Preparing Colorado Springs for World-Class Status

Downtown Colorado Springs and the area immediately around it are undergoing a sequence of urban infill projects that will give the city a new identity. Needless to say, growth inspires cultural transformation, to include greater expectations. Colorado Springs might soon be joining the ranks of world-renowned cities. This means that its residents should assess this impending sea change and then voice their opinions on development strategies in a resonant chorus that will better shape their future in the most appealing manner possible. The following discussion speaks to two related topics. It first explains the key changes taking place in the downtown area. Then, it suggests strategies to consider throughout the process.

Any conversation on urban infill should begin with living space, which has been a thorny issue for Springs residents for several decades. Demand for apartment space is high, with a recent vacancy rate of 5.3% and the average rent hovering at around $850 per month. In fact, the core downtown area hadn’t seen apartment complex construction since 1960, but this has just changed. At least four apartment complexes will be fully operational within a few years, and one is already up and running. Blue Dot Place, a four-story, 33-unit apartment building southwest of Nevada Avenue and Costilla Street, has started renting one- and two-bedroom apartments for anywhere from $1,100-$1,850 per month. Darsey Nicklasson and Kathy Loo, the project organizers, are literally and figuratively breaking ground in an area that has been unpopular for investment. They know this type of expansion is necessary in addressing the city’s future needs. People all across the country are moving back into urban centers, and they are demanding the features that Blue Dot Place offers, like an enclosed parking garage, a dog run, housekeeping services, and a retail coffee shop on the ground floor.

Meanwhile, Nor’wood Development Group and Griffis/Blessing Inc. are developing two downtown apartment buildings. One, a 169-unit structure at the southwest corner of Colorado and Wahsatch Avenues (across the street from El Taco Rey), will open in late 2017. The other, a 187-unit building on the corner of Rio Grande Street and Cascade Avenue (between Shuga’s and SouthSide Johnny’s), is in the planning phase as well. Both will be five stories and include underground parking, courtyards with a western view, pools, hot tubs, fitness and business centers, high-speed WiFi in the commons areas, and so on. One- and two-bedroom apartments will range from $1,000 to over $1,800 per month.

Just west of downtown on the other side of Interstate 25, All Pro Capital Inc. should be breaking ground this spring on a 46-unit apartment building called 22 Spruce. The complex will include a fitness center, coffee bar, underground parking, and a rooftop gathering place with a fire pit and barbecue. This section of town is already evolving, as evidenced by the fashionable restaurant and craft bar 503W. It’s likely that this neighborhood will become a popular extension of the core downtown area within a few years, a go-to entertainment spot for tourists and locals alike, especially given the reconstruction of the Interstate 25 and Cimarron Street interchange, which will also facilitate the westward expansion of downtown culture.

downtown map

The two key areas of expansion and renovation in or near downtown Colorado Springs. (Credit: Jeff Cleek)

Declaring areas blighted pays off, too. The Colorado Springs City Council just designated 100 acres of the South Nevada area between Interstate 25 and East Cheyenne Road an urban renewal site. The goal is to transform a seedy, dangerous conduit between downtown and southern Colorado Springs into an attractive retail and residential community. Property and sales tax revenues created by new development would finance public improvements along and near the corridor. Changes would include broad sidewalks, buried power lines, and attractive homes and rentals along Cheyenne Creek. Some developers have even proposed a 25-unit, three-story complex near the former Ivywild School south of downtown, which is a diverse commercial center.

To return to the immediate downtown area, the U.S. Olympic Museum, one of four City for Champions projects, should open in early 2018 at the intersection of Vermijo Avenue and Sierra Madre Street. This means Vermijo will probably become an active mixed-use business corridor gliding down a gentle slope to the museum. A pedestrian bridge arching over intersecting railroad tracks will connect the museum to America the Beautiful Park, which will then become the gateway to the city’s urban center.

The development of another City for Champions project, a sports and events center near the Olympic Museum, depends on whether wealthy investors, not taxpayers, foot the bill. Development of a light industrial area southwest of Colorado and Cascade Avenues has stalled for years, and this is the very area where the Olympic Museum will sit. Thus, Nor’wood just proposed a new plan that would allow smart, incremental development over several years, starting with this area being declared blighted, just like the south Nevada Avenue corridor. A feasibility study might well determine the events center’s fate. The Colorado Economic Development Commission has agreed to earmark $120.5 million in state sales tax revenue for City for Champions, on the condition that construction  begins by December 2018. The clock is ticking.

The sum of these parts can’t be accurately measured without community input. Consider the next phase of this discussion a wish list, planning guideline, stimulus for debate, or anything else that might inspire civic interest. Starting with what doesn’t work makes sense. Ask most downtown Colorado Springs business owners what drives their business away, and they’ll tell you parking meters and the homeless. Cities like Salem, Oregon don’t have parking meters in the downtown area. As a result, people relax, stay longer, spend more money, and feel good about being a part of their surroundings. It’s hard to say if Colorado Springs city planners will ever get this, but they should at least ensure free parking for the area west of Cascade as they develop it over the next several years, especially given that this project will nearly double the size of the downtown area.

The planners should also design most of this downtown extension as a pedestrian mall with broad sidewalks, a trolley, bikeshare stations, and big parking lots at each end. Art installations created by local artists should catch the eye from striking vantage points, and anchor stores and local shops should share an equal presence, to include everything from Banana Republic to, say, a high-end thrift store owned and operated by some young local couple. One block should be reserved for art galleries, to include true cooperatives like Gallery 113. A beautiful museum and world-class aquarium would be nice as well. One can only hope that the right people are aiming high.

It’s worth remembering, too, that the homeless people we meet on the sidewalks might be someone’s dispossessed relatives. A fair number of them are war veterans and abused teenagers. Others are broken-hearted souls who, due to some horrible sequence of events, lost those four walls around them that offered protection, and now they’re fighting with all their might to find a way back to safety. Many hear voices and hallucinate.

If Colorado Springs wants to represent itself as a model 21st century city, it should find ways to minimize its homeless problem by ministering to its neediest people in the most effective manner possible. A number of community members make this effort every day, and others are doing some thoughtful research on the subject, to include studying how the state of Utah has had great success in reducing its chronic homeless problem through well-organized, practical, and compassionate measures. To learn how Utah does it, click here.

It’s hard to imagine a city of 450,000 with a downtown area that doesn’t have at least one Walgreens and one grocery store, but remarkably enough, this is the case for Colorado Springs. Trying to understand why won’t serve any useful purpose at this point, but given the thousands of people who will be moving into downtown apartments, townhomes, condos, and lofts over the next decade, this situation must change. A close equivalent to a Walgreens would be fine, but two grocery stores would complement the community especially well, e.g., a pricier Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods and a less-expensive grocery store owned and operated by locals. The new apartments described earlier are comparatively expensive. Most of those who rent them will probably be earning at least $50,000 a year, which would ensure a profitable downtown Walgreens or grocery store. To everyone’s good fortune, Colorado Springs Public Market should be opening this spring at 320 S. Weber, just a few blocks east of the downtown corridor.

Downtown Colorado Springs needs a first-class music venue, too. The Pikes Peak Center is too elegant and tasteful for what most people have in mind in this regard. What’s needed is an ample space where concertgoers can dance, shout, sing, and spill things every so often in a forgiving and sometimes Dionysian environment. There might even be a relatively easy fix, here. Why not restore the City Auditorium to its former glory and book A-List acts from all over the world? The plumbing, seats, and sound could all be upgraded, and the entire auditorium’s appearance could be renovated to look retro-glorious. The Lon Chaney Theater, which is connected to the City Auditorium, should receive an equally thorough makeover. With all this completed, the community would be more willing to support a greater number of theater groups. Ideally, the auditorium and theater organizers could work in tandem as a cutting-edge production company with attitude.

These are just a few topics for consideration, but hopefully they’ll inspire a broader conversation. Americans don’t have much control over who winds up sitting in the Oval Office, but we can usually make a difference at the local level. Colorado Springs is a butterfly about to leave its chrysalis. It deserves our attention. Springs residents owe it to themselves to make their city center the object of everyone’s affection. Most of the stakeholders involved seem to agree on this. Active, open discourse and the willingness to pursue a positive vision of the city’s future will make all the difference.

Photo By: Pedal Dancer