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Downtown's second chance 

City Sage

Cities, as anyone who has visited New York more than once knows, are dynamic entities. Buildings are abandoned, demolished, renovated or replaced. Neighborhood bars and delis disappear, to be succeeded by upscale boutiques, craft eateries and art galleries.

Yet in the slow firestorm of change, some cities retain their character. San Francisco, New York and Miami have gained and lost innumerable buildings, but they remain somehow unchanged. When the twin towers of the World Trade Center were built, many New York residents regarded them as graceless monoliths that disfigured the city's iconic skyline. But then Philippe Petit did his amazing walk and the towers gained character, strength and chutzpah — they became New Yorkers.

Now they're gone, deeply mourned but quickly replaced. The buildings and monument that now occupy the site have become part of the city's life, history and future. New York moves forward, overcoming and transcending any blows that nature or man may deal.

Like New York, San Francisco and Miami are seaports. The ocean constrains (no suburbs on stilts!) but enlarges. You can be, as Otis Redding sang, "Sittin' on the dock of the bay / Wastin' time," and letting your dreams expand to meet those distant horizons.

We have Pikes Peak. Unlike any other sizable city in America, we are defined by our own 14,000-foot mountain. By contrast, Longs Peak is just a speck on the Denver horizon, Rainier a distant cloud in Seattle. Like the sea, our mountain awes, inspires and comforts. We have long sought to build a city worthy of our mountain, with mixed results.

Gen. William Palmer founded a city based on piety, culture and moderation in all things. His dream was shattered when gold was discovered in Cripple Creek. Genteel New Englanders gave way to cold-eyed fortune seekers, and the region's sudden industrialization distressed Palmer, as he described on Aug. 1, 1901.

"Large chlorination and other mills have to my regret come in recently at Colorado City and along Bear Creek for the reduction of the ores of Cripple Creek," Palmer wrote, "and these belch out considerable smoke with odors of sulphur and arsenic. This [is] chiefly if not exclusively I believe from the roasting of the ores which is done by gas from the burning of coal on the spot. ... It is hoped that this nuisance may be ended soon by the further progress of electric invention, enabling coal to be dispensed with."

Decades later, the noxious mills had closed while the mining barons of Cripple Creek became the city's greatest benefactors. It was a beautiful, slow-paced little city that slumbered peacefully beneath the sheltering mountain until transformed by the explosive growth of the last half-century.

Much was gained and much was lost. The city's Victorian downtown was almost completely razed, but families thrived in vast new suburbs that ringed the city. Characterless and bland? Sure, but Pikes Peak was there.

"When you can't see the Peak," then-resident Bernard Ewell remarked on a gray, drizzly day some years ago, "you might as well be in Cleveland."

Paradoxically, the city builders who created post-1960 Colorado Springs weren't inspired by the Peak; rather, it was a product enhancement device. Why spend money on design or architecture if you have a Pikes Peak view?

They built it, and we're stuck with it. Too bad, but fate has given us a second chance. We seem to be on the verge of a downtown revival, a time when all the stars align and development in the core city really takes off.

Real estate magnates Buck Blessing and Chris Jenkins have sorta/maybe committed to build a couple of sizable apartment complexes downtown, the Olympic Museum is a go and Perry Sanders is ready to pull a downtown high-rise out of the ground, while he also revitalizes the Antlers. And maybe, just maybe, City Council will fall out of love with the Martin Drake Power Plant and destroy it.

The question isn't whether we'll build but what we'll build. A handful of power players will create the future, just as Palmer, Jimmie Burns and W.S. Stratton once did. Will their creations match those of their predecessors? Will we see buildings as beautiful as the Mining Exchange Building or the demolished Burns Opera House?

Maybe, maybe not.

A word of advice for today's grandees: Don't use Pikes Peak as an architectural crutch. Build to enhance the mountain, not diminish it.

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