Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Local battle: Historic preservation vs. failed urban renewal

Posted By on Tue, May 31, 2011 at 4:48 PM

Last Sunday morning I happened to drive by the corner of Vermijo and Sahwatch streets, and noticed to my dismay that the noble old stone building that stands opposite the El Paso County parking structure on Sahwatch was threatened with demolition.

Some research revealed that the building, constructed between 1900 and 1907, was part of the Union Ice & Coal complex. The Ice House itself was already demolished — all that remained was a pile of bricks and splintered timbers. The semi-intact structure that still stands was originally a boiler house, where coal was delivered to fuel the steam boilers that heated the County Courthouse and the County Jail, which then stood on Cascade Avenue at the present site of the Pikes Peak Center and Centennial Hall.

It’s a beautiful, graceful building, constructed of locally quarried rhyolite and sandstone, which has been vacant for at least 25 years.

Could it be saved?

I called Tim Leigh, the veteran real estate broker who was recently elected to City Council. Tim knows the owner, and asked him to hold off the wrecking ball while we sought a buyer.

The owner, who’s an obliging, civic-minded guy agreed to spare the old pile of rocks for a few days, but warned us that finding a buyer wouldn’t be easy. For one thing, he pointed out to Tim, the building is structurally unsound. The years have taken their toll, and previous owners allowed the cops and firefighters to use the building as a training site.

Great for our city’s finest, but not so great for the building, where the firefighters even started fires. Moreover, the site is part of a substantial assemblage, and it’s worth more as vacant land — not to mention avoiding the potential liability associated with vacant structures.

So we did the obligatory dog and pony show, and even enlisted PR woman extraordinaire Lisa Amend in the cause. She managed to persuade three TV stations and a Gazette reporter to show up at the site and listen to us pontificate.

We hope that the story will have an appropriate ending, andthat the building will find a new owner and live for another century. But it probably won’t, and that’s not because the owner is a bad guy, or that commercial real estate owners in the city are bad guys.

The fault, if any, lies with ourselves and with policies that the city and the city Urban Renewal Authority put into place a decade ago.

By designating much of southwest downtown as a blighted urban renewal area, the city encouraged property speculation and discouraged adaptive re-use and historic preservation.

All these junky buildings are coming down! A bright future awaits, with hundreds of cool housing units, a multi-use sports stadium, and true urban renewal! Developers, come on in! We’ve got tax abatements, we’ve got a master plan. Get ready for the new millennium!

So most businesses sold their property and moved, leaving a once-thriving commercial district for greener pastures in other parts of the city. Despite city incentives, developers couldn’t get the financing to start a single project. So, southwest downtown fell into decay and disuse, home to tumbleweeds, vagrants, stray dogs, and a few lonely businesses.

Meanwhile, in a creative use of its power to declare property “blighted,” the city and the Urban Renewal Authority cheerfully declared a stretch of open prairie 20 miles from the city’s core an urban renewal area, and thereby eligible for certain property tax breaks.

That’s fine, I guess. I’m all for new shopping centers. But meanwhile the tumbleweeds blow, the old buildings fall, and nothing happens.

So here’s a suggestion for Mayor Bach: tear down everything, truck in some topsoil, and start a city marijuana grow. Fifty acres of weed ought to bring in a few bucks, and the County could provide a few dozen inmates to work the land.

Sounds absurd? No more so than what has happened to southwest downtown, where urban renewal accelerated commercial destruction.

Meanwhile, if you’ve got an extra $1 million, call Tim Leigh. He’ll be happy to arrange the deal…

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