Car doors slamming, high heels smacking, loud and soft voices chattering. Cell phone conversations, traffic jams, horns, the whoosh of a glass door as it closes.
Tejon Street on a weekday afternoon has a pulse. But stakeholders in the heart of Colorado Springs contend that too much of the city's blood has gone to the extremities.
"There is, I think, always a tendency, when cities have the kind of growth that they do, the blood goes away from the heart," says Ward Berlin, executive vice president of local developer LandCo Investments, LLC. "But it comes back."
That comeback is crucial for Colorado Springs. A strong downtown attracts jobs and shortens commutes. It woos new businesses looking for a hip locale, and more tourists looking for ... whatever it is they're looking for. It brings in city sales taxes that might otherwise leak to outlying areas and that leads to more funding for city services.
A great downtown just makes a city a better place to live.
Hundreds of players some well-known, some relatively unknown are investing time and/or money into moving the Springs toward a higher-density downtown, which would provide the entertainment, housing, retail and office space to draw the crowds and keep them there. From elected officials to city workers to developers, small-business owners, nonprofit workers and number-crunchers, a lot of people in the Springs have skyscrapers in their eyes.
In the vocabulary of downtown development, the driving concept's called "walkable urbanism."
But can this really happen? Here? Haves and wants Some say the situation's already improving. They point to developments like these:
The U.S. Olympic Committee is rumored to have found a new home for its headquarters at Stratton Pointe, a LandCo Equity Partners-owned building that's been vacant for years at the northeast corner of Tejon Street and Colorado Avenue.
City Council has approved the 22-story, mixed-use Cooper Tower, for the southeast corner of Nevada Avenue and Kiowa Street.
The $33.4 million Cornerstone Arts Center at Colorado College, distinctively designed by award-winning New Mexico architect Antoine Predock, is scheduled to host its first performance this summer. That project, of course, comes just months after the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center's $30 million renovation.
Tejon Street, in central downtown, will soon convert from one-way to two-way, a move that's expected to crowd the street and slow traffic.
New businesses such as Title Nine and Paul Mitchell The School have recently chosen to locate here.
The past 15 years have ushered in inviting streetscapes, better signage, a free downtown shuttle, parking structures, a directional kiosk system, America the Beautiful Park, Art on the Streets' many sculptures, the Uncle Wilber Fountain, and more and better art attractions.
Finally, the financial tools available to developers may be as good as they'll get in this city a city whose residents aren't likely to dump as much money into renewal as say, Denver. (In recent years, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper has played a huge part in convincing voters there to spend billions for improvements like light rail, revamped cultural facilities, streets and public works.)
Dave Lux, owner/founder of Concept Restaurants which includes downtown staples like the Ritz Grill, Jos Muldoon's, MacKenzie's Chop House and Southside Johnny's has noticed the positive changes.
"I think downtown is still very, very strong," says Lux, who has been staking his claim downtown since the 1970s.
That said, Lux isn't expecting the area to grow into something like Denver's LoDo. And he's not the only one who sees empty storefronts, panhandling and headlines after late-night/early-morning street brawls.
Plus, attempts at major rejuvenation have failed before. Remember the convention center? Voters panned that idea in 2005. Other ideas that have come and gone include a downtown baseball stadium for the Sky Sox and even a kayak run in Fountain Creek.
Then there have been the disasters of urban renewal. In the '60s and '70s, the city lost many historic buildings, including gems like the Burns Theatre and the second Antlers Hotel, in the name of progress. (Even the Pioneers Museum building nearly met its maker during these years.)
Among other hindrances:
Historically, the city's shown a lack of political and popular will to sustain long-term change.
The economy's sagging, making it more difficult for developers to secure loans.
We don't have a full-time commercial recruiter for downtown, something considered essential in many other cities (though Colorado Springs Economic Development Corp.'s Dave White does devote some of his time to the task).
We lack an in-depth plan to prevent gentrification, or creation of a market that only the extremely wealthy can afford. Eugene Montoya, executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Colorado Springs, says as downtown grows up, 40 to 60 percent of downtown rentals should be affordable workforce housing.
Finally, some people simply don't like what the city's been doing to catalyze change.
Brian Gravestock, owner of Brian's Bicycle Repair, says government shouldn't be subsidizing private developers (see "The developers' toolbox, p. 21). He also worries that the Urban Renewal Authority could exercise its power of eminent domain in areas of downtown, though the authority maintains that power is rarely used.
"I guess I just don't see that as the role of government," Gravestock says.
Saboz owner Linda Bridger worries about sacrificing the area's character.
"I don't want the skyline to get metropolitan, because we're not metropolitan," she says. "We're just a unique Western town."
More and more, though, people sharing Bridger's view are being outnumbered.
It's time to let go of the idea that the Springs can stay the same forever, says Mary Lou Makepeace, mayor of the Springs from 1997 to 2003 and current executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado. The woman who helped welcome America the Beautiful Park and the Uncle Wilber Fountain (the latter a gift from the Smokebrush Foundation for the Arts) says we'll grow one way or another, and it's better up than out.
"I know there are different schools of thought as to whether Colorado Springs should have skyscrapers or not," Makepeace says. "On the other hand, we are the state's second-largest city. We are the state's largest county. We have well over half a million in the metropolitan area. I mean, face it we are not the downtown Colorado Springs of 1958."
Vice Mayor Larry Small helped create the 1992 Downtown Action Plan, which hinged on producing a major catalyst for growth downtown, like a convention center or ballpark. Recognizing the need for different thinking, Small volunteered in 2005 to co-chair the process of updating that plan with Colorado College president Richard Celeste.
What followed was a large-scale process involving public meetings that drew nearly 400 people. Together they evaluated what is important to the city. What our values are. They brought in speakers like Brookings Institution "walkable urbanism" guru Christopher Leinberger (see "The guru's assessment," right).
In under 18 months, they drafted the Imagine Downtown plan, which recognized the need for more residential, retail, office space, entertainment and the preservation of character. They wanted better transportation and a more pedestrian-friendly streetscape. They wanted more arts and culture. More parking. More sustainable building.
And here's another new term: chaotic development. While the city won't turn away, say, a new downtown sports venue (see Between the Lines, p. 17), it won't wait for one, either.
Instead, it's following the lead of other successful downtowns, such as San Diego, Calif.; Des Moines, Iowa; Seattle, Wash.; Rock Island, Ill.; and Portland, Ore. (see "Portland, Ore.: Green, green grass," p. 22). Leaders from those cities have said it was crucial to create private-public partnerships, like the one formed through the Downtown Development Authority, to draw projects.
"[It's] to level the playing the field, because the cost of building or redeveloping in downtown and this is generic throughout the country is much more expensive," says Beth Kosley, executive director of the Downtown Partnership.
Building materials for larger buildings are expensive. So is construction in small spaces and having to close streets. And updating old utilities. And having to buy up multiple properties for a single development. And tearing down old structures.
Also worth noting: Until downtown has a certain level of traffic (often referred to as "critical mass"), there's no guarantee an ambitious developer will turn a profit there.
Leaps of faith
LandCo is one of the companies diving in, dangers be damned. Berlin says Stratton Pointe, located at the site of the old Design Center furniture store, will feature a new facade, a gutted, remodeled interior, and an additional four stories (for a total of six). The new building will feature a pedestrian skybridge across Colorado Avenue to the new city parking garage. LandCo is waiting for the final comments from the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department.
"We're ready to rock "n' roll!" Berlin says.
LandCo recently finished Citywalk Downtown, an almost-full, 12-story residential development on Kiowa Street, that was an extreme remodel of an older building. On North Tejon, LandCo is planning renovations to several historic buildings (tentatively called the "Mining Exchange Apartments") to create ground-floor retail with affordable rental units above. The project, purely a remodel, could start as soon as September. And at 19 N. Tejon St., another remodeling job giving the Peoples National Bank headquarters, ground-level retail and offices "a little more of a LoDo" look could be finished this year.
Why take the risks? Well, Berlin says, LandCo keeps its assets, so it can wait a little while to attract the big bucks.
Others are stepping into the arena, too.
Four stories up from Old Chicago on Tejon Street, developer/general contractor Dan Robertson and investor/real estate agent Janelle Walston can look out the windows and see years of their work. There's Daniels Lofts, an old brick gem that Robertson transformed into ground-floor retail with lofts upstairs. Walston, an investor and real-estate agent known by her brand, "The Loft Lady," sold these residential beauties when they were completed in 2001.
Robertson also built the nearby Carriage House Lofts, Giddings Lofts and Giddings Lofts II.
Now, they and their team are working on a new project, The Bijou, which will go in on 119 E. Bijou St. (the old, and hopefully, future home of The Book Broker). It likely will be done in 2009. Robertson plans to gut the old structure, remodel it, then add three stories of lofts to it.
For The Bijou, he'll be taking the DDA up on tax-increment financing (see "The developers' toolbox," p. 21). This boost will allow him to sell at least some of the 14 modern lofts for as little as $350,000 a pop. Walston and Robertson say they wanted to keep prices lower, but even in "the threes," it's a narrow profit margin.
"They're still pretty skinny, a lot less than what people were looking at out in greenfields [previously undeveloped rural areas]," Robertson says.
City Planning's Steve Tuck says recent, ongoing and future projects in the downtown area include expanding the Marian House Soup Kitchen; a seven-story condominium project at 28 W. Monument St.; an expansion or move for Fire Station No. 1; a possible expansion to Colorado College (the final details of this controversial idea are still in the works); an expansion to "One City Center" at Colorado and Nevada avenues; a possible new church, and action including skyscrapers, expansive mixed-use projects, townhomes and an arts district in downtown's four urban renewal areas (see "A mixed-use bag," p. 23).
Now, in Tuck's words, this "doesn't appear to be a boom."
But it's progress. And with so much time, effort and research invested in making the downtown dream a reality, a lot of people are hoping it's also the start of something bigger.
"You look at our major cities and when their downtown deteriorated, the whole city suffered from it," Small says. "Downtown is sort of the heart of the city, and you've got to keep it beating. You've got to keep it active."
How downtown business owners feel about discussion of renewal