This marks a significant milestone for the long-deferred plan to replace the rundown 1965 structure.
Twenty years ago, a comprehensive master plan for Pikes Peak identified two major priorities for preserving the peak’s natural environment and improving the visitor experience at the summit of “America’s Mountain.” One was to pave the Pikes Peak Highway the entire length and the other was to consolidate all the buildings scattered on the summit into a single multi-functional summit house.
Thanks to a Congressional earmark secured by then – Congressman Joel Hefley, the city funded preliminary planning work for a new summit house. It was thought that construction would begin by 1999, but those hopes were dashed by city’s settlement of a lawsuit with EarthJustice, the legal arm of the Sierra Club.
The terms of the settlement required the city to pave the highway, improve drainage structures and do significant remediation in areas where gravel and water carried off the highway had caused environmental damage. Finishing the work took almost ten years and consumed all surplus revenues from highway tolls and concessions.
The work was nearly completed when Mayor Steve Bach took office in 2011. He immediately directed city staff to move forward with plans for the new summit house.
It was a difficult and time-consuming process. There’s no single “decider” on the mountain, no entity that can move forward without the consent of other important players.
The City of Colorado Springs operates the highway, the summit house, and other concessions on the mountain under the terms of a 30-year lease with the U.S. Forest Service. The mountain above 14,000 feet is a National Historic Site, subject in some respects to the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior. The U.S. Army maintains a high altitude research site in a separate building on the western edge of the summit plain, and Colorado Springs Utilities has a corrugated steel communications structure on the southern edge. The terminus of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, which has operated on the mountain since the 19th century, is on the eastern edge, a short distance from the existing summit house. The Summit House is operated by a private concessionaire, Aramark, which pays the highway enterprise an annual fee of $1 million.
While the Forest Service is the mountain’s nominal landlord and the city has operational authority, a project as significant as a new Summit House cannot move forward without the support of other stakeholders.
The City’s team, lead by Parks, Recreational and Cultural Services Director Karen Palus and longtime highway boss Jack Glavan, has succeeded in that task and put together a credible financing package.
“We’ve already hired an environmental consultant, EDM Inc.,” Palus said. “They’ll partner with a Fort Collins firm, Logan, Simpson.”
The lengthy RFP, soon to be available on the City’s website, may attract national and international attention.
“Everyone will be competing on equal ground,” Palus noted. “Federal contracting regulations forbid us from offering any preferential treatment to local firms. Still, I think most applicants will want to find local partners.”
The peak presents unique challenges in both design and construction. The mountain’s summit is not a granite monolith, but rather a jumbled pile of boulders tied together by permafrost – a rock glacier. Any building must be thermally isolated from the surface to prevent the permafrost from melting and causing the ground to shift. Working at 14,000 feet tests the strength and endurance of construction teams, who will not be able to work during the winter. Building components will need to be assembled in Colorado Springs and transported to the summit, calling for close coordination between architects, engineers and contractors.
“We estimate total project cost at $20 million,” said Palus. Of that, the City has already identified $15 million.
The Highway Enterprise, formally known as “Pikes Peak America’s Mountain”, has $5 million in available funds to apply toward the project.
“That includes a $1 million bonus payment from Aramark, which we received when they exercised the renewal option on their contract,” said Glavan. “We also had a record-breaking number of visitors this year, and that has really helped.”
The Army is contributing $2.5 million and Colorado Springs Utilities will kick in $500,000. An additional $1 million will come from the Lodging and Automobile Rental Tax (LART) in four annual payments. The first $250,000 has already been committed, but subsequent installments are dependent upon City Council approval. Finally, the enterprise will seek Council approval to issue approximately $6 million in revenue bonds, secured by yearly toll and concession revenue.
That will leave about $5 million to be raised from other sources, such as private individuals, businesses and foundations. Palus is optimistic.
“We’re starting to have those conversations,” said Palus. “We’re seeing that there’s interest, so we’re moving forward.”
Palus anticipates that the project will attract attention, despite its low-key release on the city’s website.
“We’ve had 1,200 hits on the Venezia Park RFQ (request for qualifications),” she said. “This is a very big deal. We hope to narrow things down to two or three finalists by April, and choose our design firm by June.”
City staff will be aided in the selection process by a stakeholder’s advisory committee which will also include two members of the Park Board, John Maynard and Ron Ilgen. It’s not a normal city project, however.
“One difference is that we have to follow Park Service and National Forest Service design guidelines,” said Palus. “Those guidelines recommend that structures in National Parks and National Historic Sites be in the ‘American Rustic’ tradition. It’s also important that we offer visitors an opportunity to experience the mountain. So we have to figure out how to make it a really engaging experience.”
Palus hopes to have both the architect and general contractor on board by this summer and start work in 2016, with completion scheduled in 2018.
Local architects and contractors may welcome the news that the project is finally on track.
“That’s great news!” said Stuart Coppedge, a principal in RTA Architects, located in downtown’s historic Hibbard Building. “We look forward to replying to the RFP.”