Academy Boulevard: Can city help it recover?

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AcademyDotted with urban blight as well as lively street corners, the once-thriving Academy Boulevard corridor attracts nearly as many opinions as the storefronts it has.

The government should not be involved at all in attracting business to the area, say some elected officials, while others say the city should — and does — offer incentives.

The city of Colorado Springs conducted a study of the area and compiled an Academy Boulevard Corridor Great Streets Plan. In the plan, the city collected statistics on all aspects of the area, including transportation, crime, unemployment, office and business vacancies, housing, schools and more.

The six-mile planning area stretches on Academy Boulevard from Maizeland Road on the north to Milton E. Proby Boulevard on the south. The planning area also includes one mile east and one mile west of Academy, for a total of 12 square miles.

From the 1970s well into the ’90s, that portion of Academy was filled with successful businesses — enough that it was considered by many as the backbone of Colorado Springs’ economy.

Now, of course, everything has changed. Powers Boulevard has taken over as the preferred magnet for commerce, leaving many of the city’s largest empty storefronts along Academy, left by relocating supermarkets and big-box retailers.

Today, the Academy corridor area’s business vacancy rate is 25.2 percent, compared with the rest of the city’s 11.5 percent.

In October 2008, the state formally transferred jurisdiction of the thoroughfare to the city, which ended Academy’s designation as a state highway.

“At this time the recommended regulatory approach to private development is generally permissive and flexible so long as the activity does not preclude the long-term vision or adversely impact public investments made in the Corridor,” the plan reads.

There are incentives for blighted areas, but the development plans must come from a developer, not the city planning department, said Carl Schueler, senior planner for the city of Colorado Springs. He cited the Bass Pro Shop at Northgate as an example of urban renewal, though it’s being built in a brand-new development on open land that was declared blighted.

The elected City Council members who represent the area include Helen Collins, District 4; Jill Gaebler, District 5; Andy Pico, District 6; and at-large representatives Merv Bennett, Jan Martin and Val Snider. Their opinions about trying to revive Academy are varied.

“You already know I’m a fiscal conservative. City Council’s priorities are public safety and public infrastructure. I’m not a believer of going into debt” to give business incentives, said Collins, who represents much of the southern study area along Academy Boulevard.

Mayor Steve Bach is on the committee to promote economic development in the area, and Collins said, “There are items as we speak that are happening.” She did not elaborate.

“Mayor Bach is going to start having meetings with the City Council” to discuss economic development for that area, Collins said, diverting further questions to city employees.

Leasing option?

The area is one of three Economic Opportunity Zones prioritized by Bach in a March media briefing. The other two are downtown and North Nevada Avenue between Fillmore Street and Austin Bluffs Parkway.

Business can be encouraged by leasing city-owned space for $1 a year, Bach said, though he did not say where the city might lease space to businesses, or whether any such deals might be already in place.

“Mayor Bach has very good ideas,” said Gaebler, who added, “I don’t pretend to know everything,” because she’s been in office less than three months.

“It’s something I care very much about. Something needs to be done,” added Gaebler, whose district encompasses the north edge of the Academy planning area.

The first step is to direct staff to include an item in the budget to update the area within the city’s comprehensive plan.

“Much of the Corridor has an unfriendly, inhospitable, and poorly maintained streetscape,” the plan reads.

Gaebler agreed.

“Just driving down Academy, it doesn’t seem very … visually interesting,” Gaebler said, “of where we want to shop and where we want to be.”

The city can ease the process for businesses to occupy vacant retail space by changing zoning and upgrading utilities in advance of a business requesting to move to an area, she said.

“I’m not big into incentives, but it is the government’s role to provide infrastructure,” Gaebler said. Also, she feels the city can and should increase lighting in areas that are threatened by higher crime.

Per capita, the corridor’s crime rate is 30 to 50 percent higher than the rest of the city, the plan reported.

Jan Martin, the longest-serving member of City Council, in her seventh year, said the city is attempting to encourage business development within the Academy corridor, but, “Money is always the issue, isn’t it?” she said. “The city is really trying to work within the bounds of that study.”

“That area has struggled with safety issues,” Martin added. She said the second police academy netted between 40 and 50 new officers for the city this year, and some of them will help the southeast part of the city.

Some progress

Pico, whose District 6 includes the Academy corridor’s north end, said business development on Academy is “an interest and a priority. The southern area needs a little bit more.”

Just how to accomplish that goal is “the crux of the matter. There are no concrete solutions yet,” said Pico.

Bernie Herpin, a former councilor who was not re-elected in April, lives in the planning corridor. His kids played in what was then an empty field that now supports The Citadel, he said.

“It’s a good plan,” Herpin said. “What it’s going to take is money to implement it. I don’t see a lot of money available in the budget.”

Herpin pointed to the more recent new-business development of The Egg & I, Lowe’s and the Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market as examples of success along the corridor.

For the Lowe’s development, Colorado Springs Utilities and the home-improvement giant worked together, and each side made concessions to implement the development, “and it didn’t cost the city anything,” Herpin said.

One Response to Academy Boulevard: Can city help it recover?

  1. Fiscal Conservatism
    Wide Spread Infrastructure Deterioration

    Richard D Wehner
    July 1, 2013 at 1:06 pm