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Trying to save Academy Boulevard 

From the 1970s to the end of the century, Academy Boulevard reigned as the thriving, throbbing "eastern aorta" of Colorado Springs.

The artery handled huge volumes of traffic, as many as 100,000 cars a day through some intersections even in the 1990s (and still today), serving as the city's best non-freeway, north-south thoroughfare. It had malls and other shopping areas, restaurants and supermarkets and all kinds of other commerce.

It still does, in places. But much of the Academy corridor has gone downhill in the past six years. Not just a slow slide, but in some areas, a freefall.

Today, large chunks of Academy especially south of Maizeland Road are suffering, victimized by the rapid rise of Powers to the east, relocation of businesses, growing commercial vacancies and general deterioration.

Now, Colorado Springs is beginning to pay more attention. This week, planners presented a study to City Council describing Academy's affected areas, particularly the six-mile stretch from Maizeland south to Drennan Road.

This study was more about identifying the problem than solving it. Obviously, its conclusions are not earthshaking news to anyone familiar with Academy.

"This is a validation of what this council already had feelings about, but didn't have numbers to back it up," councilor Margaret Radford said.

Some of the facts and numbers are chilling: Rustic Hills North is 80 percent vacant. Rustic Hills South, a successful mall with national stores into the 1990s, is almost a mausoleum. Mall of the Bluffs, once a mecca, is on the verge of redevelopment. Citadel Crossing, after losing a handful of chain stores, is half-empty.

Here's another nasty nugget: The areas along and around that ribbon of Academy account for 34 percent of all crime reports in Colorado Springs, and 38 percent of all the violent crime. Granted, those statistics are heavier south of Platte Avenue, but it's not exactly a safe haven to the north, either.

What happened? As shopping developments began exploding on Powers, chain stores such as Best Buy, Hobby Lobby and TJ Maxx left Academy. Also, closings such as Albertsons and Longs Drugs have been damaging.

Some may wonder if the migration from Academy might have gone differently if Powers had been built as a bypass expressway, as people with vision were pleading for during the '70s. But it's too late for hand-wringing now.

After all, Academy isn't a total disaster. Planners are more optimistic about the corridor north of Austin Bluffs, where established neighborhoods still can support plenty of commerce. Farther north, Academy from Woodmen Road to Interstate 25 is clearly an overdeveloped mess, but that hasn't stopped more and more businesses from filling every available space, and it hasn't deterred the masses from flocking, regardless of the traffic.

There's also the Citadel Mall, which has endured. Renovations have helped, and it's nice to have Macy's, Dillard's, JC Penney and Burlington Coat Factory as anchors.

But city leaders know they cannot sit back and be spectators any longer, or Academy will continue its downward spiral. As city planner Andy Firestine notes, studies as recently as 2001 hadn't found cause for alarm.

Today, alarms are clanging up and down Academy. The city's concern includes watching to see whether the new Penrose-St. Francis Hospital on Powers might be detrimental to Penrose Community Hospital on the west edge of Village Seven.

What's the plan? Council members are directing staff to check out success stories of other cities bringing back areas from decline. They're talking about incentives, as Jan Martin emphasized, not only for businesses filling those vacant spots, but also to prevent others from moving off Academy.

They'd like for the Chamber of Commerce to make this a pet project. Councilman Jerry Heimlicher is saying, "We could ask the chamber to take this on and help come up with a plan to reinvigorate or sustain some of these corridors."

The city already has been working to revitalize other troubled pockets such as South Nevada Avenue, East Platte-North Circle and much of Fillmore Street.

All those areas are important. But though Academy Boulevard might never be the "eastern aorta" again, it has to be a high priority.

If not the highest.

routon@csindy.com

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