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Springs pushes to finish the Legacy Loop a century after it was first envisioned 

Closing the Loop

click to enlarge MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper

The staff of Colorado Springs' Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department apparently have an abundance of the rarest virtue of the modern age: patience. Asked what can be done when property for a trail can't be obtained, they are all likely to give the same answer: "Wait."

Karen Palus, the department's director, explains that the city can only work with a willing seller. But, over time, land owners sell land or pass away. Financial situations change. Companies fall. Grants come through. The city, in other words, can sit at the bargaining table for months, years, even decades, waiting for fortune to shine in its direction. Or, in the case of the long-desired 10-mile Legacy Loop trail, about 106 years. And counting.

Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum Director Matt Mayberry notes that the first true mention of a trail resembling the Legacy Loop — also referred to as "the emerald necklace" — was in the first professionally documented city plan for Colorado Springs, drafted in 1912. However, the Loop is widely regarded as the brainchild of city founder Gen. William Jackson Palmer, who died in 1909.

"You cannot understand Colorado Springs and the parks system without understanding Palmer's passion for parks," Mayberry says.

Cripple Creek was founded around gold mines. Pueblo was formed around its steel mill. But beautiful Colorado Springs' selling points were its scenic beauty, agreeable climate and outdoor opportunities. The city flag, in fact, has a green frame surrounding a mountain scene — the frame could be interpreted to represent the Legacy Loop, Mayberry notes.

Originally, this long-planned trail circled the outside of the city. Now, however, it would loop from southern downtown, up the Pikes Peak Greenway, to railroad tracks just south of Fillmore Street, and then back down Shooks Run through historic neighborhoods like the Old North End and Patty Jewett.

The city sees the Loop as many things: an economic driver, a needed connection for commuters, a way to link neighborhoods, a place for safe family fun, a route for races and events, and a way to improve health and quality of life.

When it's done, city plans call for the Loop to be a "Tier I" trail: 10- to 12-foot-wide concrete, with a 4-foot gravel shoulder. Britt Haley, who manages the city's dedicated Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) fund and oversees the Loop project, notes that style of trail costs about $1 million per mile. Where possible, the trail will go under or over roads, following creeks and old railroad lines.

The vast majority of the trail is in place — though some of it needs improvement — but the Loop still has gaps on its northern (Rock Island Trail) and southern (Shooks Run Trail) ends that continue to cause headaches, expense and uncertainty.

Chris Lieber, the city's former TOPS manager, now a principal at NES Landscape Architects, knows those sections well. He worked for the Parks Department in one position or another from 1997 to 2017, and says that as far as he knows, renewed interest in the Loop — and those two tricky sections — began in 1983.

"I like to say the easy stuff has all been done," he says. "The sections that are left are challenging."

Early on, attempts to build the Loop in those two sections were unproductive. But in 2013, when the city was putting together its 2014 updated parks master plan, it again prioritize the Loop. After that, Lieber saw deals formed and negotiations opened that had been stalled his entire career. Recently, stylized wayfinding signs — bought with the help of donors — were even placed along the route, though some are temporary.

The sudden momentum has led to bigger hopes. Mayor John Suthers has said that he would like to have the Loop completed by 2021, the 150th anniversary of the city's founding.

"I fully support our Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department in their prioritization of the Legacy Loop project," the mayor wrote in an email to the Independent. "The Legacy Loop project builds on General William Jackson Palmer's original vision for Colorado Springs as the greatest city in the West. His dream was of a vibrant, livable city with a connection between its residents and our parks, open space and trails. The Legacy Loop project is about connecting people to their city and one another along with creating recreation, transportation and economic development opportunities."

But the project still has a long way to go, and it needs money. Haley notes that Phase I of the Loop project, which doesn't even include the tricky southern gap in the trail, has only $4.6 million of the $16 million needed — despite the city tapping grants, developer fees, TOPS funds, Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority money and other limited sources. Of the $1.5 million 2018 TOPS trail budget, over $905,000 is allocated for the Loop.

Still, it's likely that a much larger sum than $16 million will be needed to complete that work. The Parks Department has lately seen its actual costs double from projections due to skyrocketing construction costs. The Legacy Loop Plaza, for instance, a staging area along the trail, ended up costing more than double its $350,000 estimate, and that was without many of its planned components.

Tilah Larson, Parks Department senior analyst, says the city has also exhausted traditional grant sources. In 2015, the city was awarded a $1 million Great Outdoors Colorado (Colorado Lottery) grant; in 2017, a $35,000 Rails to Trails grant from the Doppelt Family Trail Development Fund; and in April, a $400,000 Colorado Parks and Wildlife State Trails Program.

While she's pursuing federal grants, they're much harder to get. Thus, the city has taken the unusual step of partnering with a nonprofit that can seek private grants for the project.

Christine Lowenberg, the executive director of The Greenway Fund, founded in 2011 with the mission of advancing local waterways, says she's working to attract large private donors and foundations to the project, which is located within an El Paso County Enterprise Zone. But to start that process, she says, Summit Economics is finishing up its economic impact study on the Loop — which will point out its major selling points. Among them, she says, is the fact that a maintained trail adds significantly to a nearby property's value, while a neglected trail can decrease that value. Another is the significant improvements in health for those living near a trail.

But, when it comes to buy-in, there's nothing quite like seeing the Loop. We followed famed local cycling advocate and Loop cheerleader Allen Beauchamp on a tour of the Loop — from its impressively complete sections to the hacked single track that spans missing links. Beauchamp, who has taken scores on the same tour, says, "I have fallen so deeply in love with — I call it being in the loop, the Legacy Loop."

Follow us through a tour of the trail 100-plus years in the making:

Stop 1: The southern gap

click to enlarge MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
click to enlarge MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper

Our journey begins where the Shooks Run Trail dead-ends in a wooded area at the mouth of two massive, historic arch tunnels. This is a good place to start our tour, because it is, by far, the most vexing challenge of the entire Loop project. The gap between the end of Shooks Run Trail and the Pikes Peak Greenway is the stuff of planners' nightmares.

There's the private land, the stormwater and stream restoration challenges, and the need to cross busy, narrow Las Vegas Street. To top it all off, any trail would also need to cross bermed, busy railroad tracks that are owned by one railroad and leased by another.

Railroads are notoriously difficult for cities to drive bargains with. Lieber notes that they have their own interests to protect, most importantly liability. Any time you put people next to active railroad tracks, risk increases.

For many years, Lieber says, the railroads weren't interested in talking, so the city didn't focus much on pursuing other parts of the gap. "It's kind of a chicken and egg situation," he says. "Until you can figure out with the railroad where a crossing can occur it doesn't really make any sense to buy property on either side."

That's recently changed. The city has begun negotiations with the Denver & Rio Grande Western (which owns the tracks) and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (which operates and maintains them). The city hopes to get approval to tunnel the trail under its bermed tracks.

Railroads normally require plans and engineering to be 90 percent vetted before considering them. Palus notes the companies have been working with plans that are 30- to 50-percent vetted. "That's really good news for us in terms of being able to get in there sooner," she says.

But even if a tunnel gains approval, it may require the city to build a detour track for use during construction, an extremely expensive proposition. And, while Haley doesn't know the price of a tunnel yet, she cites a recent project that put a trail tunnel under railroad tracks in Longmont that cost $3.2 million.

Others see more complications. Lee Milner, an open-space advocate, says he's concerned that the current at-grade railroad crossing near the southern gap, on South Royer Street, is scheduled to close in summer 2019. (A new crossing up the road will replace it.) While severely humped and unsafe, the crossing has long been used by cyclists, pedestrians and vehicles. If it closes, and a tunnel isn't approved, there will be nowhere for the trail to connect, he notes.

And that's just the railroad issues. The southern gap also has two private properties to cross. The first, 5.7 acres of golden short-grass prairie that borders Shooks Run near the Lowell neighborhood, is known as "the Doxey property" in reference to Tom Doxey, who long owned the land and stored materials for his Doxey Paving company here until 2001. (Interesting side fact: Doxey and his wife Carol also ran the Apple Shed Mercantile — home of the World's Largest Rocking Chair — for many years in their hometown of Penrose.) The Indy spoke to Doxey in the year before his 2015 death about the property, which had become overrun with homeless campers and trash dumpers. Doxey said dumpers had cut his fences and even moved concrete blocks weighing thousands of pounds in order to gain entrance to his property.

The other property, 11.2 wooded acres that Beauchamp cheerfully calls "the enchanted forest," was passed around a bit as well, but was once owned by the KOA company.

Nowadays, homeless campers still have tents on both properties, which were recently purchase by an LLC associated with the John E. and Margaret L. Lane Foundation. The foundation, which also runs the former Helen Hunt Elementary School's nonprofit campus, didn't return calls seeking comment, but lists the Legacy Loop on its website under "Our Portfolio." City officials say the foundation remains open to discussion of a trail connection.

Stop 2: The Pikes Peak Greenway

During Lieber's time, the Greenway was improved and linked. This section of the trail stands complete and Loop-ready.

Stop 3: The Loop meets the Midland Trail

click to enlarge J. ADRIAN STANLEY
  • J. Adrian Stanley

When the Colorado Department of Transportation completed the $115 million Interstate 25-Cimarron Street interchange in October, it also unveiled Tier I trail connecting the city's Midland Trail — which runs from America the Beautiful Park to Manitou Springs — to the Pikes Peak Greenway. A pedestrian bridge from the park, across the rail-yard to downtown, has been planned as part of the U.S. Olympic Museum project.

Stop 4: Building a better downtown connection

The city wants to add better connections to the trail here for the Boulder Crescent neighborhood and downtown. From here, Loop riders can cross to the west side of the creek. The trail there is mostly gravel now, but the city plans to put in a Tier I trail. The west side of the creek was chosen for the Loop for many reasons, but one was crowding. The section of the Greenway that runs by Monument Valley Park is the city's busiest slice of urban trail, and saw some 300,000 visitors last year.

Stop 5: The proposed Mesa Street underpass

It's currently in design, and the city plans at least one underpass here, though they could be installed on either side of the creek. The major deciding factor is likely federal regulations governing water flow.

Stop 6: The Uintah Street underpass

click to enlarge MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper

The Uintah Street underpass on the west side of the trail is currently under construction, and is expected to be done around May's end. The $1.1- to $1.2-million project will eliminate the most dangerous road crossing on this section of trail and make the trail on the western side of the creek more usable.

Stop 7: Mesa Creek crossing

This crossing, in design, will eliminate a sharp turn in the trail where Mesa Creek meets Fountain Creek.

Stop 8: The Legacy Loop Plaza

click to enlarge MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper

Legacy Loop Plaza opened in November. With about 100 parking spaces, bus pull-ins and easy access from I-25, the area is perfect for staging big races and other events. Routes are obvious: A circle along the west and east sides of the Greenway forms a nearly 10K course. Another option is basing a race in America the Beautiful Park, and then looping along both sides of the creek before returning to the park, forming a lollipop shape.

In a second phase — for which there is no timeline yet — plans are to add restrooms, shade areas, and beautifying features to the plaza. Haley explains that originally, the city hoped to complete all those elements in the first phase, but costs increased rapidly.

Stop 9: The Popcycle Bridge

Renovated in 2015, this wide bridge connects the east and west sides of the Greenway and features benches for a quick rest. It also has lane markings that are typically used on streets, allowing kids to practice in a safe space.

Stop 10: The Rock Island Trail

click to enlarge MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper

a) The other tricky gap that's been on the city's list since at least 1983, this narrow passage is home to active Union Pacific railroad tracks. The railroad requires a 25-foot buffer and fence between those tracks and any trail for safety reasons.

But the city couldn't meet that requirement and move forward on a land purchase for many years because a storage building owned by the American Numismatic Association made the configuration impossible. The association didn't want to sell the building without a suitable alternative.

Lieber explains that the city can't offer more than a property is worth, so enticing the association into a sale wasn't an option. Instead, the city helped it find a different property and it finally agreed to sell the old building. Shortly afterward, in October 2015, the railroad sold a sliver of property to the city for $749,400 that will be used for the trail connection.

Currently, many people use a single track that runs through the area to access Shooks Run and the Rock Island Trail.

b) Also missing is a small connector trail between Shooks Run and the current Rock Island Trail, which runs all the way to Powers Boulevard. The city plans to build both of these sections of trail at the same time. Haley says that while it is partially funded, and a part of Phase I, this project's total costs are unknown.

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Stop 11: The Shooks Run Trail

The city has recently fixed damaged sections of Shooks Run Trail, an old railroad corridor that winds through the city's older neighborhoods, sometimes along sidewalks. This trail section has many at-grade street crossings — increasing access to the trail but decreasing safety. It's unlikely that the city can fix this issue.

Beauchamp notes that the Parks Department believes that one day, a creekside trail could be built on this side of the Loop (starting at the end of the Rock Island trail connector) that would form a larger loop with no at-grade crossings. For now, though, that's a pipe dream.

Stop 12: North Shooks Run Park and the "death bed"

click to enlarge MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper

Beauchamp loves the whole area around this park, which was the subject of the recent Envision Shooks Run planning process.

But this park, with its ancient trees and lush grass, is particularly special. It used to border a shantytown, he says, one of the first black neighborhoods in the city. During Jim Crow, Fannie Mae Duncan, owner of the Springs' premier venue, the Cotton Club (open to "everybody"), lived here, Beauchamp says.

There are so many stories. Beauchamp leads the way to an gnarled old tree and points at its base. It takes a while for the eyes to pick out the remains of a rusted old bed frame, grown into the tree. He shares the legend, as he's heard it from neighbors.

"In 1885, there was a big storm one night, I believe it was a Friday night... and there was a large amount of water that came down from the Palmer Park area and was flowing though this area," he says. "And the superintendent of schools of Colorado Springs lived on Yampa and Wahsatch, if I remember correctly. So, there was a ruckus, he went outside, he saw the waters rising up, he tried to get his wife out of the house.

"The last thing he remembered is that she went back up and jumped on a bed, and then he came back out. The house was ripped off its foundation ... and she was swept to her death. They found her body down in Fountain Creek. And her bed frame is buried in the base of this Cottonwood tree."

One wonders how much of a story like that is real and how much is legend. But does it matter? Beauchamp just wants people in this area to know stories like this, and to share them with each other. And Lieber points out, that's one of the best parts about finally closing the Loop.

"When you think about the Legacy Loop, it provides access to so many neighborhoods," he says. "It links and connects so many key locations in our community, and it makes the overall trails system function much, much better."

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