Discarded main streets symptoms of bigger issue

The 1902 Pioneers Museum straddles Tejon Street and Nevada Avenue, two principal thoroughfares in Colorado Springs.

In 1985, Citizens Goals launched “Project 2000,” a community-based effort to find “creative solutions to the challenges affecting our quality of life in the Pikes Peak Region now and into the future.”

The project focused on fears that badly planned and poorly regulated development would degrade the region’s quality of life.

While the lengthy draft report did not make specific recommendations, the citizens and community leaders who helped create it knew what they didn’t want. Under “questions for the future” they asked, “What can be done to ensure that in the future limited-access expressways and arterials do not become another Academy Boulevard?”

Thirty years later, that’s still a valid question. Academy may be the poster child for bad planning, but its creation, growth and ongoing decline did not take place in a vacuum.

Road dogs

The history of Colorado Springs is not entirely one of buildings, businesses, distinguished citizens and thoughtful city improvements. All such things disappear with time, but roads endure.

Photographs of Colorado Springs in its earliest years show a few rickety structures clustered along the dirt tracks that served as roads. The tracks bore grand names; Pikes Peak Avenue, Cascade, Nevada, Huerfano, Bijou and Kiowa. North/south streets were named after mountain ranges, while east/west streets were given the names of Western rivers.

Fast-forward 144 years –— the buildings are gone. The streets remain. General Palmer’s soberly rectilinear street grid endures in the city’s core, but subsequent growth was unconstrained by our founder’s vision. The city spread out to the east and northeast, and road networks expanded to serve a rapidly expanding population.

Since 1950, the city’s population has gone from 45,472 to nearly 450,000, a tenfold increase. In that time, as many as six major arterials have had their time in the sun, serving as the city’s de facto main street. But as young families followed the rising sun to eastern suburbs, developers and businesses abandoned the old for the new. Aging commercial strips lost tenants while city capital improvement dollars flowed to new roads and new neighborhoods.

Avenues of broken dreams

Until the early years of the 20th century, the city’s principal north-south commercial artery was Tejon Street. By 1920, the rise of the automobile drew businesses to North and South Nevada Avenue, then designated as State Highway 85/87. Four lanes within the city, 85/87 was popularly referred to as “the ribbon of death,” a dangerous stretch of two-lane blacktop connecting Colorado Springs to Cheyenne, Wyo.; Denver, Pueblo and Santa Fe, N.M. By the 1940s, Nevada’s bright neon signs illuminated car dealers, bars, pawn shops, motels, drugstores and drive-in restaurants.

But Nevada faded away, bypassed in the late 1950s by the newly opened Interstate 25. Union Boulevard, once the eastern boundary of the city, saw new development, as did Circle and Chelton. The rapid eastward movement of population, symbolized by the opening of Wasson High School in 1959, led to the transformation of the area from rolling plains crisscrossed by gravel roads to sprawling residential suburbs.

As the city’s boundaries moved eastward, development along the southern extension of Highway 83 began to explode. In the late 1950s Highway 83 terminated north of Colorado Springs, where it connected with 85-87. After I-25 was built, Highway 83 was extended south along the city’s eastern boundary and renamed Academy Boulevard in 1966.

Academy quickly became the city’s primary commercial arterial. The accelerating boom of the 1960s and ’70s saw dozens of large-scale developments along Academy, including apartment complexes, shopping centers and big-box retailers. South of Maizeland, the Academy boom peaked with the 1970 construction of The Citadel mall, the city’s first enclosed shopping center.

City planners had once hoped that Academy would be a graceful, high-speed boulevard that would whisk traffic along an eastern bypass — but developers and property owners would have none of it. The market demanded multiple intersections, curb cuts and access points — and the market was in a hurry. So what if unsightly high-tension lines ran right down the middle? So what if there were no sidewalks, no bike lanes and no landscaping? So what if zoning was permissive in the extreme?

Customers didn’t seem to care, probably glad that the tumult of Academy insulated their leafy ’burbs from traffic and commercial intrusion.

But the southern reaches of Academy began to fade in the 1980s, as North Academy became the city’s newest Main Street. The Chapel Hills Mall opened in 1982, to be joined by a Toyota dealership, carpet and furniture retailers, more big boxes, hotels and chain restaurants. Their middle- and upper-middle class customers lived in developments such as Briargate, the vast master-planned residential community annexed to the city in 1982.

Academy north of Woodmen Road continues to attract high-end retailers, restaurants and big box stores, but its brightest days may have passed. There’s a new sheriff in town.

Powers Boulevard

In 1964, Colorado Springs designated the Powers Boulevard corridor as part of the “major thoroughfare plan.” The route ran through a rural landscape so distant from the city that residents of the area could barely make out the city lights after dusk. Eighteen years later, the county and city jointly created the Powers Boulevard Task Force, which was supposed to ensure that Powers wouldn’t become the next Academy, and might even become that long-sought high-speed north-south commuter highway.

Those goals remain unrealized, although Powers is a far better commuter route than Academy. Landowners along the corridor wanted development opportunities, while developers and homeowners near the northern sections of Powers wanted national-level shopping and recreational opportunities. Moreover, much of the construction of Powers depended upon close cooperation among the city, the state, the county and developers such as Nor’wood and La Plata Development.

Nor’wood’s First and Main Town Center, which opened in 2000, signaled the coming of age of Powers Boulevard. Seeking to avoid the rapid obsolescence of traditional malls and shopping centers, the developers tried to create a “sense of place,” not just a congeries of featureless big-box retailers. “First & Main is a vision of the future of shopping,” according to Nor’wood’s website, “with a town center at the core. [Sponsoring] events such as the annual free summer concerts and farmer’s markets, First & Main continues to be an integral part of this great community.”

Can First & Main and other Powers retailers escape the fate of The Citadel, of the fading Chapel Hills Mall and of the now-vanished neon districts of North and South Nevada? Or will Powers become yet another boulevard of broken dreams, fading away as Marksheffel Boulevard rises to the east?

If the past is any guide, Powers is doomed. Growth, expansion and change are in our regional DNA. We may preach infill, but we practice outfill, so antelope beware! Sooner or later, Colorado Springs is coming.