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City still fighting ‘new brutalism’

Tue, Nov 24, 2009

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Utopia or dystopia?  What does the future hold for our city?  

How can we, individually and collectively, shape this community?  In endeavors such as Dream City, the 6035 project, and a dozen predecessors, we’ve asked ourselves the same question:  how do cities thrive?

Forty-eight years ago, Jane Jacobs published “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” 

In the book, she attacked the planners, bureaucrats, and urban brutalists whom, she believed, were ripping the heart out of American cities by imposing their own sterile modernist visions upon the complex, messy, unregulated chaos of the city. Her particular target: Robert Moses, who tore down whole neighborhoods in New York City to build freeways to serve suburban commuters.

Jacobs was too late to stop the tidal wave of urban renewal (AKA urban destruction) that swept across the country during the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s. 

More than almost any city in America, Colorado Springs suffered from the “new brutalism.” 

Entire city blocks were leveled, including most of the city’s major historic structures. The architects of this disaster weren’t trying to rip the heart out Colorado Springs – they just wanted to build a shiny new city that would be convenient and modern, just like a suburban office park. 

Deluded fools, every one – right?  We’ve learned our lesson – right? 

We know now that we need to get the stuff back that we so casually ripped down a few decades back – downtown residential structures, retail density, vibrant street life, thriving small businesses, art galleries, convenient public transportation.

Trouble is, we’ve been trying to revive downtown for nearly three decades, with mixed success. Tejon Street looks good, but most everything else is suffering.

I don’t think we can revive downtown with half-measures. We need to make some big changes – and that doesn’t mean spending tens of millions in taxpayer funds to give a junkily designed renovated building to the USOC.

Here are some suggestions.

  • Get rid of the parking lots. There are three enormous lots that are being held by owners sure that, sooner or later, the time will come to build a trophy high-rise. Here’s some news from the reality-based community: that time may never come. 
  • Have the city/county act together to create a fat incentive package, deferring all manner of taxes, to encourage property owners to build low-rise commercial/residential structures on their vast sites.  And here’s a stick to go with the carrot: remove flat parking as a principal permitted use.
  • Make downtown a special tax-exempt zone for both merchants and residents.  Just suspend the collection of sales/property tax for five years, and offer property owners/ residents the same break.  Do that, and watch the stores open, watch the lofts go up. And try to get the state to suspend the state income tax as well … we’d have a mini-Monaco!

Would it be fair, equitable, and logical policy?  No – but it’d sure work. 

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11 Comments For This Post

  1. Dave Hughes Says:

    Put up a convention center. Period.

  2. Matt Says:

    Downtown is in much better shape than nearly all of southeastern Colorado Springs, where I live and work. For the past two years I’ve suffered through some phase of construction or another on Academy between Fountain and Airport. In fact, in the 3 years I’ve lived in this part of town, Academy north-bound has been open to all 3 lanes of traffic for exactly 4 months total… all for what? The medians are being filled with asphalt. At least downtown you get greenery and irrigated flower beds (when they are funded). The southeast part of town is an absolute disaster. Miles and miles of ran down, half-empty structures littered with trash and concrete.

    I guess it’s what I get for choosing to live in the worst part of a town that has absolutely no financial support from its citizens to make any improvements on infrastructure or quality of life. I suppose I should just be happy to have a view of Pikes Peak, right?

  3. Like it'll matter ..... Says:

    …….. whattaya mean ‘junkily designed’ ? I mean, sheesh, it’s GOT stucco & fake stone & glass & a metal roof and no parking …wtf more could anybody want ? Character ?

  4. Brian Bennett Says:

    When I first came to town in 1973, Colorado Avenue from Nevada to Cascade was a strip of old (historic? ) structures with saloons and honky tonks and hookers on every corner. Surely Mr. Hazelhurst remembers walking to the old “G’s”
    (that’s Guiseppe’s before the Depot location) with a date and getting propositioned. Now the Pike’s Peak Center is on that location. The “historic” firetrap that housed that popular 3-2 beer joint is mercifully gone, and the onwers wisely restored another, better part of our downtown landscape, the old Rio Grand Depot.

    So I have no laments about that. The structures that replaced them are a big improvement. The parking lot on next to US Bank used to have the old theater, and that was a shame to lose that. For the rest, no regrets.

  5. Dave Gardner Says:

    Guess you learned nothing from the history you reminded us of?

    Let’s keep the city out of the real estate development business. And let’s stop pretending that tax abatements are not very real expense items contributing today to our budget gaps.

  6. FactFinder Says:

    Oh, I feel so much better now that I’ve enjoyed John’s journey down nostalgia lane. Beautifully written, but, like Norman Rockwell paintings, these kinds of feel good problem solving columns have very little to do with real life.

    First and foremost is understanding the central question. How are you going to get customers to come to your downtown?

    Up until a few years ago, the answer was to cater to the car. Sears Roebuck, J C Penneys, and all other major retailers abandoned downtowns all over America in the 1960′s. Why? Because retailers began to understand that people use the car as their primary ride, and successful retailers HAD to provide free parking. Like it or not, the car is the primary mass transit device in America. For decades, the leadership of Colorado Springs has not appreciated this fact and some still don’t get it. So here it is in a nutshell. No parking. No customers. End of story.

    The second factor is, (drum roll, please) the critical importance of the street network. This is the arterial flow of customers to the businesses.

    Every successful downtown in America has extensive arterial street access to the core. Period. Colorado Springs does not.

    Many special interest groups have added their particular goals to the city’s agenda and they blocked or diverted the extension of several major arteries to and from the downtown. No access, no business. Period.

    The third problem is the development of a new revolutionary force in retailing. The owner of the Chinook Bookstore cited it as the reason he was closing. The force is the Internet and online marketing. EBAY, Amazon, and Craig’s List are just pounding old fashioned businesses in America. Since the city fathers don’t get the car, what do you suppose are the odds that they will “get” the internet? The internet is changing the way business is done in America.

    Darwin’s law: Survival of the fittest is a powerful reality. It also applies to any city’s evolution.

    Survival of the fittest does not mean survival of the prettiest. Walmart stores are not the prettiest, but compete with them at your risk. And make no mistake about it. They will crush you. Sears and K-Mart used to be very powerful retailers. Walmart is cleaning their clock.

    It does not mean survival of the subsidized. If you subsidize a business, you just prolong the death rattle.

    And for Dave Hughes: The Civic Center solution has been a widespread failure all across the United States for five decades. It is a bad 1950′s answer to a 2010 problem. Want to subsidize hotels? Build a Civic Center. Want to lose money? Build a Civic Center. Want to wreck retail business? Put it next to a civic center.

    Want to solve downtown business problems? Bring much, much more creative and innovative approaches. The game is really changing and it is changing more and faster than most people can adjust their thinking. Just ask commercial real estate owners about the power of the internet. Lease rates on commercial real estate are falling all across the country. I personally think commercial lease rates will go below $8 per square foot, and stay there for the forseeable future.

  7. Dick Burns Says:

    Here’s an idea: Let’s saddle the city’s taxpayers with $65 million in debt over the next 30 years for a questionable scheme to “keep the USOC here.” Oh yeah, then, let’s ask the taxpayers to repeal the onerous Business Personal Property Tax in exchange for a rise in the mill levy. Didn’t work? Let’s squeal like a pig caught under a gate when civic minded denizens realize they’ve been taken to the cleaners by our City’s “leaders!”

  8. John Hazlehurst Says:

    Great points, factfinder! And you’re right about the lack of arterial access and the difficulties of brick & mortar businesses. That’s why I proposed a truly radical solution-making downtown a tax-free, tax exempt district. You live, shop, or do business downtown-you neither pay nor collect local taxes. No sales taxes, no property tax. Buy a downtown loft, and you pay no property tax, nor do you pay local sales taxes when you buy that Audi R-8 to park in your garage! Next step: casinos, and finally an entirely new status-freedom from all taxes, state, local, and national. Tax-free enclaves such as Monaco prosper at the expense of countries which refuse to allow such havens within their borders-so why not start here?

  9. FactFinder Says:

    A reply to John Hazelhurst: Generally I am very suspicious of subsidies. Subsidies almost never generate much effort to change the status quo. However, the history of the United States is loaded with examples of subsidized industries. Like the massive subsidies that were granted to the transcontinental railroads.

    The first real question is: Will the taxes you offer to eliminate be enough to change downtown behavior? I don’t know, but I kind of doubt it.

    What if you gave the same tax cuts to the whole city? Would that create a city wide boom?

    Is a tax cut the answer? Florida protects property owners by exempting homes from bankruptcy proceedings. The result has been an enormous expansion of very expensive homes that pay property taxes.

    Your references to Monaco are intriguing, but Europeans accept and thrive on very dense populations. Western Americans like our open space. Might be a culture clash.

    On the other hand, Monaco and Europe have some interesting banking behaviors. Secret accounts have an interesting attraction. Could Colorado Springs become a property tax protected secret banking society? Just a few thoughts on ways out of the box. Have a nice day.

  10. FactFinder Says:

    More for the Hazlehurst inquiry into solutions to saving Colorado Springs and the downtown area.

    One of the big problems Colorado Springs has had to deal with is the failure of City Council to capitalize on our actual primary assets. And I mean a complete failure.

    Colorado Springs has ALWAYS been a tourist town. But this council has been anything but friendly to the idea of developing our tourism assets. Oh, they talk a good game. Vice Mayor Small and Purvis both claim they are for this but they NEVER make strong efforts to move the Utilities Department into the 20th Century, much less the 21st Century.

    Numerous citizens have tried to generate enthusiasm among our leaders for making Pikes Peak a major recreational asset. That mountain is about the same size as Rocky Mountain National Park, but it is run as a private sports club for the Utilities employees. Those dumb jerks have been studying the problem of putting a trail around the mountain. They been studying this off and on for 23 years. Quite a record of achievement, don’t you think? Betcha they get a pay raise.

    In addition, the city should make part of Prospect Lake into a major Water Park. Why should a small town like Thornton beat us at this?

    Same thing can be said for developing downtown. The city has ample water resources. A manmade downtown river walk would be a fabulous crowd maker, but Council is too busy chasing fabulous 25 thousand dollar raises for underworked Utilities management.

    I am pretty sure Colorado Springs can be saved, but it won’t come from this particular set of leaders.

  11. Justin Burns Says:

    FactFinder…. time for you to come out of the closet!