Colorado Springs says a renaissance is coming to the blue-collar stretch of roadway known as North Nevada Avenue, a decades-old neighborhood of homes, restaurants, motels and other businesses that has survived, mostly untouched, as a quiet town exploded into a sprawling city.
The rebirth of the neighborhood roughly stretching north from Garden of the Gods to Interstate 25 along North Nevada Avenue has been meticulously planned by the city. In a lengthy report to City Council, planners wrote: "Encouraging new investment to develop an environment which promotes access and creates a unique sense of place was identified as the central approach for the renaissance of the corridor."
Nowhere in the 32-page report, however, do city planners mention Manuel Hernandez's unforgettable chicken rellenos. He's been cooking them in his Seor Manuel's kitchen six days a week since 1970. Today, the rellenos are eaten by the children of his first customers' children.
The report somehow also overlooked Lina Biondi's pizza, the Italian creations she has been sliding out of her ovens and serving to her fanatically devoted Roman Villa Pizzeria customers for the past 44 years. She has long planned to hand the restaurant over to her daughter and her granddaughter.
And the report doesn't weigh in on the dozens of other mom-and-pop businesses, including landmark bars and motels that are currently home to an unknown number of blue-collar workers and working poor.
In a city where the roof of one corporate chain restaurant nearly touches the roof of the next corporate chain restaurant, North Nevada Avenue stands as one of very few neighborhoods left that has -- to borrow the planners' language -- "a unique sense of place. "
Today, of course, "unique" has become a strange concept.
"When the project is done," said Jim Rees, head of urban redevelopment for Colorado Springs, "North Nevada Avenue will probably look a lot like North Academy Boulevard."
Superstores muscling in
Among the earliest to dig in have been retail giants Costco, a members-only superstore, and Lowe's, a home improvement giant. Both are expected to be greeting customers by mid-summer of next year.
"Five years from now I see the area up and running," said Rees. "We're looking at major retail centers and other supporting retail businesses and new restaurants. Retail, research and development firms, hotels -- that's our goal."
To kick off the 390-acre urban renewal project, which the city hopes will bring in new businesses that will increase the city's tax revenues, planners first identified a reason for the renaissance.
The city hired the Leland Consulting Group out of Denver and, following a $47,000 study of North Nevada, the consultants found what they were looking for.
"The purpose of the North Nevada Avenue Corridor Urban Renewal Plan," the report said, "is to reduce, eliminate and prevent the spread of blight within the Urban Renewal Area and to stimulate the growth and development in the corridor over the near and long term."
City officials say the physical redevelopment will begin later this year with groundbreaking for Costco. The entire redevelopment project could last as long as eight years, according to Rees.
Key to the urban renewal study was the finding of blight, which can mean anything from cracked pavement to small parking areas at businesses to something called "unusual topography."
"When [the city wants] to find blight, they find it," said Duane Schram, owner of Quality Tech Service Center on North Nevada.
Among the blight findings at businesses along that roadway included in the report was this one: "Occasional instances of a lack of landscaping."
And the renaissance was set into motion.
"The neighborhood is going to change," said Rees. "I would assume that's true. But the city will not come in and condemn properties and use the tool of eminent domain to seize them. The City Council has said that will not happen.
"What will drive the urban renewal along North Nevada is private enterprise. We will create a six-lane road, much like Academy Boulevard, and improve the traffic flow and create an environment that will lure retail centers and supporting businesses. After that, the project is market driven. If the market there begins to change and some of the properties are better suited for other uses, that's a private deal. New retailers will offer people a price for their property."
"Someone," said Roman Villa Pizzeria owner Biondi, laughing as she used a line from the film The Godfather, "would have to make me an offer I couldn't refuse."
Slicing through the restaurant
Biondi and many other business owners along the corridor believe the city will use its blight stamp to chip away at their properties.
One proposal, for example, shows a new access road going through the Roman Villa parking lot, slicing the restaurant's parking capacity in half. And the bicycle and pedestrian lanes, along with the planned median (as wide as 28 feet) dividing the three northbound lanes from the three southbound lanes, would require the city to take frontage property from businesses facing North Nevada.
"The city will make it so miserable on us that we won't have much choice," Biondi said. "They want to devalue our properties with this redevelopment plan and road widening and all that, and make it more affordable for other businesses to come in and buy us out."
Another major concern for property owners is the change in access to their businesses. Currently, there is unrestricted access off Nevada, meaning that when you're driving along and see a store or motel you want to visit, you simply turn on your blinker and pull in. The urban redevelopment plan will have designated access points with a new access road behind the businesses. Like Academy Boulevard, the new North Nevada will have right-turn-only re-entry back onto the street.
"It's convenient now," said Rees of the current flow, "but the current access situation conflicts with the overall plan.
"Just because it's convenient for cars to turn in and out at will doesn't mean it's convenient for pedestrians and bikes. We need to balance all of that. Will you have the ability to come straight out of a business and cross the street, as it is now? No. Left turns are a traffic hazard. Can you turn right, go down to the next traffic light and turn and come back? Yes."
Julie Panek, owner of Predator, a four-wheel drive specialty shop along North Nevada, put it this way: "If people can't easily get in and out, they'll go someplace else. I have this business because it has easy access. When I lose that, I think I'd lose everything."
Many current business owners along the strip say they wouldn't be able to survive the construction period as the city builds the new six-lane roadway and new intersections are built at Austin Bluffs Parkway and Nevada Avenue on the south and at Nevada and Interstate 25 on the north end of the project.
"People do not fight construction projects to go out to eat," said Mika Hernandez, the daughter of Manuel Hernandez, who works, along with the rest of her family, at Seor Manuel's. "What they do is go someplace else to eat."
One thing, then another
Access to their businesses and construction inconvenience have been just two topics discussed at recent meetings between city officials and the property owners. Many of the business owners believe the city is not being honest with them.
"First they told us no properties would ever be condemned and that there would be no blight study," said Mitch Christiansen, owner of Century Commercial Builders at 4218 N. Nevada Ave. "Six months later, the Leland Group up in Denver turns in its finished blight study.
"We are not against improvements to the area. But we want the project to reflect some common sense and some truth, and we're not getting either right now. They told us they hadn't decided whether it would be a six-lane road, and in fact they had decided that. They said they hadn't decided how the access would work, but they had decided. We saw the drawings a week after they told us they didn't have any drawings. We get so many lies. I sit at a meeting with these people and get 16,000 lies."
Greg Danis, owner of Danis Asphalt and Concrete just off Nevada Avenue at 230 E. Polk, said he became actively involved the first time he saw one of those drawings. A dotted line -- the proposed access road that would run behind the businesses fronting Nevada -- was drawn through his property.
"The line they've drawn goes right through my workshop," he said. "And no one, not a single person from the city ever talked to me about any of this. They just drew the line through my workshop and think they're going to build the access road there."
"It feels like a freight train is running over us," said Paneka, of Predator. "If we knew what we were battling, OK. But they keep moving the target."
In response, city planner Rees said, "We're doing our best to accommodate all of them. And the city does not intend to buy up their property and run them out. City Council has said it does not want to do that, and they have the final say.
"But if there's a property someplace that's a key to the urban redevelopment project and we cannot get it any other way, well, the council said we have to go back to them, to the council, to get their approval for eminent domain."
Dark clouds gathering
All of which makes Danis, Biondi and Mika Hernandez see a dark cloud over the future of their businesses and the passing of another slice of Colorado Springs' history.
"I grew up here, on the north end," said Danis. "I live five minutes from my business. And right now I'm at the height of my business. Putting an access road dotted line through my property without even notifying me is pretty bizarre. But forcing me to relocate, well, I would probably not relocate for any reasonable amount of money. I'm raising two little girls and their school is right here. This is our life."
At Seor Manuel's, the mood is the same. Manuel Hernandez moved to San Francisco from a small fishing village in Mexico. He enrolled in a cooking school and soon met his future wife, Lucy, a nurse. His dream was to open a restaurant.
After he graduated from culinary school in the 1960s, the family, which now included three children, left San Francisco and headed for Colorado. They settled in Boulder, and Seor Miguel's, named for Manuel's father, became a fixture in that town. In 1970 the family moved again, this time to Colorado Springs. That same year, they opened Seor Manuel's at the corner of Nevada Avenue and Austin Bluffs.
"At first, they did it all," Mika Hernandez said of her parents. "Dad is 73 and he cooks every morning. Mom handles the accounting. I run the front end ... the customers and the wait staff. My brother Mark is the general manager, and my sister Rene is the kitchen manager."
Mika's daughters, Annie, 13, and Lizzie, 11, are often at the restaurant, answering the phone and helping Mika with computer issues. "Kids and computers," Mika said, laughing.
"I was 6 when all this started," she said. "It's not just my dad's dream. We've been here all our lives, more or less. The restaurant is such a part of our identity. To me, well, it's my home. We spend more time here than we ever did at home. It's the kind of place, like my father says, where people are treated like they're coming into our home for dinner."
The first customers at Seor Manuel's often brought their children, placing them in high chairs as Manuel's rellenos and burritos swirled around them. Today, the children of those children are regular customers and members of the restaurant's "3G Club."
"The third generation," Mika said.
And often, it's more than just a place to eat. When the events of 9/11 unfolded, dozens of longtime customers showed up at the restaurant to watch the TV. They wanted to be with friends. And last month, when Pope John Paul II died, the restaurant again became a meeting place for many of the Hernandez's customers and friends.
"They needed a place to sit and talk about the pope," Mika said. "So they came here."
She says she has attended too many meetings to count with city officials and urban redevelopment leaders and others. She does not like what she hears.
"The thing is, none of them seem to understand the damage they're going to do to us," she said. "If we have to take some money and move just so we won't suffer a total loss, then maybe we will. But we'd be forced into it, and that bothers me. And so many of our customers are from around here, and where would they go? It's mind-boggling to even think about moving. We've worked hard for what we have. And it feels like we're being run out."
Lina Biondi is 82. She still works at her Roman Villa Pizzeria along Nevada Avenue every Friday and Saturday night, and these days spends a lot of time thinking about her life
Lina is a coalminer's daughter who lived 25 miles outside Des Moines, Iowa. There she met Hidilio (Del) Biondi -- a coalminer's son.
"We fell in love when we were just kids," she said. "But then he had to go off to war."
Del's twin brother was killed in Europe. Del returned, and he and Lina were married. They had three children, and early in the 1950s they moved to Chicago and opened a tavern.
Lina's parents, Joe and Elena, had moved to Colorado and opened the Roman Villa Restaurant in Palmer Lake in 1955. Business boomed. Lina and Del were persuaded by her parents to pack up and head to Colorado. They started a small carryout pizzeria at the corner of Nevada and Fillmore, now the site of a Walgreen's store.
In 1961, Lina and Del bought a building at 3005 North Nevada and opened the Roman Villa Pizzeria. They worked together day and night.
Del died five years ago.
"Forty-four years in the same place," Lina said. "The restaurant is pretty important to me. It's just ... well, everyone who walks in knows me. And all of them knew Del. We have such a steady clientele. We never could afford to advertise, but it was all mouth-to-mouth advertising, and Del and I built a very successful business. We never got wealthy, but we made a good living."
Now Lina's daughter, Carla, helps run the pizzeria. And her daughter, Amber, 26, does the bookwork and payroll. Lina is preparing them for the handoff.
"They make me so proud," said Lina. "I think about my parents, and then me and Del, and now they want to run the restaurant for two more generations. I have my will made out. Carla and Amber take over. I won't be around too much longer.
"Life brings sentiment, and it's that sentimental value that the city just doesn't understand. They shouldn't try to push the little people out of business."