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Business Leaders Seek Downtown Expansion 

A plan to expand downtown's specially taxed commercial district to seven times its current size has residents in adjacent areas worried that the character of their historic neighborhoods might be in jeopardy.

In addition, some are concerned that soaring rents and property values from the commercial venture could impact nearby neighborhoods with low-to-moderate income residences.

And, some are critical because a substantial chunk of the money raised would be used to fund a "Downtown Ambassadors" program. In the current scenario, people dressed in colorful costumes would police the 70-block radius, including directing homeless people off the streets and to officially sanctioned service organizations.

Proponents, led by Downtown Partnership, Inc., a coalition of downtown business owners, recently began circulating petitions to expand the special tax Business Improvement District (BID) from 10 to 70 blocks. To qualify for consideration, the business group must collect signatures of 51 percent of the commercial property owners in the 70-block area who agree to the plan. The group plans to take the proposal before the City Council as soon as next month.


More valuable

But some Springs residents on the perimeter of downtown say that creeping commercialization is destroying the residential character of their neighborhoods. In recent years, lawyers, doctors and various businesses have increasingly purchased homes near downtown -- in the Near North End in particular -- and converted them into near-downtown places of business.

"Commercial property is always more valuable than residential property," noted Elaine Freed, a historic preservation consultant who has lived in Colorado Springs since 1956.

"You can make a whole lot more renting to commercial interests by the square foot than you can to individuals and families. The downtown boom of recent years is putting intense commercial pressure on historic and affordable housing in surrounding neighborhoods," she said.

Joyce Stivers, who serves as president of both the Near North End Neighborhood Association and the Historic Preservation Alliance of Colorado Springs, said commercial encroachment is eating away the 700 block of North Cascade where she lives.

"The property my house sits on was platted as part of the original Colorado Springs Company of [city founders] Dr. [William] Bell and General [William Jackson] Palmer," she said. "Directly across the street, though, are doctor offices and asphalt parking lots. There are only three residential homes left on that side of the block."

Becky Cramer, a Springs resident for 35 years who heads the Shooks Run Corridor Community Partnership, says that neighborhood groups consistently fail when attempting to stop conversion of residential homes into businesses.

Continued commercial encroachment, she warns, could mean closure of several neighborhood schools already subject to declining enrollments -- Taylor, Columbia, Hunt and Steele elementary schools among them.


Revitalizing the core

Beth Spokas, executive director of Downtown Partnership, Inc., a coalition of downtown business owners, dismissed fears that expanding the commercial district by sevenfold would threaten the residential flavor of surrounding neighborhoods. The Downtown Action Plan, which established the idea of the special tax district, holds preservation of historic and affordable housing a core principal, she pointed out.

Judy Noyes, a member of both City Council and Downtown Partnership, agrees. The overriding reason for expanding the tax district, she said, is to generate more revenues for the Downtown Action Plan.

"If we're going to continue implementing the Downtown Action Plan and accomplish everything we want to do downtown," she said, "we absolutely must have the money that expansion of the BID would raise."

The original Business Improvement District was formed in 1994 by downtown property and business owners who were seeking to revitalize the core downtown economy. Businesses within the district boundaries tax themselves to generate revenues for business-enhancement projects.

The program proved so successful at attracting and retaining businesses and office complexes that downtown rents and property values have soared in recent years.

If the district is expanded, its boundaries would extend to Cache La Poudre Street on the north to Rio Grande Street to the south, and from several blocks west of Cascade Avenue on the west to as far as El Paso Street to the east.

The expanded BID would have an annual budget of $428,000 that would be generated by a tax of 50 cents for every $100 of assessed value on businesses and commercial properties within the boundaries.


Sanitizing downtown

Fifty-two percent of the BID budget would go to "business climate enhancement," and 35 percent to a "Downtown Ambassadors" program.

The memo that is attached to the petitions that have been sent to business and commercial property owners notes that Downtown Ambassadors will "patrol" BID neighborhoods attired in "colorful and distinctive uniforms."

Besides welcoming pedestrians and cleaning sidewalks and streetscapes, the uniformed Ambassadors will work closely with the Colorado Springs police by using walkie-talkies to report graffiti and "disruptive street behavior."

Ambassadors will also keep BID neighborhoods free of homeless people by "directing street populations to appropriate service agencies" -- a function that leaves Cramer appalled.

"That kind of thinking reflects current downtown thinking," she said, "but it's a far cry from the views of neighborhoods like mine that take pride in diversity and work hard to protect affordable housing."

Cramer, Stivers and Freed say they support multi-use neighborhoods that include businesses and commercial enterprises which enhance residential areas, but they say the proposal gives no voice to non-business residents of the neighborhood.

Expanding the district, they say, would take the neighborhood's future away from the residents and put it in the hands of business interests and commercial property owners.

"It's perfectly legitimate that those taxed should control how BID monies are spent but let's face it: Downtown interests are driven by business," said Freed. "All too often, that thinking views it as 'progress' to replace historic or low-income housing with something more 'modern' and 'cost-effective.'

"More and more," she said, "we're seeing the neighborhood encroached [upon] by offices and parking lots with residents left feeling disenfranchised and angry. The BID needs some kind of provision that will give residents an honest voice in their neighborhoods' future."

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