Years ago, walking down a busy street in Madrid, I encountered a beggar. He was a man of indeterminate age — 30, 40, 70 — clothed in filthy rags, hair greasy and matted, kneeling on the sidewalk. His hands were cupped before him, his head bowed and motionless. I gave him a few coins. He said nothing, simply nodding his head in thanks.
Downtown Colorado Springs has its share of panhandlers, and they're not exactly humble supplicants. There are the regulars, such as the cheerful man seated at the southeast corner of Pikes Peak Avenue and Tejon Street, asking passers-by for a buck. Then there are others, younger, less cheerful and more insistent, who often target unescorted middle-aged women.
"What do you mean, you don't have a dollar? What have you got in that fancy purse?"
They don't bother me. Like most men, I give 'em the stink-eye and walk on — especially if my car is parked at a one-hour meter. As a frequent patron of downtown stores and restaurants, I'm used to parking tickets and obnoxious panhandlers. It's part of the territory.
Downtown boosters and promoters may not like it, but there it is. If you don't like it, go somewhere else, because the feral, unemployable men and women who so alarm our innocent suburbanites aren't leaving. And if you don't like feeding the meters, or paying a few bucks to park in a fetid, trash-strewn parking structure, too bad. Stay in the 'burbs and shop in the malls!
Yet downtown's problems have little to do with insufficiently humble beggars, or overly aggressive meter maids. It's tough to park in the small downtowns of Manitou Springs and Old Colorado City, yet both prosper, thanks to the frothy mix of bars, restaurants and cool little shops that attract even the most timid suburbanites.
The young folks who crowd Tejon Street on weekends aren't deterred by parking and panhandlers. They come because the bars and clubs are there.
And that, says former Boulder developer Robert Shonkwiler, is why people come to downtowns — because there's a there there.
Shonkwiler, who moved to Colorado Springs a few years ago and now heads Mayor Steve Bach's transportation "solutions team," thinks Colorado Springs should learn from Boulder's downtown development model.
First, Shonkwiler says, planners and developers should concentrate on the downtown core, not peripheral areas. They should focus on the parking lots that reduce business and retail density, and create de facto public-private partnerships to pull new structures out of the vacant ground.
The parking lots are there in part because high-rise zoning encourages owners to leave the land undeveloped until the time is right to go vertical. That time may never come, because a new high-rise must either poach tenants from existing structures or find a new major tenant. No such tenants have appeared in the last quarter-century, so maybe it's time for a new approach.
Here's the Boulder model, modified to adapt to us:
Visualize the parking lot filling the half-block bounded by Pikes Peak, Cascade and Colorado avenues. At the center of the lot, build a parking structure, and surround it with individual low-rise (six stories or less) buildings. Typically, the buildings would have retail on the bottom floor and office/residential uses on the upper floors. The city would fund the parking structure, and the landowner could sell lots to individual users/investors, or build on them himself.
The advantages are obvious. Instead of a single, hulking megastructure, you'd have multiple small buildings, each with dedicated parking and alley access between the parking structure and new buildings. The dual problems of excessive store depth and inconvenient parking, which bedevil many downtown retailers and businesses, would disappear.
Imagine a revived Pikes Peak Avenue, anchored by the Antlers to the west and the Mining Exchange complex to the east. Imagine unbroken blocks of businesses, lofts, offices, bars and restaurants stretching from Cascade to Weber.
And imagine the crowds, the street musicians, the prosperous panhandlers, and the long, chilly walk from wherever you parked to your favorite downtown bar.
Maybe that's just me. But anyone with sense would zip into one of the new parking structures, cough up a buck or two, and join the party.
It'd be a lot cheaper than moving to Madrid.