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Shelter neighbors may sell out 

Nearly all the homeowners in the lower downtown neighborhood slated to receive a proposed mega-homeless shelter say they want the city utilities department to buy them out now, before their property values are further degraded by the planned shelter.

The 26 area residents made their feelings known in a petition handed to Colorado Springs Utilities' executive director, Phillip Tollefson, on Friday, Jan 21.

The city-owned energy enterprise is involved in the shelter proposal, because the $6 million homeless-services center will be built on part of the agency's Drake Power Plant complex on South Sierra Madre Street.

In exchange for providing land for the facility, the publicly owned power company had asked the consortium of non-profits that backed the shelter to help the utility department purchase homes in the area so that a long-desired rail line could be built through the neighborhood.

Last week's petition could shorten that process considerably.

Most residents interviewed said they didn't want to sell, but they felt they had little choice but to sign the petition. Even some who support the homeless-shelter plan, such as Alicia Garcia-Smith, say it would be better to go now before their homes lose more of their value.

"I'd like to continue living here, but if [the proposal for the rail spur and shelter] means that this is no longer going to be maintained as a neighborhood, then I'd rather go now," said Garcia-Smith, whose home on Conejos Street is directly across the road from the proposed shelter.

Garcia-Smith's home is not directly in the path of the proposed railway. But because the rail spur, if built, would sandwich her and other residents on the block between a constant flow of coal trains, a homeless shelter, and a power plant, residents say the utilities should buy out all the residents in the affected, four-block area.

In addition to building the shelter, homeless agencies also plan to demolish four to six homes on Conejos Street to build a proposed day-care facility, which would serve shelter kids.

Tollefson said his agency would "absolutely" pursue the offer, adding that he's open to buying homes not directly in the rail line's path. "We recognize that there are extenuating impacts beyond the strict right of way of the [rail spur]," he said, noting that the new tracks might cut off neighborhood access by closing some streets to traffic.

Residents say the prospect of the rail spur looming over the neighborhood, along with more immediate plans for the shelter and day-care facility, makes staying in the area too risky.

"If that spur is inevitable," Garcia-Smith continued, "then when it's put in, we'd never be able to get enough money to move.

The new rail line would allow the utilities department to unload coal more cheaply at the Drake Power Plant. Because the rail spur would also connect the utilities with a second rail line, Tollefson said the rail line could save the agency up to $1 million a year.

Because the shelter will bring hundreds of homeless people to the area for daily meals and shelter, William Burke, the Baltic Street resident who initiated the petition, said residents should be relocated.

"They want to build a homeless shelter, a day-care center and a rail spur. I say, 'Fine, let them do it,' " he said. "But do it now. Move everybody out and give them a fair price so they can start over somewhere else."

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