Eight years ago, this building was abuzz as Colorado Springs Utilities' gas division. From 2004 to 2009, it earned the city tens of thousands of dollars in rent while housing Cottonwood Artists' School, a popular spot within the First Friday local art scene.
Today, as I step inside 25 Cimino Drive with Bob Lund, the city's facilities manager, the space is pitch-black, plywood blocking the windows. We turn on flashlights to see wiring dangling from ceilings, holes pocking the walls, and sheetrock and broken glass carpeting the floors. Burn marks are visible, and doors unhinged.
Technically, police training and hooliganism are to blame for the mess. But the real cause is an urban renewal plan in worse shape than the building itself.
In the shadow of the Antlers Hotel, this site with a ringside view of America the Beautiful Park was envisioned as the destination for a hotel and parking garage that would anchor the Southwest Downtown Urban Renewal Area. Now, the developer looks unlikely to make the project work. So what's left is an unusable building above ground, and a century-old environmental hazard below.
The issue has appeared on three Council agendas in the last eight months, most recently this month, without resolution.
"How do we solve this problem?" asks Councilor Scott Hente, who also serves on the Colorado Springs Urban Renewal Authority. "The simple answer is, I don't know. It's a culmination of a lot of stuff that has repeatedly kicked that project in the shins."
Money for nothing
The story goes back to 2002, when the city bought the gas building, two much smaller buildings on that site, and another Utilities building to the west for $6 million to develop Confluence Park, now called America the Beautiful Park.
The idea was to sell or give the land to developers who would transform it and surrounding buildings, warehouses and vacant land into a convention center, hotel, shops, offices, restaurants, residences and other amenities to revitalize the urban renewal area and leverage the city's investment in the park. The 100-acre area generally is bounded by Interstate 25 to the west, Cascade Avenue on the east, Bijou Street on the north and Cimarron Street on the south.
In 2004, the city leased the 22,612-square-foot building to Cottonwood, after gas operations relocated to the Leon Young Service Center on Hancock Expressway. The city provided no rent records from 2004 to 2007, but 2008 and 2009 records show Cottonwood paid about $48,000 in rent and utilities in those two years.
A setback came in April 2005, when voters approved a ballot measure requiring their approval for any city plan to build, fund or finance a convention center. It essentially killed the idea of a publicly funded convention facility.
But John Q. Hammons Hotels & Resorts of Springfield, Mo., was planning to build an Embassy Suites hotel where the gas building sits. When the city thought the urban renewal plan was about to launch in early 2009, "the city told Cottonwood that we weren't going to be allowed to stay on in that building," says office manager Marie David, from Cottonwood's new home (now called Cottonwood Center for the Arts) at 427 E. Colorado Ave. "They were told the building was going to be torn down."
The other Utilities building across Cimino Drive encountered a different fate. Used in 2005 to provide service outreach to Hurricane Katrina victims, it's been remodeled to accommodate the national governing bodies of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Send in SWAT
By mid- to late 2009, the vacant gas building had become a magnet for vandalism. But the city figured the building would be demolished soon. Then, as Hente explains, "all the stuff that we thought was imminent wasn't imminent.
"So now you have an asset you own, it's deteriorating on a day-to-day basis, and you still think you're going to tear it down. The police department asks to use it for training, and I say, 'Why not?'
Enter the police SWAT team and bomb squad, to practice detonating charges and to ram doors and windows. Although the drills added to the building's decaying condition, the training was invaluable to police.
"We very seldom get the chance to practice on an actual building," says regional explosives unit coordinator Chris Arseneau, noting the city can't afford to send officers to hands-on programs. "That was the only building last year, and we've had none this year [to use for training]."
Hammons' representatives continued talking into early 2010 about building the Embassy Suites after finishing a Renaissance Hotel on the city's north side, Hente says. But neither project has advanced.
Company representatives wouldn't grant us an interview. But in an e-mail, the Urban Renewal Authority's Jim Rees says Hammons himself, now in his 90s, is in a nursing home, and the city's main contact has left the company.
"With the dim prospects of Hammons finishing the hotel at Interquest," Rees adds, "we need to pursue other options for the downtown site."
'Kicking the can'
Regardless of who's involved, Rees says urban renewal must have control of the building. But at this point, the city — which has repaid Utilities $2 million and traded city land worth $700,000 — wants to return it to Utilities in exchange for clearing the city's remaining $3.3 million debt on the property.
Some Councilors are for that idea, but others are opposed.
"Is that fair to the ratepayers? That they subsidize a city project?" Hente asks.
Utilities, whose board is the City Council, isn't saying much.
"The building still belongs to the city," spokesman Steve Berry writes in an e-mail. "We will do whatever the Utilities Board directs us to do and go from there."
Hente says that should the city pawn it off to Utilities, the agency wouldn't be obligated to donate the property to the Urban Renewal Authority. That means the city, which bought the property to enable urban renewal, would be "going back on our word," he says.
On top of all this, the site is contaminated. Coal tar from a coal gasification plant that operated on the site a century ago would cost about $1.5 million to remove. The easiest and cheapest way to handle the cleanup would be to do it during an excavation, like for a hotel project.
So for now, the building sits "completely trashed," as Rees says, with occasional homeless visitors and vandals, evidenced by clothing and a liquor bottle at one entrance and spray-painted graffiti tags that Lund says showed up only recently.
"When Cottonwood left," Hente says, "I never thought we'd be in a position of a year and a half later still looking at the building. ... We've been kicking the can down the road while we seek to find a solution. Right now, we're not sure how we're going to solve the problem."