Cottonwood Artists' School, in the wide brick building on the eastern edge of America the Beautiful Park, has transformed into a mainstay of the Colorado Springs arts scene during its three-year tenure.
It hosts 43 artists, a gallery and the school, where amateurs and professionals alike work to maintain classical skills. As one of several stops on the First Friday Art Walk, Cottonwood has developed a loyal local following.
But the building is about to be razed to make room for a hotel and a parking structure.
"With Cottonwood, we felt like we could have been the anchor of the Depot Arts District," says Peggy Vicaro, who co-directs the school with Kay Jeansonne. "We thought [demolition] was a long way off. But now it's going to happen."
Cottonwood inhabits a 100-acre zone slated for urban renewal by City Council. When Vicaro and Jeansonne first moved their project into the Colorado Springs Utilities-owned gas administration building, they were told that either a hotel or conference center eventually would be built on that space.
They decided to rent anyway. The city subsidized their costs by 50 percent, a boon that allowed them to rent studio space to artists for $1 per square foot.
When voters negated the conference center proposal, Vicaro and Jeansonne thought they were in the clear. But last week, the city unveiled plans for a 300-room Embassy Suites hotel, an office building, a parking garage and 30 residential housing units to be built on the site.
Cottonwood will have to evacuate within the next nine to 24 months.
"We're not economically feasible as part of their plan," says Vicaro. "There's all this talk about arts. We don't see the commitment. It's always the bottom dollar."
Cottonwood will search for another building, but likely will end up far from downtown's expensive rentals.
Developers' sweet deal
The city, meanwhile, has been more than accommodating to the Palmer Village group, a Nor'Wood and Classic Homes partnership that will develop the area. Colorado Springs and the Urban Renewal Authority paid around $6 million to secure the property. Palmer Village bought it for only half that amount.
For many, Cottonwood's expulsion brings to mind the Depot Arts District Association (DADA) debacle of 2006, when the city stopped negotiations on an arts center planned for the Colorado Springs Utilities' old Gas Operations Building, across the street from Cottonwood. DADA worked to acquire federal affordable housing dollars for the project, which would have included apartments, studio space, galleries and a restaurant. But when the group was denied federal money, City Council decided not to extend its option to buy.
Palmer Village will likely donate that building to the U.S. Olympic Committee, with 20 percent of the property going toward the arts, possibly as a black-box theater.
"That's to appease the people who say, "Where are the arts?'" says Vicaro.
Room for squares
One developer in town says he has another answer to that question. Chuck Murphy, who owns much of the property on the north side of the Colorado Avenue bridge, including the Smokebrush Gallery building, plans to create a small arts district in that area. The proposal sounds similar to the DADA vision, with apartments, studio spaces and galleries, and a caf.
But Vicaro and Jeansonne say Cottonwood likely won't be able to afford Murphy's rent. Though the project is still in its infancy, the developer anticipates it will be very expensive.
"I can't guarantee anything," says Murphy. "I would like to have Cottonwood as a tenant, as I would love to have the [Colorado Springs] Conservatory as a tenant. I don't know if that is going to be possible. I really don't."
In the meantime, Cottonwood continues the search for a new home. At one point, the school hoped to acquire the former TRW building on North Nevada Avenue, but the edifice went instead to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
Artists who have put down roots in the former gas administration building now wait for the city's word.
"It's kind of strange to me," says watercolorist Susan Hinton, who rents a studio with two other painters. "There are so many cities that are economically depressed that support the arts better that we do here.
"Why do we need another hotel?"