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Urban jungle 

Wrangling over a long-dormant parcel may alter the future of South Nevada

City Councilman Tom Gallagher arches his back and strains his neck to take a better look at the towering maples and cottonwoods, his legs wide-stanced, his heels sinking into the mud. A few birds flutter by. Gallagher's necktie catches the breeze.

Except for the piles of rubble that were once buildings, the cement strips half-swallowed by the earth, the old swimming pool that now holds only graffiti and tires, the piles of trash ... these 14 acres are beautiful on a clear day like this.

There are two creeks gurgling by the parcel. And, of course, those trees.

Despite a career in development, Gallagher has no ambition to mow down these giants. Actually, he wants to help clean up this place and turn it into a campground and RV park, as it once was in its KOA days, but this time for the homeless and working poor. Considering the plot's location — near services and buses, just off South Nevada Avenue — it seems in many ways to be an ideal plan.

Or not.

The aha moment

While some homeless advocates seem ready to pat Gallagher on the back for his efforts, not everyone is thrilled. So far, the South Nevada merchants group has reacted with anger, the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department with puzzlement, and City Planning with a pessimistic three-page letter.

Click here for a copy of City Planning's letter to Koscielski.

Rather than deflate, Gallagher seems to puff up at all the bad news, as if he's itching for a fight.

It's kind of a confusing reaction, given the virtuousness that Gallagher would have you believe drives his interest in the property. He says he has no financial ties to it (though he adds that he wouldn't mind having some); rather, he sees the property as an opportunity to help the needy.

"We want to make this a kid-friendly place," he says. "The intent is to provide a place for young families with kids."

Unemployed and financially struggling himself, Gallagher says he feels sympathetic to the plight of the poor. Beyond that, Gallagher seems morbidly fascinated by the property's history.

He says developer Paul Koscielski has tried five or six times to get plans approved for this piece of land, and each time has been sunk by a technicality, most often due to the area being on a floodplain and in a floodway. (Koscielski did not return the Independent's phone calls.) Unable to profitably transform the urban acreage into offices or homes, Gallagher says, Koscielski soon realized this former KOA campground didn't have any high-rises in its future.

Meanwhile, camping on South Nevada Avenue has come back into, uh, vogue — as the tents lining the nearby creekbeds evidence. Koscielski realized he could just put the KOA back the way it was, and charge the homeless and working poor to stay there.

So, Gallagher says, Koscielski is planning spaces for 160 trailers and 40 mobile homes — which he'll buy and rent out for $400 a month. Also, more than an acre of tent sites will go for little or no rent. He's hoping a nonprofit will agree to manage the whole operation free of charge.

Best of all, Gallagher believes he's found a loophole that will allow the developer to bypass the normal planning, zoning and building approvals. If Koscielski puts the KOA back exactly as it was, Gallagher figures, that's working under a pre-approved plan.

That part makes Gallagher smirk a little.

"I don't need their approvals," he says. "I'm not changing anything."

The Councilor claims that when bathhouses and offices are rebuilt, that won't constitute a "redevelopment," just an "extensive remodel." This, despite the fact that the buildings were demolished down to their foundations. Using this logic, Gallagher believes he can escape having to build to current codes, including those that might require buildings to be elevated in order to protect them from flooding. Using the old plan also means skipping months of paperwork, expensive new plans and public improvements.

Clever or not, Regional Building's chief of plan review Roger Lovell says Gallagher's plan isn't going to fly.

For one thing, you can't "remodel" buildings that aren't there, Lovell says. Once you tear something down, it loses its certificate of occupancy and it's taken off the tax records, he says. It no longer exists. So anything built on the campground would be new construction, and subject to the same restrictions and requirements as any other project.

City senior planner Ryan Tefertiller says it can be very expensive to build to code in a floodplain — even prohibitively so.

"[Properties like this] are often vacant for a reason," he says.

There goes the 'hood

For the record, the business owners of South Nevada won't shed a tear if the campground never opens.

After organizing and spending years battling a bad image, the merchants seemed to be winning. They secured the closing of Cheyenne Motel, known for attracting drug deals, prostitution and violent crime. They got a temporary police patrol to scare away the seedier characters. Developers had big plans for shopping malls.

Then the bottom fell out of the economy. Projects have stalled, and properties sit vacant and boarded. The homeless camps have popped up along the creekbeds, behind and alongside restaurants and hotels that depend on tourist traffic. The cops have stopped coming.

Says Bill Kenline, owner of Rodeway Inn and leader of the merchants group: "We're hanging by our fingernails at the hotel."

Kenline says he's suspicious of Gallagher's involvement in the campground idea. He notes Gallagher is good friends with brothers Jim and Mark Morley (and lives in a house owned by them), local developers who have big dreams for South Nevada. Kenline theorizes that a campground would drag down property values, allowing the Morleys to scoop them up at bargain prices. (Gallagher says that's nonsense and he thinks the campground would raise nearby property values.)

The merchants say a campground would lead to increased and more aggressive panhandling, as well as bigger image problems for the area.

Both, they say, would drive away their customers. They say it simply isn't fair to ask that neighborhood to take on even more of the homeless problem.

Judy Laumann, owner of Total Travel and Tours, says she's already being harassed by area panhandlers. Men have approached her in dark parking lots, and one even banged on her car window when she was stopped at a red light, she says. She was scared. And she hates to think of the same thing happening to her customers.

Edelweiss restaurant's Dieter Schnakenberg says his family invested heavily in the restaurant, only to have homeless campers living within sight.

Kenline says he's had potential customers take off after being approached by panhandlers in his parking lot.

Ron Waller, of First State Bank, sums up the mood.

"We were headed in the right direction when the Cheyenne closed and [developer] Jim Rhue was talking and other people were talking," Waller says. "Now we're going backward."

stanley@csindy.com

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