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Cliff dive 

Summer passed by the picturesque Cliff House at Pikes Peak hotel much the way it always does. Lazy lunches were enjoyed on its wide porch, brides and grooms smiled for the photographer, and the luckier Manitou Springs tourists enjoyed the plush comforts of well-appointed and historically significant lodging.

Down Park Street, at the rundown Wheeler House, not much had changed, either.

Which, actually, was a bit surprising.

Back in June 2009, the Cliff House and its parent company, 1859 Historic Hotels Ltd., came up victorious in what was — for little Manitou Springs, at least — an all-out war. The Cliff House envisioned the Wheeler House as the "Cliff House West," a structure that included an "addition" that would dwarf the Wheeler's 3,375 square feet, as well as a renovation that would transform the historic house into several large meeting rooms. The property would also feature an indoor pool.

The whole project was, at one point, estimated to cost $15 million to $20 million.

The neighbors, however, were not impressed — especially those residents of Grand Avenue, just north of the Wheeler House property. They didn't want a colossal structure next door or across the street. Manitou Springs Historic Preservation Commission was also concerned that the building might not meet its strict guidelines. There were traffic studies. Utilities studies. Public improvement requirements.

Exhaustive meetings turned into emotional debates.

It took over a year, but the Cliff House won Manitou Springs City Council's approval and was handed a development agreement on June 23, 2009 to sign within 30 days. Once signed, the agreement would lock in all the approvals (and there were a lot of them) for five years. The Cliff House representatives could start development immediately, or sit on their hands.

The ball was in their court.

And then, it wasn't.

The Cliff House reps — for reasons unknown — never signed the agreement.

Take two

"They're asked at every meeting why they never signed the development agreement," says bewildered Manitou planning director Dan Folke. "... Signing the agreement [wouldn't have committed] them to any financial requirement."

Cliff House general manager Paul York said he had no comment on the Cliff House West debacle. But one thing's certain: The hotel hasn't abandoned the project. Its leaders are once again slogging through the same arduous, expensive process they went through before, without any guarantee of the same favorable results.

Folke says the Cliff House is already well into the process of getting a second approval, with a final decision expected from Manitou City Council in December. But there's a lot more to be done:

• The Planning Commission has granted the Cliff House an extension of its original development plan, but it likely will require an updated traffic study in summer 2011. If traffic has increased in Manitou, it could mean that the project no longer meets requirements, and could cancel out approvals.

• The Historic Preservation Commission is reconsidering plans for demolition of some existing structures on the Wheeler property, as well as plans for the new development. The commission is hiring an architect who specializes in historic preservation to review the plan.

• Council will need to approve a six-month extension of parts of the plan for "good cause." (That will likely pass because 1859 Historic Hotels Ltd. experienced damage to its Galveston, Texas headquarters in Hurricane Ike in September 2008, has suffered under the economy, and apparently lost one of its top executives to death recently.) But Council would also need to approve the whole plan again.

Glee on Grand Avenue

While the Cliff House drags through its approvals, a few people are enjoying a laugh at its expense.

Dennis McEnnerney lives in the lowest-lying house on Grand Avenue, a dead-end residential street with its own history. He has long been vehemently opposed to the project, which would block most of his mountain views.

"I haven't paid a lot of close attention to the process so far [this time]," a jubilant McEnnerney says.

"But my main thought is, boy are they dumb — they had it all approved, and they blew it!"

For others, the second round of approvals is simply a lot of work. Cliff House West is the largest proposed project in recent Manitou Springs history.

Molly Wingate, chair of the Historic Preservation Commission, says the guidelines used to approve projects like this have changed since the Cliff House West was first approved, as have half the members of the commission.

So, the vetting process will have to take place again in earnest.

"Honest to goodness," she says, "I have no idea how this is going to go."

stanley@csindy.com

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