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Flower Power 

Hothouse property attracts unusual suitors

Set between one of downtown's most popular walking trails and one of its most stable, up-and-coming neighborhoods, the corrugated translucent walls of Pikes Peak Greenhouses' Columbia Avenue facility seem at first to be a bit out of place.

After all, the greenhouses, north of downtown, make up a sprawling complex of 19 long, narrow hothouses set directly across the street from rows of modest single-family homes.

The fact is, though, these two seemingly incongruous uses have more or less grown up together. Pikes Peak Greenhouses has occupied the site since 1904, said owner Tim Haley, about the time that surrounding homes were sprouting up in what is now the Upper Shooks Run, Patty Jewett neighborhood.

Now that Haley is selling the 4.9-acre site -- one of the last remaining large tracts of downtown land -- local groups have offered several unusual and competing visions for what should replace the longtime local fixture.

First in line is a local group, which has made an offer for the property in hopes of creating Colorado Springs' first "co-housing" community, a type of development that seeks to enhance local ties and reduce environmental impact by sharing and consolidating some aspects of residential life.

Another competing neighborhood group is queuing up to replace the greenhouses with a park and sculpture garden. Still other developers hope to fill the former flower facility with more homes.

"We've had a lot of offers," Haley said. "Probably the group that seems most seriously organized at this time is the co-housing group."

Some members of the co-housing group already live near the greenhouse and have been meeting for more than a year in an effort to refine the group's vision and attract members.

"Usually, in co-housing, you're putting things into a common space that don't need to be duplicated in every unit [of the development]," said Cecelia Jacobs, one founder of the group.


Best for raising children

Co-housing communities, for example, usually include a central recreation building where residents might gather to eat meals, teach kids arts and crafts, offer child care or play music.

"It's really about creating a network that's best for raising children," said Glen Nagel, a naturopathic doctor who lives near the greenhouse site. "I'm living in a place where I have no direct family, and co-housing offers the best in terms of multigenerational relationships and in terms of other kids."

It also provides a safe place for those kids to play, because such communities cluster the homes and parking in one area, leaving a considerable amount of open space for playing fields, or gardens.

Members say it's too early to describe exactly what their community would look like if they manage to buy the greenhouse tract.

At this point, the group has made an offer to Haley, who is now considering the bid. If the two parties agree on a price, then the group will begin studying the feasibility of developing the site and drawing up more specific plans.

In general, though, they would likely build roughly 30 units of mixed size that would range in price from roughly $123,000 to $170,000 -- though group members are quick to point out that they are working to lower the bottom-end price to accommodate lower-income buyers.

It's a fine balance, because co-housing communities also seek to preserve as much open space as possible. As it's conceived now, for example, this development would likely host about half the number of units that could legally be put on the site, Nagel said.

But co-housing does allow for cost savings, as well. For example, by creating a common recreation area that includes play areas and guest rooms, individual residents don't need to build trophy homes.

"And not everyone has to have a lawnmower," Nagel noted, citing just one way in which residents can share daily living costs.

Most members of the group already own homes, which they would sell in order to buy into the co-housing development. Legally, co-housing communities are treated by banks much like a development of condominiums, where residents also co-own common space.


De-emphasizing the auto

Though the idea was new to Haley, the landowner says he'd be pleased if he can work out a deal with the co-housing community.

"I'm intrigued," he said of co-housing. "There are a lot of things I like about it. I like the fact that they de-emphasize the automobile. I like the way they're buying into the community. I like the fact that it would be owner-occupied."

He conceded that some in the community had to be won over to the idea.

"I think people sometimes hear co-housing, and they think hippie commune," Haley joked. "So you have to explain, 'No, everyone has their own bedroom.'"

In fact, the co-housing residents also have their own homes, which look just like the houses in any neighborhood.

But the group is now in a race with time. Currently a party of nine member households, the group needs another 20 or so members to make the project viable. Meanwhile, Haley said another entity that he would not name has also made an offer on the land.

None of the interested parties would disclose what they offered for the parcel, but Haley is reportedly asking for about $1 million.

Meanwhile, another local group, the Patty Jewett Neighborhood Association, has been formed specifically to try and raise money to buy the land as preserved parkland.

"There are no neighborhood parks that kids can walk to in this neighborhood that don't involve crossing a major street," said Paulette Flohr, an accountant who lives near the greenhouse site.

"We've collected over 100 signatures from people in the neighborhood who would like to have a park," she said. "This is the last chance for the Patty Jewett neighborhood to have a park, and we don't want this opportunity to pass us by."

This group's goals are equally idealistic. Not only are members calling for an outdoor recreation spot, they've proposed a range of possible options for the site: an art and sculpture arena, an urban xeriscape teaching center, use of some of the greenhouses for expansion of the city's flowerbed program, among other ideas.


End of an era

Flohr said her group has nothing against the co-housing plan, but she knows that her group is also racing against time and the potential for more competing bids.

"There's incredible potential for that site to become a model for residential development downtown," said Les Gruen, a local urban planner who has proposed his own vision for the site to Haley.

"There aren't that many large tracts like this still available," Gruen noted. "Because it's in a well-established, strong neighborhood, there's the potential that something really great can happen there."

As much as Haley said he likes the various visions for his property, he said he has to make sure he gets a fair market price for the land.

He's hoping to invest the money in new facilities and equipment as his business converts from selling flowers to selling full plants.

Haley said he was forced to sell the greenhouse due to radical changes in the flower market that saw overseas competition, particularly from Latin America, forcing many domestic growers out of business.

"I'm sort of an unintended consequence of the 'war on drugs,' " Haley said, noting that as American leaders sought to wean Colombia from its drug economy, they promoted the growth of foreign flower producers by giving trade preferences.

Whoever ultimately owns the site, the sale of the land ends an era for both Haley, whose family has owned the site since the 1940s, and for the neighborhood. That's why, he said, the sale is about more than just money.

"I need to get a good price for the land," he said, "but in five years, or 10 years, I want to be able to drive past the place and tell people, 'Yeah, that's where the greenhouses used to be,' and feel good about what I've done there."

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