If you want my vote in the upcoming city election, show me: 1. Do you have a vision for Colorado Springs, especially downtown? 2. Do you have the leadership and skills to implement that vision?
I love Colorado Springs. There are many things that are special here; a thriving downtown is not one of them. In the 40 or so years we've lived here off and on, downtown has deteriorated, ironically, as the population has more than tripled.
Unchecked urban sprawl chipped away at the heart of the city. Our skyline has barely changed in the past four decades. The only significant new downtown high-rise building is the Wells Fargo tower. Take away Antlers Plaza, and we hardly have a skyline at all.
We have no multi-use buildings, no downtown department store, no conference center, only one hotel, and only one movie theater.
We do have a gem of a museum, however, and the Pikes Peak Center (thanks to a citizen-led effort). Local government is responsible for the few new low-rise buildings downtown. Even with these, visitors to downtown pass unsightly open and abandoned space as well as eyesore-housing on the south side.
Cities half our size have more impressive downtowns. And when a prospective company is looking to move, their first view of the vitality of a community is what is happening downtown. We don't show much in Colorado Springs. Vacant stores and abandoned streets after dark, except for barely legal bar hoppers on weekend nights, send a pretty clear message.
It doesn't have to be this way.
Imagine how the city center would look if the regional headquarter buildings on the Interstate 25 corridor north of town had been built downtown; or, if the Colorado Springs World Arena and Sky Sox Stadium were downtown, instead of the south edge or halfway to Kansas. We've followed a policy of urban sprawl at the expense of infilling.
Unfortunately, we're continuing that policy. Annexation of Banning Lewis Ranch, the primary motivation for the Southern Delivery System and opposed by our last "strong" mayor — Bob Isaac — is an example of the latest fool concept. It's an ongoing boondoggle dating to the 1970s, with developer after developer having abandoned the project. Yet, we're still pushing the boulder uphill, hoping against hope it will miraculously happen.
Our policy has been counterintuitive. It appears that we've purposely challenged conventional wisdom by urging construction that avoids downtown, laying the seeds for the slow disintegration of the city center.
Here are some specifics:
• We have minimal downtown housing, even though study after expensive study over the years showed that a downtown cannot survive and thrive without residents. Look at the resurgence of LoDo (Lower Downtown) in Denver, once lofts and condos were started in the 1970s.
• We've badly neglected Fountain Creek. Cities throughout the nation fortunate enough to have water features have made them work for their downtowns: San Antonio, Baltimore, St. Louis, Providence, Washington, Cleveland, etc. Here, Monument/Fountain Creek passing downtown is neglected and a habitat for the homeless. One needn't look farther than Pueblo, or even Manitou Springs, to imagine the possibilities.
• Our downtown power plant is an eyesore. A little imagination and paint could turn it into a whimsical/attractive southern gateway into downtown.
Do some research. Visit Greenville, S.C., where a "strong mayor" turned a former mill town into a shining example of downtown redevelopment through the strength of his personality. The last Colorado Springs leader who had a specific vision for downtown and made it happen was Gen. William Palmer. It's time for another Gen. Palmer.
So, to you as candidates, don't give me bromides about how efficient you'll be. However, if you have a vision and the will and skills to get it done, I'll vote for you. Maybe even send a contribution.
If none of you can measure up, our new "strong" mayor will be more of the same old, same old ... only at $100,000 more a year of taxpayer money.
John Herzog is a former state legislator who served in the administration of President George H.W. Bush in Washington, D.C.
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