Downtown on it's Way Up
Investors take steps toward a more vibrant city core
This artist rendering of the alley improvement plans shows the alley behind the Cascade Avenue parking garage, which is the first slated for improvement.
“Downtown is on the move,” Mayor Steve Bach tells Colorado Springs Style.
Just a year ago, the talk about downtown was dominated by worries about crime and panhandling, and those problems certainly haven’t gone away.
But a new economic momentum seems to be gathering that goes beyond talk and planning rhetoric. Several investors are betting that the downtown renaissance has arrived. They know it’ll be a rough road, but their investments certainly give us reason to believe that downtown is moving from talk and planning to tangible action.
Susan Edmondson, the new president and CEO of the Downtown Partnership, has lived in the Springs for over 20 years, long enough to remember many of the city’s missteps, and she’s been involved in some of the civic planning initiatives that have come and gone, some bearing fruit, some not.
The most recent input about downtown came from outsiders: An Urban Land Institute panel, headed by former Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut, echoed many of the former initiative findings that we should have more downtown housing, a greater leveraging of the Olympic presence and better use of green space.
We have had no shortage of ideas, and Edmondson welcomes them, even the ones we’ve danced around for decades. But, like many downtown boosters, she’s impatient for action.
“It may sound cheesy, but the key to downtown is people,” she says.
People in lofts, offices, shops, restaurants and on the street.
The Parking Enterprise group is launching an alley improvement program, one that will use stamped (faux brick) concrete and strings of lights to encourage people and businesses to take advantage of downtown’s ample alley space. It would build on the little urban byways, like the one between Cascade Avenue and Tejon Street off Bijou Street, where the Modbo and S.P.Q.R. galleries have created a bit of a scene. The first one will be one block north of that, beside the Cascade parking lot.
“It’s about the pedestrian experience,” Edmondson says. “What’s happening at the street level.”
Another key component of downtown’s revitalization must be the arts, she says, which we can see around us with 11 new pieces from the U.S. Bank Art on the Streets program. She also recently hired a creative district manager to expand downtown’s First Friday gallery walk and build other arts events.
But few downtown arts ideas are more ambitious than those of Perry Sanders Jr. The Louisiana attorney whose year-old downtown Mining Exchange, a Wyndham Grand Hotel, recently earned a four-diamond rating from AAA, is currently remodeling the former Utilities building across the alley from the hotel to house The Gold
Room, a live entertainment venue and recording studio – like a local House of Blues.
“When you love a community, like we have grown to love Colorado Springs, it only makes sense to put your energy into helping bring out the best of what you see in it,” Sanders says. “From an artist’s standpoint, this place has the potential to be a sort of a high-altitude Austin. That is where we are focusing our efforts. Thanks to all the people who have pioneered the way for Colorado Springs to have become as neat as it is, and here’s to those of us who are reaping the benefits and trying to help a little ourselves. It’s about as much fun as you can have to get to embrace and be embraced by a city like this.”
Another new transplant, Darsey Nicklasson, agrees. She’s planning to build 30 to 40 boutique apartments on the south side of downtown.
“There’s strong demand, across the United States, for a more urban lifestyle,” she says. “It hasn’t caught on here yet, but people who are moving here want it.
“We’ve been talking about how everybody’s coming out on the other side of the recession,” she says. “It’s time to prove it. Instead of waiting for somebody else to do it, maybe I can do this. We don’t need a big catalyst.”
Those who are waiting for a catalyst can take their pick:
• The Gazette’s plan to move from Prospect Street to Tejon.
• Phantom Canyon’s expansion.
• Gasoline Alley’s renovation.
• The energy company Kinder Morgan signing a new 20-year lease for its downtown facilities.
• Trolley advocates attempting to buy land downtown.
Mayor Bach, meanwhile, is seeking an $82 million state tourism grant for, among other things, a multi-use stadium that would house the Sky Sox and a U.S. Olympics museum.
“We’re having more and more events downtown, like the Olympics Celebration,” Bach says. “We’re expecting that the Colorado Department of Transportation will be rebuilding the I-25 and Cimarron interchange, which is a gateway to downtown. There’s a lot of excitement building downtown and several residential and retail developers are looking at projects, so I think that we’re right on the edge of a real renaissance.”