Little Rock shows different infill can work

You have no reason to know Anita Davis, and that’s fine. She lives nearly 1,000 miles away in Little Rock, Ark., and, full disclosure, she happens to be my cousin.

She also has set an example in Little Rock for other cities, and visionary developers, to follow. Including here in Colorado Springs.

I just saw first-hand what Anita’s energy and resources have done over the past eight years to transform a long-depraved area of Little Rock, now known as SoMa (Southside Main Street).

She has bought and renovated buildings, then leased them to start-up businesses such as a trendy restaurant and a store certified by the Green Business Network. She created a stunning sculpture garden open to anyone, day or night. She fixed up another building and turned it into one of only three museums in the world focused on women’s purses, actually a brilliant way of spotlighting women’s history.

The sculpture garden hosts a fast-growing annual cornbread festival as well as farmers markets. The museum is attracting more and more groups of visitors, and it’s being promoted by Little Rock’s convention and visitors bureau. Slowly but noticeably, SoMa has become a source of community pride (check it out at southsidemain.org).

Seeing that success story, just blocks from downtown high-rises and adjacent to a major freeway, I realized how it could relate to Colorado Springs. In fact, we have a parallel already taking shape, our own revival of an area close to downtown and its freeway. It doesn’t have its own name yet. But that could be just a brainstorm away.

We’re talking about the area just west of Interstate 25, bounded by Bijou Street on the north and Colorado Avenue to the south. Someday it might be our own Old Town, or Westgate, or another catchy name. For now, it’s the gateway to Old Colorado City.

While everyone obsesses about City for Champions, Westgate/Old Town already is taking shape. Businessman Mitch Yellen poured $14 million into The Pinery at the Hill, a first-class showplace atop Bijou with amazing views of the mountains, downtown and more. Already, thousands have been to parties, meetings and other gatherings there.

“The Pinery is one of those catalytic developments that can change a whole area,” said Tim Leigh, prominent local real-estate developer and co-founder of Hoff & Leigh Inc. “At the end of the day, Mitch paid cash for what he did, so there’s no debt and he cleaned it up.”

Leigh looks west from the I-25/Bijou bridge toward The Pinery and sees nothing but huge potential. A large new Holiday Inn Express is moving toward completion, and Leigh reports that the owners of the property now home to a Denny’s restaurant could sell “for a higher purpose,” perhaps an upscale retail business or restaurant.

Nearby, one of Leigh’s local role models, Chuck Murphy, turned an old soft-drink bottling facility into the spiffy home of Ormao Dance Company at 10 S. Spruce St.

Just a stone’s throw from there, the Colorado Avenue building that for 60-plus years housed the Dutch Mill Tavern has been refurbished and just reopened as 503 West, a far more appealing and modernized restaurant/bar.

It doesn’t have its own name – yet. But that could be just a brainstorm away.

It’s still a neighborhood in transition. But the momentum is obvious, and that Holiday Inn Express will bring more traffic and business.

“That area is prime for redevelopment,” said Leigh, always quick to offer fresh ideas. “And those aren’t just words. We’re putting our money where our mouth is. We’re buying property over there. It might be five years away, and the neighborhood has had a bad rap, but it has so much potential.”

Perhaps the best solution, Leigh believes, would be to “put everything into a UR [urban renewal] zone, then buy up the residentials that are falling down or outmoded, knock ’em down and build new. Old-looking but new.”

That well-defined area has so much to offer. It’s close to downtown, the mountains and trails. It already has plenty of low-priced houses, and of course it’s so convenient to I-25.

Add the City for Champions projects just a short walk away, and you can imagine the possibilities. Leigh also knows of solid plans to turn other close-in properties on West Colorado into mixed-use retail and upscale apartments, “and if that happens, with a guy doing it out of his own pocket, more investors will follow and that will redefine the neighborhood. It’s really encouraging to see.”

All it takes is developers who, as Leigh puts it, “have a timeline that’s multi-generational, creating a place their kids and grandkids can appreciate. That’s what people like Chuck Murphy have done, and what I’d like to do.”

Infill development really can transform a city, one area at a time. It has flourished in Little Rock, and it can flourish here.