Taking it from the top 

City Sage

Three weeks ago, Dick Celeste and the U.S. Olympic Museum Board of Directors unveiled preliminary architectural renditions of the downtown Museum and Hall of Fame. Last Friday, City Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services director Karen Palus announced the selection of RTA Architects as the architect of record for the new Pikes Peak Summit Complex.

It's amazing that these projects are moving forward now after decades of false starts and dashed hopes. In different ways, they had come to symbolize the city's own melancholy dysfunction.

The notion that an Olympic Hall of Fame/Museum should be located in Colorado Springs dates from the 1970s, when the U.S. Olympic Committee first came to town. A semi-serious attempt was made in 1986 to build one on land donated for the project by Banning-Lewis Ranch promoter Frank Aries, but the deal collapsed soon after, along with the local economy.

Twenty years later, when the Colorado Springs city government fashioned a multimillion-dollar retention package for the USOC, an Olympic Museum was a subject of discussion. Nothing much happened until an informal cabal of powerful business, political and nonprofit leaders headed by the formidable Celeste adopted the project and made it the centerpiece of the City for Champions project. Tens of millions have been raised privately to support its construction, while city and state taxpayers will contribute the tens of millions required for associated infrastructure.

The gestation of the Summit House project has been even longer. The existing 1965 structure was compromised months after it opened, thanks to incompetent engineering. Its builders apparently didn't realize that the summit of Pikes Peak is not a solid hunk of granite, but a "rock glacier," tumbled boulders held in place by permafrost. Heat from the Summit House melted the permafrost, the building foundation shifted and the suddenly junky structure was already an expensive liability.

But no one suggested building anew. The building was designed for the needs of commerce. It provided shelter, restrooms, donuts and overpriced souvenirs to summit visitors — now nearly 600,000 annually. The city operated the highway and leased the Summit House to concessionaires. Highway tolls and lease payments provided enough revenue to keep the highway open, making the area's No. 1 visitor attraction easily accessible.

By the mid-1990s, many residents became increasingly dismayed by the lackadaisical stewardship of America's Mountain. Gravel washing from the Pikes Peak Highway had destroyed hundreds of acres of tundra and forestland, while the summit experience was at best dismal. A long, citizen-driven planning process prioritized paving the highway and building a new complex at the top. Plans were drawn up for a new building, but a Sierra Club lawsuit forced the city first to pave the highway and rebuild drainage structures.

That process took 10 years. Soon after Mayor Steve Bach took office in 2011, I approached him and suggested that he restart the Summit House project. Bach asked for more information, so former El Paso County Commissioner Jim Bensberg and I put together a brief feasibility study.

Bach threw his support behind the project, and he put Palus in charge.

As we had predicted, it wasn't easy. Many powerful players have interests on the Peak, including the Forest Service, the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Army, Colorado Springs Utilities, Aramark (the current concessionaire) and the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. For the Summit House complex to become reality, they all have to be aboard — and now they are, thanks to Palus.

After 3½ years, it was deeply satisfying to hear RTA's Stuart Coppedge share his vision for the project.

"This is an architect's dream," said Coppedge. "This is a career-defining job. I want to emphasize that the new Summit Complex will be designed right here in Colorado Springs ... to be able to serve our city on the mountain we all love is an honor and means the world to us at RTA."

Unlike an Olympic Museum, a national facility shallowly rooted in Colorado Springs, Pikes Peak defines our city. What we do with it defines us — and we're slowly correcting the mistakes of the past. In a few years, the summit mess will be gone, replaced by a building worthy of the mountain. We'll all have a voice in its design, thanks to a soon-to-be-launched public process.

Most of the funding is in place, but private contributions will be sought. And don't worry — they're not selling naming rights!


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