Reworking the old to fit in with the new

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Downtown areas around the country are gearing up for the 21st century. While working to keep old buildings and historic landmarks intact, the electrical systems for each structure must be updated to accommodate modern life.

In downtown Colorado Springs, the same holds true. Several older buildings are being renovated to mixed-use retail and residential properties in an effort to preserve the feel of the city in its old days and to help make the area an increasingly desirable locale for shoppers and residents. Old storefronts are being treated to facelifts as folks start to spend more time on the downtown streets.

The oldest building in the downtown area opened for business on Jan. 1, 1872, said Tim Scanlon, senior planner for the City of Colorado Springs. The building was once the Colorado Springs Hotel and it is at 617 S. Nevada Ave. (it was once on the corner of Pikes Peak and Cascade avenues). The building is now home to Colorado Legal Services.

The Giddings Lofts, at the corner of Tejon and Kiowa streets, were developed by S&R Construction in Colorado Springs. Dan Robertson, president of the company, said preparing the former department store’s electrical system for residential use was not simple.

“We have to completely re-wire all of the units in the lofts,” Robertson said. “It’s like gutting the entire building. All that’s left is the outside.” The building was constructed circa 1898, Robert-son said, and the interior gives hints to its past.

The 10 lofts were custom-built to the buyers’ specifications. Exposed brick gives the loft units an industrial feel, as do the exposed galvanized steel electrical conduits. “It’s pretty rustic looking,” said Bob Urban of Urban Electric, the company that worked on the lofts. The look proved appealing to buyers. “Since they like that industrial look, it works really well,” he said.

The building was renovated in the mid-1980s, Robertson said, and when the electrical work was torn out, he and his crew decided not to patch the gaps left by the previous conduits. If a breaker pops in one unit, the commotion won’t affect other residents, Robertson said.

A “false ceiling,” as Urban called it, was built in each of the units to conceal the wiring overhead. The ceiling was constructed about eight inches below the original, Robertson said.

There are a total of four loft units at the Colorado Springs Music Lofts, 309 N. Tejon St. above the Tejon Street Market. “It’s totally wired for the future,” said A. Scott Long of ASL Properties, the owner of the building. “Everything coming into this building is underground.”

Wiring the building, which was built in 1968, was no easy task, Long said. “It was an electric nightmare.” Seven additional breaker panels were installed to accommodate the loft and retail uses, he said. Each loft has its own video phone and personalized security system. Both the Giddings Lofts and the Music Lofts are equipped with fiber optic wiring.

Contributing to the difficulty of rewiring a downtown building is the fact that work must be done below the surface. “The city utilities downtown are pretty congested& when you’re digging you have to dig around a lot of utilities,” Urban said.

“It’s just tight,” said Jim Thomas, a field engineering supervisor for Colorado Springs Utilities. Nearly all downtown businesses connect to transformers in the alleys to receive electrical power. The alleys are newly paved, Thomas said, and there are fees to cut the asphalt when projects begin downtown.

Folks interested in starting a business must fill out a load data form, said Chuck Sisk, principal engineer for Colorado Springs Utilities.

“That load data form is for us to make sure we have the proper size transformer,” Thomas said. Different businesses have different power needs – a clothing store does not require as much electrical capacity as a bar.

The Rendezvous Lounge on Tejon Street is a new watering hole on the downtown scene. The lounge was once home to the Wilthorn West clothing store. The building was constructed in 1895, said Trey Ohl, project manager at Hammers Construction. Hammers, along with Foster Electric, had a difficult time updating the electrical system for the bar, he said.

“The downtown area is just kind of antiquated electrically,” Ohl said. When digging beneath the pavement to update the wiring, Ohl and his team discovered old conduit that contained wiring linking the city transformer to the building.

The conduit material used dates back to the 1970s and is known as orangeberg, a black fiber material, Thomas said. “It has a tendency to disintegrate over many years,” he said. Encasing the conduit in concrete bolsters the strength of the fibrous material, he added.

The conduit from the city service to the building was “old, old, old,” Ohl said. The old conduits, which Ohl said are all over the downtown area, are made of a “tar-impregnated cardboard” material. “That stuff gets so old and nasty that it can just collapse around the wire,” he said. Foster Electric needed to remove the old wire to make room within the conduit for the larger wire. Installing a new conduit would have cost the owners $10,000 to $15,000, Ohl said.

The site of the Rendezvous Lounge was gutted and a larger electrical panel was installed. “That’s what happens when you turn it into a different use, into a higher electrical use. The electrical panel was so old it wasn’t even worth saving,” Ohl said.

A block north of the lounge is Cold Stone Creamery, an ice cream shop. Craig Whitney, president of Whitney Electric, worked on that property to bring the shop up to date. “The power is kind of tough to plug into in certain cases, but the city has been working to improve the infrastructure as best they can and as fast as they can,” Whitney said. “It’s just that the alley has been paved over so many times.”

Digging beneath the pavement is not a new phenomenon, though, and challenges exist in any construction or renovation project. The downtown area is full of buildings from yesteryear, and preserving what the city already has matters a great deal to Janelle Walston of Walston Group Real Estate Inc.

Walston has worked with Long and Robertson on their loft projects. Saving these old buildings is important because “there aren’t many left,” she said.

– Stephanie.cline@csbj.com