A plan to create a "one-stop-shop" for the homeless in the southwestern portion of downtown will help non-profit agencies better aid the city's poor, according to an alliance of non-profit agencies backing the facility.
But the proposed $6 million project, which could lead to the removal of more than a dozen homes in a 100-year-old neighborhood, might also destroy one of the last downtown communities where working class people can afford to buy a first home.
Roughly four homes along Conejos Street would be lost to a proposed daycare facility associated with the shelter, while another 10 to 12 homes would be bulldozed to make way for a proposed rail line that would serve Colorado Springs Utilities' Drake Power Plant, according to backers of the plan.
Under the terms of a complex land swap, the city utilities department would lease roughly 3.4 acres at the Drake power plant to the American Red Cross, which would run the shelter. In exchange, the El Pomar Foundation, which is putting up most of the cash for the complex, will help Power Plant officials build a long-desired rail line through the community.
Funded by a promised $5 million grant from the El Pomar Foundation, the project would consolidate food, clothing, counseling and shelter services under one roof, said Debbie Mitguard, director of the American Red Cross homeless shelter on Sierra Madre Street.
"It's difficult for the homeless to go [around downtown] from agency to agency," Mitguard said, adding that the proposed day-care facility would also be open to residents of the affected neighborhood. "We want to provide an enhancement to the people in the community."
But many nearby residents are not so sure. "I think they should leave the neighborhood the way it is," said Glen Myers, who has lived at 929 Conejos Street for 35 years. "This is a nice neighborhood. There's no crime. We all work together down here."
Still others, like Chris and Ramona Prado, are happy to move, especially since the El Pomar Foundation has offered residents 110-percent of appraised value for their homes.
"No one would buy this house, let alone pay 110 percent of appraised value," said Chris Prado. "For us, this is an opportunity."
But reaction to the plan is complicated by the fact that for the last two months, El Pomar worked secretly to acquire neighborhood homes before announcing their plans publicly.
In late October, El Pomar's real estate agent, Griffis-Blessing Inc., sent letters to roughly three dozen landowners in the neighborhood saying that an anonymous buyer wanted to purchase their property. Not until last week did residents learn the identity of their new neighbor.
El Pomar Foundation president Thayer Tutt said the secrecy was necessary so that residents wouldn't seek unreasonably high prices for their homes from the well-heeled foundation. He cited El Pomar's offer of higher-than-appraised values as a sign of good faith. "We want to be their friends, not their adversaries," Tutt said of neighborhood residents.
But some in the neighborhood say the stealth tactics allowed El Pomar -- which now has contracts on four homes in the area -- to get a foothold in the neighborhood before neighbors could organize and react.
The maneuver echoes a similar attempt last year by shelter backers to site a one-stop homeless shelter in the northern edge of the largely African-American Hillside neighborhood. After learning of the plan, Hillside groups accused the Red Cross and El Pomar of failing to adequately notify residents during the site-selection process.
Whatever the case, this is not the first time that larger city needs have clashed with neighborhood survival. Earlier this year, the City Council nixed plans by city-owned Memorial Hospital to expand into a four-block section of the Boulder Park neighborhood.
In this case, there's another compelling city need aside from helping the homeless, project backers say. The proposed rail spur associated with the project would allow officials at the Drake Power Plant to more efficiently and cheaply unload coal at the facility, said Utilities Director Phillip Tollefson. "This could save us up to about $1 million a year," he said.
When asked how such plans squared with the City Council's neighborhood preservation agenda, Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace suggested the shelter's day care center would be a plus for the neighborhood. "I see this as an enhancement to the neighborhood," the mayor said.
Many in the neighborhood question that assertion, however. If completed as planned, the project would leave small pockets of homes surrounded by a homeless shelter and power plant to the west, and heavily-used freight lines to the south and the north, they noted.
For residents such as Jeff Hovermale, whose home would be leveled to make way for the day care shelter, the process is rife with irony. "I'm all for helping the homeless, but where else am I going to be able to buy a house in this city that I can afford?" asked Hovermale. "Maybe I can go live at the shelter."