When backers of a proposed homeless services complex began to secretly buy up property in the south downtown Mill Street neighborhood last fall, they said stealth was necessary because they wanted to make sure their plans were in order before going public.
Now, five months later, a task force of seven residents picked to represent the neighborhood say they're still in the dark on key aspects of the proposed shelter and, as a result, have shifted from tentative support for the plan to outright opposition.
Backed by a $5 million grant from the El Pomar Foundation, along with near free use of 3.7 acres owned by Colorado Springs Utilities, the American Red Cross intends to build a $6 million, 50,000-square-foot homeless campus.
The plan calls for a shelter, soup kitchen, medical clinic and a variety of other services on the Martin Drake Power Plant compound on the south end of downtown.
The shift in the neighborhood mood is significant because when the project was first announced, many residents supported the shelter idea -- a fact that wowed project backers who are used to facing tough opposition.
"The majority of people on the task force were open-minded about the shelter," said Lyn Akers, a resident of Mill Street and a task force member. "But as we have gone through the process, getting together with the people behind this project, we've seen that they just do not know what they are doing."
"It appears they were handed a huge piece of money and a free chunk of land, so they said, 'Great, let's do this,' " Akers said. "But it seems clear to us that they do not have a clue about how to go about doing this and what the details might be."
Examples of poor planning cited by residents include a variety of small details and basic facts about the shelter's proposed operations:
The Red Cross still doesn't know how many beds the shelter will contain when built.
The project partners have still not developed the rules under which the shelter will be operated. Residents fear drunken or unruly clients may be simply released into their neighborhood.
The shelter has not made provisions for the fact that many streets leading to the shelter cannot handle two-way traffic when cars are parked in the street.
Throughout the planning process, project backers have added to the list of services scheduled to be housed at the center without making any provisions for increased traffic or parking needs.
Some residents say they lost further faith in the project after they learned that a parking study described in the Red Cross' development application had not in fact been done.
In the application to the city planning department, filed March 21, the agency wrote: "... we have performed a detailed programming study that would enable us to determine the amount of parking required to accommodate all of this facility's employees, clients and visitors."
When residents asked for copies of the study, however, they were told by the consultants who designed the facility, local planning firm Thomas & Thomas, that the study had not been completed, according to residents interviewed for this story.
The company's president, Parry Thomas, could not be reached for comment at press time, but David Morikawa, the chief executive officer of the American Red Cross, said his agency did not mislead residents.
"We conducted an internal study of parking needs for the three agencies that will be using the [Montgomery Center] last spring," said Morikawa. "That's how we came up with the plan for 80 parking spaces."
Residents say that's the first time they've heard that explanation, adding that since the project has changed considerably since its inception last spring, the year-old study is obsolete.
Due to these objections, the Red Cross commissioned an independent traffic and parking study from LCS Transportation Consultants, which just released its findings this week.
A needed shelter
Traffic study or no, supporters of the consolidated homeless center (named the Montgomery Community Center after an El Pomar trustee) say it's understandable that Red Cross staff does not yet have the project finalized.
"Do they have all the answers? No, of course not. Nobody's going to have all the answers right away," said Linda Dickinson, a resident of Conejos Street who early on agreed to sell her home to make way for a planned day-care center for the children of shelter clients.
"We have to give these people a break," she said of the project backers. "This is a very complex and very necessary project for the overall community. This is not just about this one neighborhood."
The project is also supported by a variety of homeless service agencies who say centering their activities in one place will help homeless people by making it easier for them to obtain services.
And the Red Cross' Morikawa said it's not his agency's intent to mistreat the new facility's neighbors. "We're always concerned about our neighbors," he said. "We are listening and trying to come up with a win-win solution."
Morikawa conceded that much of the information being requested by residents is still not nailed down. For example, he said he won't know exactly how many beds the shelter will contain until final architectural drawings are completed.
But he said the agency can help make improvements to the neighborhood that will offset any problems caused by the shelter -- though he was not sure where money for those improvements would come from.
Among other things, residents have asked for road, sidewalk, sewer and other improvements, as well as 24-hour-a-day security, as a condition of the project's approval.
But Morikawa suggested it was unlikely that the Red Cross could budge on some of the residents' more fundamental demands: that the shelter be relocated to an industrial area or that the soup-kitchen component of the shelter be removed from the proposal.
"If you look at the proposed site, the neighborhood does border us on the east side, but the north, west and south sides are faced by [Colorado Springs] utilities, Fountain Creek, the railroad and the highway," he said. "So three sides of the facility are not affecting any neighborhoods."
But residents say that means that the 200 to 400 people who attend the soup kitchen each day, and the up to 300 people who stay in the shelter, will have nowhere to go but into their neighborhood.
"We're not against the homeless," said Ricky Stuart, a task force member who lives directly across from the proposed shelter. "We already have homeless in our neighborhood. The existing Red Cross Shelter is only two blocks away. But this plan is just too huge for any neighborhood to handle."
Bells and whistles
Meanwhile, shelter backers face another hurdle if they intend to site the project in the Mill Street neighborhood. The city's Fire Prevention Bureau, which reviews development plans, has disapproved the shelter's preliminary plan, citing inadequate access to the proposed building.
To win approval, fire prevention Officer Roger Costello said project backers must widen Conejos Street from its current 20-foot width to at least 28 feet.
In his review, Costello corroborated neighborhood concerns that the shelter will bring a dramatic increase in the number of emergency vehicles driving through residential streets with sirens blaring or lights flashing.
Last year, he noted, Colorado Springs police and fire crews responded to the existing Red Cross Shelter a total of 366 times. They responded 34 times to the soup kitchen, he said.
"The neighborhood was concerned about sirens, and I had to tell them the truth," said Costello. "We do respond down there quite a bit."