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Who will fight for old downtown? 

City Sage

How do neighborhoods grow, change and evolve? That depends on a lot of factors, but one thing is clear — absent committed, engaged residents who want to preserve, enhance and protect the places they call home, aging neighborhoods are up for grabs.

Neighborhoods can be threatened by static or dynamic change, by sudden growth, slow deterioration or gradual changes in use.

In Colorado Springs, two historic neighborhoods were under siege and a third virtually destroyed later in the 20th century. A fourth may be threatened by destructive change. Today's Old North End is a pricey fortress of historic preservation, a tranquil and beautiful neighborhood defended both by city preservation ordinances and a powerful neighborhood organization.

It wasn't always thus. During the Depression, several stately mansions on Cascade Avenue were vacant and apparently abandoned, spooky playgrounds for neighborhood kids. Even as postwar prosperity ignited growth and change in the city, the North End lagged, its dilapidated homes flanked by once-splendid mansions turned into shabby apartment buildings. Dynamic institutions such as Penrose Hospital and Colorado College sought to expand into the neighborhood, and it became clear in the 1950s that North Enders needed to band together.

That association has evolved into the Old North End Neighborhood (ONEN), a powerful nonprofit that has checked the expansionist appetites of the college and the hospital, stabilized neighborhood land use, achieved listing on the National Register of Historic Places and mitigated traffic impacts along Nevada Avenue.

The Westside, a sprawling, diverse neighborhood trisected by Highway 24, Colorado Avenue and Uintah Street, is a city unto itself. Much of its built landscape was constructed between 1880 and 1914, before Colorado City was annexed by Colorado Springs. It includes an entire intact 19th-century commercial district, thousands of residences and lovely neighborhood parks. And although there are scores of elegant Victorian residences on the Westside, it's a working-class neighborhood, historically home to miners, railroad workers, service employees, teachers, newspaper reporters, trolley car conductors and everyone who had to work hard for low wages.

Once the Cripple Creek boom ended, the Westside endured decades of mild stagnation. It was always stable and safe but never rich. By the 1970s the Victorian commercial buildings on Colorado Avenue between 24th and 30th were ready for the wrecking ball. Many buildings were vacant and in an advanced state of disrepair. The city actually floated a plan for tearing down dozens of buildings and erecting factories.

Enter Dave Hughes, a passionate advocate who led a coalition of property and business owners, preservationists, neighbors and city officials that saved, renovated and restored Old Colorado City. Founded in 1978, the Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN) has advocated ever since.

ONEN and OWN won their wars, but preservationists were no match for business, commercial and governmental interests who foolishly combined to destroy much of the city's downtown. We lost the Antlers Hotel, Burns Opera House, the First National Bank building and scores of others in a heedless frenzy of destruction. We learned from that debacle, and today's downtown advocates understand the value of historic structures — witness Perry Sanders' magnificent renovation of the Mining Exchange Building.

But a multi-block neighborhood adjacent to downtown and Colorado College may soon see explosive change. Call it the "Mansion District," roughly bounded by Dale, Cascade, Boulder and Weber, including many significant residential buildings from General Palmer's era, most unprotected by restrictive zoning or historic designation. Nothing prevents developers (or CC) from assembling adjacent properties, ripping down history and building anew, as CC did with Victorians on the east side of Nevada, south of Uintah, where a student housing complex is now under construction.

As for downtown, would you rather live in Chris Jenkins' new apartment complex at Colorado and Wahsatch, or in an equivalent place on Cascade, somewhere between Boulder and Dale?

As downtown's boom continues, the area near north downtown will attract developers. Who in the neighborhood will fight for the past? That's not clear, but we know what will happen if no one does. Color it gone.

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