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City Sage

On Jan. 26, city administration will designate a preferred site and one of four design concepts for the new Pikes Peak Summit Complex. It's been a long, strange trip indeed, especially for those of us who have been on the bus for 25 years or more.

Elected to City Council in 1991, I looked around for things to do, stuff to fix or issues to champion. I zeroed in on Pikes Peak. On sunny days it was our mountain, our glorious symbol, our daily companion. When it vanished on cloudy winter days, the city seemed bereft.

"Take away Pikes Peak," said fine-art appraiser Bernard Ewell, "and we might as well be Cleveland."

But we treated America's Mountain as if it were Cleveland. Pikes Peak Highway was mostly a dusty dirt road. The city operated gravel quarries on the mountain and dumped hundreds of truckloads of gravel on the highway annually, which clogged streams, killed forests and buried fragile tundra.

The summit was (and still is) a mess flanked by junky structures, including a galvanized steel hut that houses the Army's high altitude research laboratory, a sewage treatment facility, an ungainly communications shack and the 1965 Summit House — a squat, windowless structure with seedy bathrooms, a crowded souvenir shop and great doughnuts.

More than 500,000 reach the summit yearly, hoping for a transcendent experience 14,115 feet above sea level. Doughnuts aside, they don't get it.

The path seemed clear 25 years ago: Pave the road, sweep the junk off the summit and build something worthy. By the mid-1990s, the process was underway. A new master plan gave paving the road and building a new Summit House equal priority. Paving was controversial, opposed by the Pikes Peak Hill Climb.

The Sierra Club sued, accusing the city of violating the Clean Water Act. In a 2001 settlement, the city agreed to clean up the mess. The Summit House project was dead for the next 10 years as the city slowly paved the road, mitigated environmental damage and built drainage structures.

A few months after Mayor Steve Bach took office in 2011, former County Commissioner Jim Bensberg and I suggested reviving the project.

"Sure!" Bach said. "Sounds good. Why don't you guys write a report and make some recommendations?"

Our recommendations wouldn't be worth a damn unless we could find some seed money. Weeks later, a Forest Service employee gave us a tip.

"I think [former Congressman] Joel Hefley got an earmark for the Summit House project," the tipster said. "There might still be a hundred thousand or so there."

Bensberg tracked it down. City CFO Kara Skinner confirmed that the Pikes Peak Highway Gift Trust Account, dedicated solely to the Summit House project, had an available balance of $1,034,778. We delivered the report to Bach, who authorized Parks and Rec boss Karen Palus and Pikes Peak Highway chief Jack Glavan to restart the project.

On Jan. 26, a new era begins. Will we crown the summit with a jewel, or disfigure it with more junk? All four renditions break sharply with the past. They're airy, open and light-filled, perched on the edge of the summit plain, offering spectacular views. They're already controversial, especially one that looks like a beached cruise ship designed by Mies van der Rohe.

No materials have been selected. Expect granite and steel, subdued colors and textures that harmonize with nature. The glass will stay, though, so that visitors can enjoy the amazing views. Weather on the peak is severe, changeable and theatrical. Imagine being able to watch lightning storms sparkle on the summit in safety and comfort.

Unlike most Colorado Fourteeners, the top of Pikes Peak is a flat plain. Locating the new structure in the center would sacrifice views and surround it with parking lots. It would also require re-routing the Cog Railway, or forcing passengers to disembark far from the Summit House.

Will the building alter the mountain's silhouette? It'll be visible through binoculars (just as the existing structure is), and the morning sun may glint off its expansive windows, but that's it.

For Stuart Coppedge of RTA Architects and Jim Johnson of GE Johnson Construction, the new Summit House is a career-defining project. These are our homies, not snooty out-of-towners ready to plop down a piece of junk, get paid and leave town.

They'll get 'er done — and it's about damned time!

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