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Downtown 2020 

Imagining a big city

Imagine a day when you could wake up in the morning, walk out the door and hop on a streetcar or walk to work.

At lunch you'd pick from dozens of international restaurants or take a 15-mile bike ride along carefully designed trails.

In the evening you'd have your choice of shopping, live theater, an art show or a baseball game before heading to your choice of bars or nightclubs, where on any given night world-class music of any genre could be found. Happily inebriated on life (or other substances), you'd grab the streetcar home.

And without once having left downtown.

Sound like New York City? Chicago? San Francisco? Believe it or not, it could be Colorado Springs.

In the year 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that nearly 700,000 people will call El Paso County home -- just 70,000 people shy of the current population of the city of San Francisco.

Despite the economic slowdown since 2001 and a city operating with what leaders describe as a bare minimum, a loosely affiliated group of people that includes city planners, developers, architects, artists and business people are actively laying the groundwork to create the infrastructure that could complete the transformation of downtown Colorado Springs from the sleepy business district it became in the 1970s to a thriving urban core.

The convention center: savior or false god?

Over the past decade, great strides have been made to implement portions of a master plan mapping the future of the heart of the city. But most of the changes so far have happened in the "core," or business and retail district.

As planners now face other crucial facets of the downtown vision in a struggling post-9/11 economy, many believe that if any of it is to happen in a timely fashion, almost all of it depends on one thing: an economic anchor. And many believe -- and have expressed so for years -- the most important anchor should be a downtown convention center and hotel.

"People tend to think about projects [like convention centers] as individual projects, but you have to look at those kinds of projects as basic anchors of the overall downtown," said Rocky Scott of the Colorado Springs Economic Development Corporation. "If you build those facilities somewhere outside of downtown, then that becomes the center of interest and that opportunity for downtown is lost. ... The real benefit that comes from convention centers goes to the community as a whole."

Scott is not alone in this belief. A recently completed city-commissioned study recommends the city build a convention center downtown, initially with 100,000 square feet of exhibit space, along with an adjacent hotel with at least 400 guest rooms.

In making the case for a convention center, many local business leaders cite the fact that Colorado Springs is the only city of its size that does not have one.

However, just because you build a convention center, people won't necessarily come. Studies and investigative reports, including by the Atlantic Monthly, have detailed what has been a massive overbuilding of convention centers in recent years in the United States. In many cities the centers have not resulted in a mass influx of business or tourism, and in fact have become money-losing operations. In addition, Colorado Springs' current scarcity of air service would likely hamper serious convention-minded companies.

On four different occasions -- in 1971, 1974, 1976 and 1989 -- Colorado Springs voters have rejected public financing for a convention center.

But Terry Sullivan, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau maintains there has never been a better or more important time to build a convention center. By Sullivan's estimates, such an investment could generate at least $16 million in city and county tax revenues while drawing hundreds of thousands of new visitors to the area every year.

And Chuck Miller, a former city planner who is currently the director of the Colorado Spring Urban Renewal Authority is working with developers to push the project forward.

Citing the new city-funded study, Miller said, "If you can get one or two major activity generators going, then you have housing, commercial, retail [and] restaurants. If you don't get those [major activity generators], then it becomes a much less dense project, primarily residential and slows down tremendously."

Parks and arts: DADA and Confluence Park

Arts aficionados and lovers of open space will soon see welcome changes downtown whether the convention center project goes forward or not.

According to City Development Manager Jim Rees, Confluence Park -- which was part of a major bond issue passed in 1999 -- may be open to the public as early as next summer.

"Phase 1 is under construction right now: grating of the site, demolition, relocation of utilities, constructing new street," said Rees. Upon completion, in about two months, the city will begin installing sidewalks, lighting, landscaping, a pavilion, walls, restrooms and landscaping.

Much of the attention directed toward Confluence Park has been focused on the large, circular fountain designed by local sculptor Bill Burgess, but Rees said that would likely be installed in a later phase after private money can be raised to cover the costs.

Directly adjacent to Confluence Park on its north side, the Depot Arts District Association (DADA) is also moving ahead with plans to purchase the building commonly called the "gas building" at Conejos Street and Colorado Avenue to convert it into a multi-use arts building that would include studios, gallery space, a culinary arts kitchen and restaurant, and a year-round farmers market.

"We're in the predevelopment stages right now -- negotiating purchase of building and land," said Bob Koenig, director of the Rocky Mountain Community Land Trust.

DADA had originally planned to build its art district and affordable housing spaces in and around the warehouse area under the Colorado Avenue Bridge where several galleries and arts spaces already exist. But they soon discovered that noise levels from the train tracks make residential building impossible there.

Instead, DADA decided to try to acquire the gas building and to build, beginning as early as next year, an affordable housing high-rise right next to it on the northernmost edge of Confluence Park.

The affordable housing component of the district is being designed by Michael Collins, lead architect of the DADA design team. Once the location was moved away from the train tracks, Collins envisioned a 72-unit building in an effort to re-create the feeling of the Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy. Adjoining the building would be a tall bell tower like the famous campanile with public balconies overlooking Confluence Park and the plaza below. The plaza, said Collins, would connect the building to the gas building and be a multi-use area for everything from plays to craft fairs.

"The campanile becomes a beacon at night and makes [the arts district] visible from the highway," said Collins. "It becomes a good neighbor for the park."

Collins said that 54 of the units in the building would be designated as affordable, while 18 of the units will be high-end condominiums or lofts. Artists won't be the only people living in the building, but Collins expects that they will occupy the majority of the units.

Artist Rodney Wood, a DADA board member, predicts the project will move forward.

"I wouldn't be surprised if a year from now there will be some of the housing [in place] and people will be in there working and it's going to be alive," Wood said. "That, combined with the convention center, is going to be a very alive part of town. Finally people are understanding that it's not just about square footage, but about what it brings to the city."

Collins, Wood and Koenig all said they hope to break ground early next year.

Downtown living

A downtown isn't much more than a glorified business park or shopping mall if there aren't any people living in it. And the DADA district isn't the only area where planners want to develop a variety of new housing options.

Some developers have already begun to renovate the upper floors of downtown buildings as upscale loft spaces -- a trend that's been a popular way of revitalizing old warehouses and commercial buildings in larger cities for years.

At the southern end of downtown, the Lowell Neighborhood has been moving forward with a combination of high-end loft units, ground-level retail space and new townhouses.

On the eastern side of downtown, a former apartment building for seniors on East Kiowa Street is also being converted into another loft-style renovations project called "Citywalk," with 77 units that range in price from $90,000 to $600,000.

By far the most ambitious downtown housing development project, however, is Palmer Village, a planned community that would sit on the eastern side of Confluence Park in the area between Colorado Avenue to the north, Rio Grande Street to the south and Cascade Avenue to the East.

Though plans for Palmer Village are still fluid, Beth Kosley of the Downtown Partnership described it as a community laid out on the old style grid system with a "First and Main treatment," meaning pedestrian-friendly street fronts with parking tucked behind the residences.

Chris Jenkins, a developer with Nor'wood and one of the partners in Palmer Village, is excited about the prospect of building the kind of downtown community he'd like to live in.

"Adding abundant residential [zoning areas] downtown," said Jenkins, " is the greatest opportunity to make it a complete urban center -- a 24-hour city,"

Mass transit

Within the area that may one day become Palmer Village, the city is planning one of the most important aspects of any urban center: a new public transportation depot that would connect commuters with public buses, as well as the realization of a concept that has been bandied about for literally decades -- a commuter railway that would link Colorado Springs with Denver and stretch northward to Fort Collins.

Sherre Ritenour, director of Colorado Springs Transit, said commuter rail travel from downtown is beginning to look like a much closer reality than it did even a year ago because the Denver suburb of Thornton is currently pushing legislation to create a regional transit authority for developing such a service. Doing this would require Union Pacific Railroad to relocate the majority of its rail lines east of Colorado Springs. Ritenour said she sees it happening "on this side of 10 years."

"We're getting very close and looking at the feasibility of relocating the switching yards so some of that rail corridor can be used for the transit center," she said. The current switching yard near Stock Building Supply (the former Crissey Fowler Lumber) would be relocated to Kelker Junction near Ft. Carson, said Ritenour. Not only would the move create space for the transit center, it would also make it possible to build a new pedestrian bridge over the tracks for pedestrian access to Confluence Park and DADA.

"If the Palmer Village area happens," Ritenour said, emphasizing again that there are many contingencies, "transit will be truly integrated. It'll be a seamless way that development gets served. It'll be very pedestrian-oriented neighborhood."

Ritenour is hoping for a construction timeline aimed at 2006-2007. The new station, she said, will happen eventually, even if Palmer Village does not move forward.

Adding to the potential charm of public transit are the historic trolleys currently being restored by the Pikes Peak Historical Street Railway Foundation (PPHSRF). Though the PPHSRF has been planning to reintroduce the old street cars for more than 10 years, director Howard Noble said that the organization is also waiting too see what happens with Palmer Village before moving ahead with any definitive plans. Still, Noble ultimately envisions a network of streetcars in the urban renewal area that would eventually serve Old Colorado City and Manitou as well.

"It's our intention to service all of the urban renewal area and to make that area as automobile-free as possible, seven days-a-week, year-round and as much as every 10 minutes," Noble said

The PPHSRF is currently restoring two streetcars from W.S. Stratton's original Colorado Springs and Interurban Railway and has a number of cars from Philadelphia that are all but ready to go. These cars could begin going back and forth between the foundation's headquarters near Fillmore Street and Monument Valley Park near the Fine Arts Center within a year and a half if a deal can be worked out with Union Pacific Railway for use of the tracks, said Noble.

To be or not to be

Residents of Colorado Springs have, at least in recent history, balked at the prospect of large-scale changes -- especially if they are asked to pay for it. However, from Chuck Miller's perspective, "if the community wants to stay economically healthy it has to do certain fundamental things."

The primary obstacle to all of these projects, said Anne Ricker, owner of the Leland Consulting Group in Denver, is educating people about the benefits of downtown revitalization and redevelopment.

"The biggest challenge continues to be a lack of education regarding the benefits of a healthy downtown," Ricker said. "During the last decade the city had tremendous leadership that was committed to downtown. That appears to have softened on certain fronts. It would be good to get that back."

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