"Downtown Colorado Springs is like an old Western town in the movies," says Robert Shonkwiler. "There's one street, Tejon Street, and that's about it."
Shonkwiler, the retired Boulder developer who had much to do with creating Pearl Street Mall there, has become a noticeable player in Colorado Springs politics during the past year or so. He heads Mayor Steve Bach's transportation solutions team, is a member of the city planning commission, and was recently appointed by Bach to the Urban Renewal Authority board.
In his spare time, he's trying to redesign downtown.
His design has evolved from a quick back-of-the-envelope sketch that he showed to this dull-witted reporter a couple of months ago ("Downtown: Put a there there," Jan. 26) to a full-fledged rendition prepared by local architect Mark Nelson.
Can it be realized? Is it even remotely practical?
Let's start with a little history.
Until the early 1960s, Colorado Springs had a downtown that any city might envy. Four movie theaters lined Pikes Peak Avenue (The Chief, Ute, Trail and Peak) and a dozen hotels catered to the weary traveler. Bars and restaurants abounded, as did bookstores, department stores, hardware stores, shoe stores, pawnshops, car dealerships, garages, real-estate agents, men's clothiers and sporting goods stores.
Then came suburban growth, supermarkets, strip shopping centers and enclosed malls — and there went the customers.
So the hard-headed businessmen who owned downtown buildings did exactly what their hard-headed peers in scores of cities did. They tore down irreplaceable historic structures and turned them into parking lots.
Downtown moldered. Dope dealers took over Acacia Park, while hookers plied their trade on "the stroll" along Nevada Avenue. City officials fretted over downtown, but the wrecking ball continued to swing. A few buildings rose where many blocks of Victorian commercial buildings had been demolished, but much of central downtown seemed immune to redevelopment.
The retailers, banks and major employers that once held downtown together gradually disappeared, to be replaced by bars and clubs. Sam and Kathy Guadagnoli bought up vacant buildings along Tejon Street and turned them into mega-clubs, reviving downtown in ways unforeseen by staid planners.
Shonkwiler's plan is simple. The accompanying illustration shows the now-vacant lot bordered by Pikes Peak, Cascade and Colorado avenues redeveloped with a central parking structure, surrounded by five- and six-story buildings. In each, a high-ceilinged ground floor is intended for retail use, but could be street-level offices. The upper floors could be any combination of office and residential.
"You could build a medium-rise [about 20 stories] structure on the lot, but it'd cost you 25 to 40 percent more per square foot than low-rise buildings, because of the cost of underground parking and high-rise fire and building codes," Shonkwiler explains. "But you'd have to have a commitment from a single tenant to lease multiple floors, and even then it would be extremely difficult to finance. So replace the 20-story building with independently owned six-story buildings of about 40,000 square feet, and it becomes doable."
Shonkwiler claims that the model, used successfully in Boulder, is applicable to several other sites in the heart of downtown.
"Forget redeveloping southwest downtown," he says. "That's just crazy. You have to build downtown from the core outward. If there's nothing in the core, no one will come here. And you have to look at the young people who can repopulate downtown. They want to walk, they want to bike, they want offices with windows that open."
Downtown real estate consultant Les Gruen, who currently represents the Pikes Peak region on the Colorado Transportation Commission, believes that medium-rise structures may still be built downtown.
"It's going to be market-driven," Gruen says, "and the market isn't here now. But we also need to look at city policies which drive the enormous cost differential of building downtown versus building in greenfields."
Starting a turnaround?
Shonkwiler believes that the right kind of development can change the game. El Paso Gas has nearly 300 employees in its regional headquarters at Pikes Peak and Nevada avenues. The company was recently acquired by Kinder Morgan, an industry giant with offices in Lakewood.
Will they stay, or will they go?
"If they stay, we can thank Perry Sanders for it," Shonkwiler says. Sanders has transformed the once-derelict Mining Exchange Building, directly across the street from El Paso Gas, into a sparkling, 117-room boutique hotel, scheduled to open later this spring.
"That will make a huge difference," Shonkwiler says, "so now it's time to get to work on the [City] Auditorium block across the street."
Great plans, to be sure — but Shonkwiler doesn't own the ground he'd like to see redeveloped. Does he plan on making an offer?
"If I had a spare $20 million, sure," he says, "but I don't. I haven't approached either of the principal owners, Chris Jenkins or Buck Blessing. I'm just putting this out there, and maybe they'll be interested."