Looking for common ground on sidewalks downtown 

click to enlarge What Olson says an 'activated' Pikes Peak Avenue would look like. - COURTESY BUSSANICH~KJELDSEN, ART, LTD
  • Courtesy Bussanich~Kjeldsen, Art, Ltd
  • What Olson says an 'activated' Pikes Peak Avenue would look like.

Thirty-eight-year-old Charles Raney says he hangs outside the downtown 7-Eleven on the corner of Tejon Street and Pikes Peak Avenue every day. And that's exactly where he is on a recent sunny Thursday afternoon.

Wearing dark-lens sunglasses and an oversized Carhartt coat, Raney is quick to insist he's not one of "the crazies."

But he is upset.

"I'm going to try to wait it out," he says of Colorado Springs' recently passed ban on sitting, kneeling, reclining or lying down upon sidewalks such as the one he's currently occupying.

"But I guess at some point I might have to leave," he adds. "That's what they want, right?"

Next to him, Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States is cracked open on the lap of 20-year-old Aleister Smith. He's half doing his homework, half socializing.

Smith says he began sleeping on the streets around a year ago when he came out as lesbian to his Catholic parents. They wouldn't have it. Now, he identifies as transgender and doesn't consider that home his anymore.

"People who have homes just don't want to see us who don't," he observes. He goes to school and occasionally visits the various service providers nearby, but feels like he can't really stick around those places all day.

So that's why Smith is here, sitting on the sidewalk outside 7-Eleven on Thursday afternoon.

As he puts it: "I mean, I don't really have anywhere else to go."

The Pedestrian Access Act (or so-called "sit-lie ordinance"), which City Council enacted on Feb. 9, was, in fact, designed to clear the sidewalk where Raney, Smith and the rest of their cohort sit day in and day out.

The rationale is that more people will shop downtown if the sidewalks aren't so cluttered with, you know, other humans.

According to the preamble of the law, "the surface of a public sidewalk is primarily intended to be used for passage of pedestrians."

When people sit on them, they "create a sense of public disorder and deter people from coming to these districts [which] constitutes a threat to the public health, safety and general welfare and to the districts' economic vitality."

Hence, the city must prohibit behaviors that clog the arteries of commerce.

Although there has been some dispute as to the exact provenance of the local law, proponents have expressed concern for businesses with storefronts to safeguard.

A version of the ordinance was penned by the law firm of local hotelier Perry Sanders, who owns the Mining Exchange Hotel and the Antlers hotel downtown.

"The complaint I hear all the time is that just average citizens who go there to shop, women and children especially, are intimidated when they have to weave through a pack," he tells the Independent, describing the impetus for the proposal.

"So I had an associate at my firm look into it," he says, "but [the proposed ordinance] wasn't created fresh by our office. We basically just cobbled together statutes from other communities that withstood scrutiny in the courts, then gave that to local business owners, City Council and the mayor."

In a September 2015 Gazette article, the mayor disputed that Sanders pitched him the ordinance. Rather, Suthers insisted, the city attorney's office had drafted the ordinance, which bears similarity to Sanders' in that they're both nearly identical to a similar "sit-lie" statute passed in Denver.

Sanders says he hasn't seen the final ordinance that's now law, but is unequivocal on one point: "Look, people shouldn't be lying down on these concrete sidewalks meant for walking. It's just inappropriate.

"But what a lot of people need is a helping hand, not a warm jail cell. I do not in any way, shape or form support criminalizing homelessness."

Local landscape architect and urban planner John Olson (who writes a column for the Independent's IndyBlog) sees the potential for a happy medium of uses for downtown's sidewalks.

They are, he says, a "missed opportunity," too narrow and not properly "activated."

Outside the lexicon of urban planning, "activated" may seem a strange description for a sidewalk.

Basically, Olson, a former member of the Colorado Springs Urban Renewal Authority and Downtown Review Board, means that downtown sidewalks aren't lively enough.

But he admits that striking the right balance of activities to enliven those sidewalks can be tricky.

"We don't want people laying all over the place," he says, "but we do need people to want to hang out and linger. It's critical to the health of downtown."

Olson recalls an experiment in 2012 in which he and other so-called urban interventionists from around town took over Pikes Peak Avenue between Tejon Street and Nevada Avenue.

The block has an incredible view of Pikes Peak, he says, but is so vehicle-centric that people don't stick around long enough to really enjoy it.

So for one afternoon the interventionists launched an experiment in "tactical urbanism," transforming the block into a pedestrian zone full of people chatting, playing music and participating in all sorts of other unusual activities, such as rhythmic ball bouncing and partner yoga.

The corner of Pikes Peak and Tejon, of course, is home of the 7-Eleven that's notorious for whatever undesirable qualities being a popular homeless hangout carries.

But that afternoon, Olson sensed none of the usual discomfort or disdain. "Because we brought life there, the problem seemed to vanish," he claims. "The perception of danger just went away."

Olson is optimistic that a creative approach would allow both public and private interests to coexist peacefully downtown.

"We try to police certain activities and tell people where they can and cannot be," he explains.

"But if we focused more on activating spaces, suddenly the tension just fades away, and it's not a big deal."

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