For more than 15 years, La Casita has served it's unique brand of home-style Tex-Mex cuisine to diners who chow down fajitas, carnitas and enchiladas in the bays of a former gas station and auto repair shop on south Nevada Avenue.
But within months, the local landmark just south of I-25, will come tumbling down as the state Department of Transportation takes a wrecking ball to buildings along Arvada Street as part of a major, $28 million plan to revamp the interchange between I-25 and south Nevada Avenue. (Another eight million is budgeted for land purchases and demolition.)
While La Casita's trademark pink walls and tropical dcor can easily be copied at the restaurant's planned new location on Eighth Street, the unique, open feel of the gas-station-cum-restaurant will be hard to duplicate.
"I've talked to a lot of customers who say they will go to the new location, but they say it will not be the same," said Manuel Montes, manager of La Casita's south Nevada store.
But La Casita's rosy exterior is only the most visible landmark to come crashing down under the state's plan to rebuild the quirky off-ramps and narrow bridge that define the I-25-Nevada interchange.
To make way for construction, which will begin early next year, roughly a dozen businesses have already been forced to move. Within the next month, another dozen or so will move to new locations, mostly on the east and west sides of town.
In the first visible evidence of the changes to come, demolition crews this week began work dismembering a boxy, gray building that housed six low-rent apartments on Arvada and Tejon streets.
In short, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) will spend at least the next two years rebuilding and expanding the bridge that takes I-25 over Fountain Creek, Nevada Avenue and Tejon Street.
At the same time, Arvada Street will be widened and the off- and on-ramps will be altered to more efficiently steer cars between local streets and the interstate, said Dan Hunt, an engineer for CDOT.
"It's a safety project," said Hunt. "Basically we're replacing the whole interchange because those off- and on-ramps are inadequate for the volume of traffic."
Though Hunt said accident rates are not dramatically higher at the existing interchange that in other spots along I-25, he echoed what many who commute through the area already know. "It's a bottleneck," he said.
The highway narrows to two lanes in each direction as the interstate goes over Fountain Creek, while the northbound on-ramp to I-25 gives little room for motorists entering the interstate, among other problems.
Like many business owners in the affected area, Anthony Rivera agrees traffic improvements are needed on both I-25 and Arvada Street, which runs right in front of his car stereo and window-tinting business.
"At four or five o'clock, the traffic will be backed all the way up from Tejon Street to a half mile up the interstate," Rivera said.
But Rivera also echoed the complaints voiced by many other business owners along the Arvada strip, who claim the road to relocation has been rocky.
Mostly, business owners complain that the state is not compensating them for the real losses and costs associated with the move. By law, Rivera noted, the state only provides up to $10,000 to cover the costs of fixing up a new storefront.
Though the state will cover the total cost of moving merchandise and business equipment, the $10,000 offered for remodeling will not cover the expense of painting, wiring, building and plumbing needed to restart in a new location, they said.
Meanwhile, business owners said rent and real estate costs in the new locations are at least double what they're paying now.
"We're losing a lot," said Rivera, who co-owns Quality Auto Tint and Car Stereo, a business started in 1974. "We'll lose a lot of drive-by business, from Motor City, and the Broadmoor area. This is a great location."
Further east on Arvada, two other local landmarks, High Country Custom Cycles and the adjacent Motorcycle Museum, are also struggling with the move.
"I've been here 13 years; this is everything I've got. It's my life," said Jim Wear, who owns the cycle shop and runs the museum next door. Recently, he said, state consultants have begun working harder to help him move the business and the museum. Specifically, CDOT, which is now Wear's landlord, has given him more time to move and has agreed to forego some rent during the process.
But Wear says it took a lot of complaining to get things moving and that CDOT still did not live up to some promises -- to help him find a new storefront near I-25, and to help him get city approval to erect his sign, (now visible from the interstate) at the new location.
"I grew up in Colorado Springs, so I don't mind moving if that's what's best for the whole city," he said. "But we shouldn't have to haggle to get help if it's in the best interest of the whole city."
But James Flohr, an engineer who manages the interchange project for CDOT, says he understands the business owners' concerns. But he said there's another side that has to be considered. "We have to walk a fine line; if we pay too much, it will come out of taxpayers' pocketbooks," he said. "So we have to be sure not to overpay, either."
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