The rubber hit the road vis--vis new makeup of City Council on Tuesday when Council newcomers Sallie Clark, Margaret Radford and Charles Wingate joined Ted Eastburn and Lionel Rivera to reject an urban renewal plan that was strongly supported by the city's business and development community.
The plan would have designated 100 acres immediately southwest of downtown -- an area bordered by I-25 to the west, Cascade Avenue to the east, Cimarron Street to the south and Colorado Avenue to the north -- as an urban renewal zone.
The plan was criticized because it would have allowed the City to condemn existing businesses and houses and force them out.
Had Council given the plan a thumbs-up, the area would have been declared a special tax district that would have subsidized infrastructure for new development. The Council's rejection on Tuesday leaves the future of the area adjacent to yet-to-be-built Confluence Park up in the air.
Some downtown-area business and developer interests who stood to profit from the proposal strongly supported the plan, claiming the revitalized neighborhood would be an economic and cultural link between downtown and Confluence Park. Several business owners who spoke at Tuesday's hearing said they hoped the neighborhood could be transformed from a present mix of businesses, offices, warehouses, low-income residences and light industry into an upscale enclave for retail space, offices, restaurants, entertainment and high-end residential use. A convention center and professional baseball stadium at the site has also been proposed.
Developers had embraced the plan, said city development manager Chuck Miller, because subsidized infrastructure would dramatically boost the profitability of developing in the neighborhood. Developer Classic Homes, in particular, has been attempting to line up properties with an eye toward major commercial and residential development should the area be designated an urban renewal zone.
The moral questions
Council split into two camps in debating the plan Tuesday.
Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace, Councilwoman Judy Noyes and Councilmen Jim Null and Richard Skorman all insisted the plan is an issue of "vision" for both downtown and the city as a whole.
On the other side were Clark, Radford and Wingate, who were all elected in April after a campaign in which they espoused views less automatically pro-development and more neighborhood preservationist than many council members, past and present.
The three were joined by Eastburn and Rivera, who argued the plan is an issue of principle, because it raises fundamental questions of fairness to property rights and "the little guy."
The dissenters complained that designating the neighborhood an urban renewal zone would require Council's blessing of a study, conducted earlier this year by Denver-based Leland Consulting and BRW Inc., that found the neighborhood to be "blighted" -- i.e. a threat to the public's health, safety, morals and welfare.
"I can't in good conscience justify a finding of blight for this neighborhood," argued Clark. "You can't tell me that Sun Plaza, the Pikes Peak Center, Centennial Hall, Norwest Bank, the Visitor's Bureau and the new gas department building [which are all in that area] are social liabilities or threats to public welfare. It's an area of increasing, not deteriorating, vitality."
The majority's second major objection was that declaring the neighborhood an urban renewal zone would give a mayor-appointed urban renewal board power to condemn already-existing businesses that don't have a place in the board's "vision" for the area.
Radford insisted that condemnation is never acceptable, no matter what the goal. "Condemnation for economic or aesthetic purposes is evil," she said. "Even the threat of it is evil because it can coerce a business to make a decision it wouldn't otherwise make."
Radford said that a group of four business owners in the neighborhood have already paid $70,000 in legal fees to protect themselves from the possibility of being forced to vacate their present locales because other developers have "better and higher" plans for it.
Do you believe?
Miller, the city's development manager, argued at length in favor of the plan on Tuesday.
Responding to statements that a finding of blight would be, at best, a stretch in credibility, and at worst, dishonest, Miller replied: "I don't think that's the point. The real issue here is that an urban renewal authority is a necessary tool for achieving the vision for the greater downtown area that has been put forth by the various action, strategy and comprehensive plans of the past 10 years. The vision is the issue.
"Do you believe in this vision or not? To argue about whether this area is blighted isn't the point."
Councilman Null passionately agreed. "This is not a philosophy issue; it's a leadership issue," he said. "The people of this community have said they want managed growth, and this plan provides that. We're supposed to be good stewards, and that means protecting downtown from blight and decay before it happens, not afterwards."
Skorman emotionally seconded Null. "Everything in this plan fits with the vision for the community we've endorsed," he said, his voice quavering. "We finally have a chance to make it happen, and we're saying no because we're afraid of the word 'condemnation.' You'll be dashing the dreams and visions of many, many people if you vote this down. Have the guts to do what's right for the community. I feel we're chickening out."
"If we don't pass this," agreed Councilwoman Judy Noyes, "we'll bring smiles to the faces of those citizens who have a negative attitude about doing anything positive and exciting and vital for this community."
Means to an end
On Monday, before the vote, Classic Homes CEO Jeff Smith said, "A lot of communities our size have used urban renewal as a vehicle for enhancing their beauty and economic viability, but Colorado Springs hasn't taken advantage of it. Confluence Park gives us an opportunity to do something really neat.
"A project of this size, though, requires developers to assemble properties. If a property owner doesn't go along with the plan and holds out, the power of condemnation is essential."
Clark, however, had a different take.
"Maybe it's because I own a small business," she said, "but I know how I'd feel if the government were to make me move against my will. It's tough for me to accept the idea that, if I don't agree to the terms offered me, I'll be condemned. I have to vote on principle, so I'm voting against this plan."
Radford agreed. "It's difficult to vote against the 'vision,'" she said, "but I believe that leadership and vision is making sure that not only the ends, but the means to those ends, are acceptable. If the means to an end are wrong, I can't accept the ends."
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