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Ideas for downtown’s future won’t happen too fast

Fri, Nov 30, 2012

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Mais où sont les neiges d’antan? Francois Villon, 1461.

That’s the final line of Villon’s “Ballade des dames du temps jadis,” an elegaic meditation upon the transience of beauty. Pre-Raphaelite poet/artist/girlfriend collector Dante Gabriel Rossetti translated it as “Where are the snows of yesteryear?”

The translation is particularly apt and impressive since Rossetti invented the word “yesteryear.” A more literal translation would be “Where are last year’s snows?” — accurate, but scarcely poetic.

Did Rossetti get paid for his brilliance? One hopes that he made a few bucks, but one suspects that he got paid a lot less than the authors of the Urban Land Institute’s recent study of downtown Colorado Springs.

The study cost a cool $125,000, largely funded by the Downtown Development Authority, with contributions from the city, the county and downtown business interests.

Unveiled with great fanfare a couple of months ago, the plan seemed oddly familiar. Titled “Strategies for a New Renaissance in Downtown,” it first proposed a vision:

“Downtown Colorado Springs, staying true to its pioneering spirit, will create a cohesive, vibrant, mixed-use center that embraces the region’s history, culture, and natural assets to offer economic opportunity for its citizens.”

To realize that vision, ULI recommended new housing, closing the gaps in the “emerald necklace” of parks and greenways which encircles downtown, and creating an “…arts and entertainment Village, taking advantage of the underused and vacant parcels in the southwest area of downtown. This village should be the target area for a proposed new combination baseball stadium and outdoor performance center, museums, science centers, and the myriad of other visitation uses that the panel feels are possible. (The village) can be anchored on its western side by a re-imagined America the Beautiful Park (renamed Olympic Park)… including an ‘Olympic Wall of Honor’ and an iconic footbridge connecting it to downtown.”

The study concluded with a clarion call to action.

“Downtown’s brand must be on the lips and in the thoughts of every business owner and resident of the city. The culture of Colorado Springs must identify with downtown. And, perhaps most important, the time has come to identify the champion for downtown Colorado Springs’s future: the right organization to focus the vision, implement the plans, govern, and lead.”

Joining the amen chorus of U.S. Olympic Committee supporters, the ULI gave its seal of approval to that organization’s publicly funded downtown headquarters, while ignoring the privately funded renovation of the historic Mining Exchange Building. We can only suppose that our new Wyndham Grand is insufficiently cohesive, vibrant and embracing of the region’s history and culture to rate a mention.

Many of the suggestions proffered by the ULI have been proffered at least a half-dozen times in the past. Where, then, are the plans of yesteryear?

They’re mouldering away in the city’s archive on the ground floor of the city administration building, located at the intersection of Colorado Avenue and the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Yellowing documents from the last century call for a sports arena, a baseball stadium, an Olympic Hall of Fame, a convention center, an arts district and a renovated City Auditorium.

When asked, voters have often been unsympathetic to downtown’s perceived needs, decisively rejecting plans for a downtown sports arena in 1989 and barring the city from “planning, building, funding or financing” a convention center by a 2-to-1 margin in 2005.

Will ULI’s study take its place in the archive, there to rest in peace with its ancestors?

“It’s definitely not going to be on the shelf,” said Susan Edmondson, who chairs the DDA board. “We got the report in mid-October, and we’re just getting to work.”

What about the leadership thing? Did that recommendation trigger the sudden departure of Downtown Partnership CEO Ron Butlin?

“I can’t comment on that,” said Edmondson, who noted that the DDA is paying particular attention to the report’s call for “collaboration and alignment with other entities.”

So if the stars and “other entities” align and collaborate, changes may be afoot. Let’s be positive, just as Mayor John Hall and the City Council were in 1905, when they embraced the recommendations of Charles Mulford Robinson to create landscaped medians in the center of the city’s broad avenues.

That project will finally be completed by the end of this year with the long-deferred construction of medians on Nevada Avenue between Bijou and Costilla.

As Susan Edmondson noted, “Things can happen pretty quickly, but not immediately…”

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