Colorado Springs founder Gen. William Jackson Palmer would be crying in his saddle.
A hundred and thirty years ago, when he sat at the base of Pikes Peak and gazed eastward across the expanse of short grass prairie that stretched out before him, Palmer envisioned a great city with wide, tree-lined streets and handsome, aristocratic structures.
It's doubtful that he pictured nondescript, windowless concrete monoliths dotting the land, vast expanses of pavement or strings of cardboard cutout houses as far as the eye could see.
But, in large part because the city has grown up without any design guidelines or limitations on building wherever cheap land is available, sprawl is what we've got, and much of what is built turns out to be an eyesore. Unlike many other cities, Colorado Springs has, until recently, grown without benefit of a design review process that requires developers to show us what they propose before the projects are built. In addition, without serious restrictions on building along ridgelines, in geologically unsound areas, on heavily graded land, in floodplains and on shifting soils, developers have basically built whatever they want, wherever they want.
Some developers -- particularly the city's early builders -- have executed remarkable projects. Consider the Broadmoor Hotel, the Pioneers Museum and, more recently, the Plaza of the Rockies high-rise next door. And Colorado Springs boasts two of the state's genuine architectural treasures -- the Air Force Academy Chapel and the Fine Arts Center building.
Aesthetics are, of course, highly subjective. But, with the help of city leaders and architects -- all of whom demanded anonimity for fear of backlash from developers -- the editorial staff at the Independent has identified 10 projects or buildings that deserve to be cited for their, ahem, aesthetic offensiveness.
On March 27, the Colorado Springs City Council approved a Comprehensive Plan that is designed to serve as a growth management tool for deciding what gets built in the future. One of those tools, for the first time in the city's history, is a process that will -- if the plan is given teeth -- require developers to build projects that are visually compatible with the surrounding landscape and neighborhood. (For further details on the Comprehensive Plan, see page 9).
"It's a tradeoff for some of the strong growth we've seen," said city planner Quinn Peitz. "With a better definition, you can attempt to avoid the truly ugly. And you can avoid the really obtrusive things that inappropriately stick out."
Now, the envelopes, please...
This shopping center of national chain stores whose architecture and crazy colors invoke images of circus tents, towering 20 feet above the intersection at Woodmen and Academy atop a massive retaining wall, is City Manager Jim Mullen's madcap legacy to Colorado Springs.
When the developer, Rosenbaum/Dean, applied for this project, the City decided to get them to pay an adjusted developers' fee to help pay for traffic relief at the clogged intersection, based on an agreed-upon percentage of traffic increases that were generated by the big-box mega-businesses at the corner. On Dec. 4, 1997, Mullen convinced his Council bosses that a traffic fee deal could be worked out between the City and the developer and Council approved it on a 6-2 vote -- without first working out the details of the financial arrangement and putting it in writing. When the developers figured out that the City was manipulating numbers to get an amount it wanted rather than a true user impact fee, they sued, and they and the City are currently negotiating a settlement. Meanwhile, the shopping center is open for business, and the cash registers are ching-chinging. Traffic at the intersection is near-gridlock, with no relief in sight.
New Life Church
Lord help us. We can't help but pine for the days of old, when master masons toiled entire lifetimes to build monuments to God. The Sistine Chapel this ain't. Notre Dame? No way. The Air Force Academy Chapel? We wish. The mega-church where, reportedly, one-fourth of the Pikes Peak region's churchgoing public goes to worship every Sunday has no architectural significance. No doubt the praying inside the giant blue warehouse on the prairie is just as heartfelt as the Catholics' downtown at St. Mary's, but the building, a metal pre-fab barn, just doesn't sing "Glory!" When completely built-out, the three-phase facility in northeast Colorado Springs at 11025 Highway 83, will comprise 161,000 square feet, with 7,500 parking spaces taking up 1.1 million square feet. By contrast, the total landscaping efforts on the church property will, according to the plan, comprise 200,000 square feet.
Brighton Gardens of Colorado Springs
When this Marriott Corporation--owned elderly care/senior housing project was proposed in 1997, Denver-based developer Summit Companies, Inc. promised the behemoth, which they built on a man-made mountain, would be a "sandalwood or a comparably dark shade" in color. Instead, this light beige structure looms over the surrounding landscape at the northeast corner of 21st Street and West Rio Grande Avenue on the city's west side. On behalf of three area homeowners associations, Vivian Darden, joined by city hall activist Jeanne Matthews, tried her darndest to raise the alarm before it was built. Darden argued in a letter to the City that "the color of the building does not blend in with the area, the height of the building does not fit the site and the proposal does not comply with the intent of the [City's last] comprehensive plan." But the women were informed that since the City has no ordinance that controls building on steeply graded land, the project could not be rejected. Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace subsequently ordered City staff to research a grading ordinance for the city. Four years later, an ordinance designed to outline when it's appropriate -- and not appropriate -- to build on man-made mountains still does not exist in Colorado Springs.
Academy Boulevard, from Woodmen to Interstate 25
This concrete jungle all started back in 1982 with a couple of fast-food restaurants, a couple of hotels, a bank and a shopping center just off the Interstate 25 exit at Academy. By the late 1980s, residents living along the last stretch of Academy that still had houses -- between Woodmen Road and Briargate Boulevard -- complained that they could no longer live in the homes because the street was too noisy. So they held several elections (nicknamed by a few who shudder to remember as the Annexations from Hell) between 1988 and 1992 to annex the land to the City. That done, the Colorado Springs proceeded to rezone the strip and encourage commercial development, which is how Academy from Woodmen to the interstate became a confusing, traffic-congested, fume-filled, pre-cast desert. This is not a pedestrian or even car-friendly stretch; God help the pedestrian who even tries to cross Academy on foot. Instead, people are forced to drive from strip mall to strip mall, from big box to big box, from chain restaurant to chain restaurant, jamming the gas pedal to cross three lanes of traffic to make a left-hand turn.
Interstate 25 -- from Motor City Drive to the American Furniture Warehouse
Let's start with the hopelessly outdated, garishly distracting southern entrance to our world-class city -- the spectacle (especially at night) of Motor City, brightly illuminated and stretching as far as the eye can see. You just can't miss it -- acres upon acres of cars, in lots lit up like Las Vegas year-round. The cluster of auto dealers started in 1965, and has spread its way across the landscape ever since. Now, we've got nothing against cars, or dealers who are trying to make a buck, but this is about aesthetics. Motor City predates any city design ordinances -- like required setbacks and landscaping (read: trees, tall trees to soften the view),-- and it stands as an example of exactly why they are needed.
Continue on down the highway and note the sound wall, disguised as a pseudo mountain range, which blocks 2 1/3 miles of actual mountain views. The wall ends at Jake Jabs' massive American Furniture Warehouse store at the Fillmore exit. The big box is built on a man-made mountain and looms, big and prominent, over the highway. Jabs, a Denver millionaire who likes to advertise his wares using live wild animals, including lions and tigers, planned his Colorado Springs mega-store at the same time the Colorado Department of Transportation was building the sound wall. So the furniture store, painted stark white with blue and red stripes, agreed to incorporate the faux beige mountain theme that matches the wall. (They kept the red and blue stripes.) So now we've got a massive building trying to camouflage itself as part of a highway sound wall that is trying to disguise itself as a mountain view.
Jefferson at The Broadmoor - AKA The Retreat at Cheyenne Mountain
This highly visible, massive 276-apartment complex across the street from Cheyenne Mountain High School was sold to City Council in 1996 as high-end luxury apartments. Despite its posh names, the complex looks more like Army barracks plopped in the midst of one of the city's most prestigious neighborhood. Three neighborhood associations, again led by Skyway Homeowner's Association president Vivian Darden, fought the project, arguing against the increased traffic and the developers' failure to address potential geological hazards that could present a danger to human life and also pose a threat to downstream structures. The developers, Texas-based JPI Development Partners, agreed to build a detention reservoir immediately adjacent to an elementary school, leaving neighbors also complaining about the potential danger to young children who may be drawn to the deep water. This project marked the first effort in Colorado Springs by a big development company to shut up neighbors by threatening Darden with a SLAPPsuit, designed to quash her efforts to inform the government about her and other neighbors' concerns. In a letter to the City, the developer's lawyer warned elected officials to ignore Darden and her appeals, and to uphold final approval of the project, which they did.
Stetson Hills and Springs Ranch
You can hardly tell where Stetson Hills ends and Springs Ranch begins. The subdivisions -- both were approved in 1984 -- bleed right into each other stretching as far as the eye can see east from Powers Boulevard, Constitution Avenue, Templeton Gap to Stetson Hills Boulevard.
The names Stetson Hills and Springs Ranch conjure images of Wild West--style vast open space. But this is actually suburban density at its worst, subdivisions where developers' modus operandi appeared to be, "Just how many houses can we shoehorn on this sight?" In Stetson Hills alone, a whopping 10,390 on 2,181 acres, that's how many.
The homes are relatively inexpensive by Colorado Springs standards -- a good thing in this affordable housing--poor city. But the huge houses are built on tiny postage-sized lots right next to each other (and, in Springs Ranch, on a floodplain that is as wide as 400 feet in some areas). Developers in both subdivisions set aside paltry amounts of open space, did virtually nothing with streetscapes or landscapes and planted few trees, so there's little to lessen the impact on the environment.
Colorado Springs resident Judith Finley, who at the time held a seat on the City Planning Commission, was the only elected or appointed policy-setter who opposed Stetson Hills. According to minutes from the 1984 Planning Commission meeting, Finley said she "felt it might be premature to be annexing property at a time when the city capital improvements budget is so stretched that Council is having to ask for a sales tax increase to serve the existing infrastructure." Sound familiar?
Mini-storage warehouses, monuments to modern-day consumerism, aren't known for their beauty (ask anyone who drives Ute Mountain Pass regularly and passes the truly horrendous Treasure Chest mini-storages on Higginbotham Flats). But the Woodmen Mini-storage -- an eyesore at 7155 Lexington Dr. -- is the worst of 'em all. The corrugated tin sheds look downright hillbilly and make the dog kennels up the road look positively elegant. The owners have erected a very tasteful "Woodmen mini-storage" sign in front, but to little effect.
In his 1995 application, the developer indicated the storage warehouses would be painted beige with deep green accents, and would include a black wrought-iron fence surrounding the property. Well, there's a wrought-iron fence, all right, but drivers apparently keep smashing into it with their cars. The trees that were planted to mitigate the impact of the storage facility on the nearby residential neighborhood look like someone went out and dug them out of the forest, brought 'em down to the city, replanted them and forgot to water them. They look just like Charlie Brown Christmas trees.
First & Main Town Center
We're not exactly sure which town claims this development project on the edge of the prairie as its center. "First & Main" sits at the intersection of Powers and Constitution and resembles nothing more than a shopping mall site, nothing less than a town or a town center. What this really is, is a suburban Tower of Babylon, a monument to Nor'wood Development (i.e.: high-powered movers and shakers David Jenkins, Fred Veitch, Kent Petrie and Ralph Braden), the fattest cats in the local development industry. The project was built on areas of highly expansive soil with high subsurface moisture conditions where, according to the developers' 1999 application, subsurface draining may be necessary. The first phase is a multi-screen cinema and associated parking; additional phases will include high-end retail stores. The developers reportedly envision the project as Colorado Springs' version of Denver's upscale Park Meadows or Cherry Creek shopping malls. At a reported $22 a square foot for just the raw land, First & Main Town Center is the most expensive real estate along the Powers Boulevard Corridor. Surrounded by fast-food joints and big-box home improvement stores, it's hard to imagine Neiman-Marcus out in the middle of the windswept prairie, tumbleweeds tumbling across the parking lot. Will it ever fit in? No. But our bet is that Nor'wood will make even more bucketfuls of money trying.
The Pikes Peak Highway
The City of Colorado Springs, which leases the Pikes Peak Highway from the U.S. Forest Service, has ignored its own repeated top priority recommendations to pave the highway leading to the top of America's Mountain since at least 1967. Then, as subsequent studies have found, the Forest Service and the City's own staff informed Council that a paved road would be safer and far less expensive to maintain than the existing gravel surface. It would also help eliminate many of the environmental problems that stem from dumping several thousand truckloads of gravel onto the road every year, which spills over the sides and buries trees, streams and hundreds of acres of what was once delicate alpine tundra and meadows. The gravel has also caused massive associated drainage and erosion problems. Council balked against fixing the highway -- especially paving it -- for no other legitimate reason than it might negatively impact the one-day-a-year Pikes Peak Hill Climb auto race to the top of the mountain (scheduled for June 30 this year). Two years ago the Sierra Club sued, alleging violations of the Clean Water Act. The City responded with its own lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service, the agency from which they lease the permit to operate the road. The road still isn't paved.