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Developers don’t stop clinging to their dreams

Fri, Aug 24, 2012

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Where should you go if you enjoy the company of impractical dreamers, men and women with large ideas and no clear path to achieving them, folks who believe they can change the contours of the land, the geography of home, and the shape of the future?

No need to leave town — just listen to the ambitious poetry of real estate development.

More than 20 years ago, Pike Oliver created the document that persuaded City Council to annex the 25,000-acre Banning Lewis Ranch.

The Banning Lewis master plan embodied the soaringly impractical dreams of Oliver’s boss, developer Frank Aries. In hundreds of pages of less-than-soaring prose, the plan made it seem that Aries’ dream was not an airy fabrication, but something solid and substantial.

In 1989, I asked what the proposed development would look like, once built.

“It’ll have dive bars and strip clubs,” Oliver said, “and churches, schools, offices, apartments, and houses. John, we’re building a new city with 100,000 people — so it’ll have everything a city has.”

I bought Pike’s story. It seemed inevitable that Banning Lewis was the future of Colorado Springs, that the city would grow in careful increments within its own boundaries and that this vast new city on the east side would be completely built out by 2012.

We all know what happened, or didn’t happen.

Unrealized dreams are common in the development business, but realized dreams have built the city.

William Palmer, W.S. Stratton, Bill Smartt, Bud and Bruce Shepard, John Venezia, Steve Schuck and Lew Christensen are names that many of us recognize. All spent their working lives in this community, and together created much of the built landscape of Colorado Springs.

Bob Willard, who has spent the past decade developing Gold Hill Mesa, makes his fellow dreamers look boringly practical.

Originally the site of the Golden Cycle Mill, much of the 210-acre property was literally created by the mill’s operations between 1906 and 1949. During that time, 15 million tons of gold ore was transported from Cripple Creek to the mill, crushed, and then refined.

The result: an enormous sand pile, laced with pollutants created during the refining process. When the mill was closed and dismantled in 1949, it seemed unlikely that the barren site ever would be put to profitable use.

Willard, a financial planner by profession, found himself stuck with Gold Hill in 1992 when Australia Pacific Minerals, which had grandiose plans to extract the remaining gold from mill tailings, abandoned the property. He tried to put together another gold mining deal — no dice.

That left development.

“If I’d known how difficult (the deal) would have been,” Willard says now, “I never would have started it.”

Before development could start, deals had to be cut with the city, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And once the deals were cut, the site had to be stabilized and remediated.

Eight years ago, City Council approved the creation of the Gold Hill Mesa Urban Renewal Area. Gold Hill would be a traditional neighborhood development, “regulated by neo-traditional neighborhood principles and design standards.”

To the young professionals and empty-nesters who wanted affordable suburban comfort in an urban location, with panoramic views of downtown Colorado Springs as well as the mountains, Gold Hill was a great option … until the recession hit.

Sales dried up, the development’s biggest builder went bankrupt, and Willard barely hung on.

“I thought we’d go broke a couple of times,” Willard said, “but we figured out how to survive. We learned some lessons.”

Today, Gold Hill only deals with local builders and self-finances its operations. Sales are strong, and Willard’s plans are, shall we say, expansive. (See news story starting on page 1.)

Dazzlingly detailed architectural renditions of the development’s future decorate the walls of a newly built home. The mill’s old smokestack will define a community activity center, national and local retailers will offer a variety of shopping experiences, bike and pedestrian paths may connect Gold Hill with Old Colorado City via a tunnel beneath U.S. Highway 24, and thousands of residents will enjoy the good life.

And that’s not all.

“Dave Hughes tells me that there’s $1.2 billion in gold in the tailings,” Willard said. “He says I should just buy back all the houses and mine the gold, but we’ll never do that.”

But, Willard noted, building out the development will require moving a lot of dirt.

“It could be transported back to Cripple Creek and refined there,’ Willard mused, “so maybe Gold Hill’s mining history isn’t quite over.”

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