A vote on a seemingly innocuous proposal last week could signal a significant change in the position of the Colorado Springs City Council toward issues of neighborhood preservation.
Historically, Council has shared an inclination with City Planning and the Planning Commission to regulate private property and commercial interests only as a last-resort, last-choice option.
Last week, however, Council voted 5-1 to nix a plan that was recommended by City Planning and approved by the Planning Commission to convert a turn-of-the-20th-century Victorian residence in the city's Near North End into travel agency offices.
Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace, and Councilors Ted Eastburn, Jim Null, Richard Skorman and Judy Noyes rejected the request, with Councilman Lionel Rivera in support. Council members Leon Young, Linda Barley and Bill Guman were absent from the meeting.
After weeks of reviewing private property and neighborhood preservation issues, Council was persuaded by Near North End neighbors' arguments that commercial development is laying siege to their neighborhood, destroying its residential character and eroding the Weber- Wahsatch Historic District, one of two nationally designated historic districts in the city.
"The neighborhood is getting chipped away and chipped away by commercial encroachment," said Councilman Skorman, who opposed the conversion from residential to an office. "A line needs to be drawn. As my Jewish grandmother used to say, 'Enough already!'"
Councilman Eastburn agreed. "Conversion of homes into business offices is not in line with the stated intent of the comprehensive plan to preserve the stability of residential neighborhoods," he said.
But Jeannie Baressi, who was prevented by Council's vote from moving her travel agency into the house at 1019 N. Wahsatch, takes a different view. She thinks last week's vote bodes ill for commercial interests in Colorado Springs.
"It seems pretty clear to me that City Council is imposing a moratorium on commercial developments in some neighborhoods," she said.
"This will make it a lot harder to sell properties in the Near North End," said Baressi's realtor, Steve Shattuck of ReMax properties. "This could send a chill through the real-estate market of Colorado Springs."
In recent years, debates over residential properties and preserving neighborhoods have been fierce in Colorado Springs.
Nowhere is this issue over preserving residential neighborhoods versus commercial expansion more hotly debated than in the long-established residential neighborhoods adjacent to downtown -- particularly in the Near North End, which abuts downtown to the north and Colorado College to the east and south.
Earlier this year, many Near North End property owners protested against a proposal to expand the downtown's business improvement district into their neighborhood.
"Commercial interests are finding these neighborhoods increasingly tempting," said Joyce Stivers, president of the Near North End Neighborhood Association.
"Buying a Near North End property provides a location close to downtown at a fraction of the downtown prices. Realtors are promoting this in their listings for the area."
Shattuck noted the same. "I'd be willing to bet that at this very moment there's a good half-dozen listings touting the business conversion options of Near North End properties," he said.
"Once these conversions start, though, the neighborhood changes fast," Stivers added. "People begin selling. Their houses are worth less as homes than as business conversions. Landlords get more from renting to commercial interests than to individuals and families. This is already happening on Weber [Street], and we're starting to see it on Wahsatch [Street]."
Tossing the salad
Neighborhood preservationists argue that commercial displacement works to the short-term benefit of business interests, but to the long-term detriment of greater Colorado Springs and the downtown core in particular.
They point out that traditionally, here and in other cities, residential neighborhoods on the periphery of downtown are a reservoir of affordable housing and traditional community values that, without regulatory intervention, will go the way of business offices, fast food franchises, traffic congestion and parking lots.
"The Near North End is an interesting, historically residential neighborhood with a diverse mixture of races, incomes, ages and architecture," said Near North End resident Cyndy Noel at last week's Council session.
"There are Colorado College students next door to 90-year-olds who have lived here for more than half a century. There's just about any nationality that you can think of within any two-to-three block radius. We have an Olympic silver medalist. The size and cost of the houses vary one by one, with upscale houses alongside affordable ones," Noel said. "The house they wanted to make into a travel agency is the largest and nicest house on that block of Wahsatch, and it's going for $235,000. A nearby house in back of it is going for $60,000, and nobody will buy it because it's not worth that much.
"Meanwhile, we're blessed with a rich historical legacy. The Near North End is the oldest still-existing residential neighborhood of the city. Some of us have dug up horseshoes in our yard, remnants of when horseback and buggies were the sole mode of transportation.
"A train used to go where Shooks Run trail now is, and a guy who lives here tells stories about jumping it to get rides to Denver."
Regulation is the key
Though they went to the mat opposing conversion of 1019 N. Wahsatch to travel agency offices, Near North End preservationists insist they want a diverse, mixed-use neighborhood that combines "appropriate" and selective commercial usage with residential living.
That will only be possible, they argue, through formulation of zoning regulations that spell out detailed, site-specific criteria for commercial development.
"We're not against commercialization as such," noted Stivers. "But it should be strategically placed and the product of careful planning. Mixed use is not random use."
To that end, Stivers has been part of a committee appointed by City Council in July of last year to study what kind of zoning criteria would assure appropriate and controlled development in the Near North End and neighborhoods like it.
City planner Quinn Peitz says that the city appropriated $250,000 toward creation of a "new multiple-use zone category" that will preserve the integrity of residential neighborhoods by curtailing commercial creep.
"We want a zoning ordinance that facilitates the traditional, old-time neighborhood that had a corner market, small restaurant and barber shop," said Noel."Limited, site-specific, unobtrusive commercial services that the community used and loved."
Near North End preservationists are heartened, meanwhile, by last week's City Council vote.
"It signals a change in attitude," noted attorney David Prince, who lives three houses from the contested property at 1019 N. Wahsatch. "Not a dramatic change, maybe, but an elevated respect for the value of neighborhood preservation."
"This is the first time in a while that we've gotten a positive response from City Council," exulted resident Sarah Hautzinger in the wake of last week's vote. "We did a survey that showed 70 percent of Near North End residents oppose conversion of homes to business offices. Council is coming around to the fact that we are a neighborhood, a community, and that commercial creep doesn't help us preserve that."
"Council is rethinking this issue," agreed Near North Ender Becky Cramer. "They're starting to realize that it takes planning to preserve affordable housing and neighborhood integrity. For the first time in a long time, Council is siding with us instead of with developers and business interests."