Downtown: stuck in neutral 

City Sage

In 1962, I shook the dust of Colorado Springs off my shoes and left to seek adventure, fame, fortune and beautiful women — unremarkable goals for a lazy 21-year-old.

Nineteen years, three kids and two marriages later I came back, driving a dusty U-Haul stuffed with all our worldly possessions. I wasn't rich, I wasn't famous, I didn't have a movie-star girlfriend. I had little money and few prospects. New York and Florida had gotten the best of me, and I hoped to make a new start in a familiar old place.

The lively downtown that I remembered so well had vanished. The Chief Theater — gone. The Antlers Hotel — gone. The splendid Victorian buildings that once lined Pikes Peak, Colorado, Cascade and Nevada avenues — gone. They had been replaced by parking lots or dismal office buildings apparently designed by architects trained in the Soviet Union. Businesses large and small had either closed or moved east to Academy Boulevard, following the rooftops.

But, I was assured, downtown was on its way back! We'd have a new symphony hall, maybe a sports arena, and the owners of those parking lots were ready to break ground any day, and pull gleaming new buildings out of the ground. Enduring prosperity was on its way! Just hold on, boy, and you can be part of it!

Thirty years later downtown has endured, neither prospering nor collapsing. Parking lots multiplied, bars and clubs replaced retailers and banks, the "new" Antlers Hotel slowly became as bedraggled and outdated as its predecessor, developers unveiled plans for shiny high-rises and promptly went broke/left town/were indicted, and downtown boosters formulated yet another set of plans for downtown's rebirth.

Planned downtown arts districts faltered, the City Auditorium mouldered, and venues such as the Cornerstone Arts Center and Stargazers Theatre drew events away from the city center.

Last weekend, the daily trumpeted a story about a brawl in front of a downtown club. It took 14 cops to control and disperse the angry mob. Arrests were made. It wasn't a big deal — just the latest Friday night fight on Tejon Street.

The next day, downtown was back to normal. Uniformed city enforcers wrote $25 parking tickets, while spare-change beggars staked out prime intersections and harassed pedestrians — especially unaccompanied women.

Ask any downtown retailer, office worker, or shopper what ails downtown these days, and they'll cite the three "P"s: parking meters, panhandlers and peril at night. Fix these problems, and downtown will take off.

Sounds convincing, doesn't it? But maybe not ...

Parking? You can find a perfectly convenient spot in one of the parking structures for less than the price of a meter. Getting hit with a $25 ticket is your fault.

Panhandlers? They're annoying and omnipresent in every city. Get used to them — and if you feel endangered, seek help or call 911.

Peril from partiers? You're just old, that's all! Thousands of people come downtown every weekend to have fun, flirt, drink shots, puke on the sidewalk, and defend their drunken honor. No one's gotten shot lately, so leave it alone, OK?

So who or what do we blame? Why isn't downtown as interesting, diverse, fun and lively as downtown Austin, San Antonio or Oklahoma City, not to mention Boulder or LoDo?

Blame the parking lots.

As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, there's no there there. Downtowns need density and variety, not parking lots. Flat expanses of asphalt attract no one.

And why do we have these vast parking lots in the heart of the city, some of which have been flat and forlorn for half a century? Why haven't property owners built more bars, more restaurants, more clubs, more lofts, more hotels?

Zoning is one reason. Central downtown has high-rise zoning, which has encouraged generations of well-meaning speculators to assemble sites, rip down old buildings, and wait until the market will support a trophy building. Once the buildings are down, it no longer makes financial sense to put up modestly scaled buildings. So you wait ... and wait ... and wait some more.

The solution? Change the zoning, and offer property owners fat incentives to build four- to six-story buildings. Seems simple, but it'll never happen — because, you know, there are giant high-rises on the drawing board right now!

That's what they told me back in 1981, and I want to believe them this time. I'm still trying to get rich ... and this could be my big break.


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