Springs has greater potential to see that inner core redevelop.”
(Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series examining real estate value, declining population and enrollment in Colorado Springs District 11, the city’s core.)
See part I of this series here.
Monica Mendoza contributed to this story.