A few years ago, the American Red Cross and the El Pomar Foundation proposed a new, multi-million-dollar homeless complex in an industrial area along lower Shooks Run.
The proposal could have likely meant that Shooks Run -- along which I live -- would replace Monument Valley Park as the city's premier homeless corridor.
Though that plan was withdrawn under fire from the Hillside neighborhood -- which was much closer to the proposed facility than my enclave -- I was not among the protesters. I knew that the shelter could have an impact on my neighborhood, but I was not opposed.
Like any good bleeding heart working at an alternative newsweekly, I tend to feel sympathy toward the homeless and I eschew the idea of sweeping them out of the way -- into someone else's neighborhood.
So why have I come down so hard on the Montgomery Community Center, the $6 million homeless service center now being proposed by the El Pomar Foundation and the Red Cross for the south downtown Mill Street neighborhood?
Now that the Montgomery Community Center is headed for a final vote before City Council on Tuesday, Nov. 14, I'd like to explain why this proposal needs a lot more thought before it gets a blessing from city leaders and why, if rejected, all is not lost for project backers.
First and foremost is the fact that, from the beginning, project leaders have shown a disconnect from, if not disregard for, their new neighbors. That attitude makes me wonder about their commitment to address neighborhood concerns if and when approval is given.
Remember this: When the Montgomery Center was first proposed, it was linked to two other efforts that would have involved the demolition of a substantial number of homes -- six for a day care center associated with the shelter, and (initially) about 22 homes for a rail line whose main purpose was to save money on coal deliveries. In a nutshell, city utilities offered unused land it owned in exchange for support with the rail spur.
After getting flack from neighbors, the rail spur was scaled back. Now developing the property will only mean the removal of 15 residential lots, while the future of the day care center is uncertain.
Instead of acknowledging the impact such moves would have on this already struggling area, officials with El Pomar, Red Cross, the City of Colorado Springs and the Gazette pitched the idea that this plan would actually "enhance" this poor bedraggled neighborhood.
Though none of the players actually asked neighbors what they needed or wanted, project backers told local residents they would be able to use the homeless facility and the day care center. What more could they possibly ask for?
In short, this was urban renewal at its worst: the destruction of a long-established neighborhood in favor of short-term development needs.
But why does this whole controversy hit home?
Maybe it's the fact that only four years ago, my wife and I purchased a small house in Middle Shooks Run after looking at the Mill Street neighborhood, among other places. Mill Street was one of the few places that we -- a couple with two professional jobs -- could afford downtown.
Maybe it's because I could relate to these homeowners, to the hard work that Mill Street residents have put into their homes in an attempt to improve their lot and that of the whole neighborhood.
Maybe it's because I resented the "wink-wink" implications and the largely misleading rhetoric being spouted by shelter backers: that there's a high percentage of renters in the Mill Street area, ya know. "The Sons of Silence recently lived down there," I was often reminded as I reported the story.
Maybe it's because dang near every door I knocked on contained an owner who, like me, has spent the last couple years foregoing weekend fishing trips to scrape paint, fix gutters, patch roofs and plant gardens.
Maybe it's because of the stealth tactics of project backers who got purchase contracts on four homes in the neighborhood before publicly announcing their plans, thereby putting surrounding homeowners between a rock and a hard place.
Perhaps it's the fact that there really was not a lot of in-depth research backing the homeless service center proposal. After the project was announced publicly, I asked the Red Cross's Deb Mitguard if planners had considered the only comprehensive national study of consolidated homeless facilities. She conceded that she had not read that report, which is critical of the one-stop, mega-shelter approach.
A few months later, after being questioned by activists, project backers released a statement arguing that the team had indeed studied the report, and they offered a rebuttal. The rebuttal makes some good points, but it came way too late in the game to be viewed with much credibility.
Perhaps it's all the talk about "making a sacrifice" for the good of the city while shelter backers still don't have a good answer for why this thing couldn't be built just a few blocks north in what is planned to be a major commercial redevelopment zone.
When I asked Mayor Makepeace why the shelter couldn't go in the commercial portion of the Confluence Park redevelopment, she responded that the area "wasn't envisioned" to contain such a facility.
When I asked Red Cross and El Pomar officials the same question, they intoned a similar response: that it would be too costly to purchase commercial land in the area. Only with free land from the city utilities would they be able to pull off the $6 million project.
Perhaps it's because I don't buy that argument. Any other non-profit getting $5 million from one of the most prestigious, well-endowed foundations in the West, would be able to match that gift or at least raise the $1 or $2 million that would allow them to purchase a lot on which to build.
Which leads me to my final point: If City Council rejects this plan next Tuesday, El Pomar and Red Cross will have to go back to the drawing board. But they will not, as El Pomar's Thayer Tutt would have us believe, be completely out of luck or options.
If they really believe that consolidating facilities for the homeless is the only way in Colorado Springs, they'll just have to work harder, raise more money and then sell the shelter/service center complex to neighborhoods or the commercial sector with real incentives, not feel-good rhetoric.
The sad irony here is that the Mill Street neighborhood is one of the few in this city that might have embraced the shelter had the city and the consortium of non-profits behind this project made a sincere effort to invest in and revitalize this neighborhood.
But instead of offering incentives, they spouted slogans, dismissed attempts for better compensation with comments about "picking El Pomar's pockets," and they proposed to bulldoze a train line through the neighborhood -- oh, and demolish another six homes for a day care center.
The other sad fact is that without these incursions, Mill Street could have become one of the city's most vibrant neighborhoods, going through the same kind of transformation that has boosted my neighborhood, Middle Shooks Run, from a down-and-out enclave with a train line to a solid, affordable downtown neighborhood with a park and trail.
Without the rail line and the shelter, the people in the Mill Street area might have realized the fruits of their dreams. Instead of being the forgotten zone next to the power plant, they'd be at the foot of Confluence Park, right next to a redeveloped waterfront.
I think in the end, it's the resilience of the working class 'burb that got me. Already under seige from all directions, the Mill Street neighborhood has lasted 80-plus years. It may still be here in 100 years if it's not destroyed by the city.
But in 100 years, will the utility's coal-fired power plant still be there? Will the city even still be relying on coal? Let's hope not. And will the Montgomery Center defy the fate of most modern buildings and still be useful in 100 years? In the best of scenarios, I can only say, "I hope not."
In the most likely scenario, homelessness will not be solved, it will be institutionalized. The Montgomery Community Center will be rebuilt or expanded to accommodate increased demand. Either that, or homeless services will be once again be decentralized to accommodate the growing city.
And we'll be back to square one, with the Mill Street neighborhood nothing but a faint memory.
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