When do you know that a potential downtown development really is moving from the planning stage to breaking ground?
The answer is simple: when the developers start reeling in serious tax breaks.
After discussing the percentages available to the project’s developers, the Downtown Development Authority’s board allowed them to keep 100 percent of the authority levies on the properties for the next 21 years, acceding to the request of Nor’Wood Development Group and Griffis/Blessing.
The developers argued the projects are inherently risky, tapping a market that doesn’t yet exist. They didn’t have to point out the fact that successful downtown revivals in other cities have been ignited and sustained by increasing the number of downtown residents.
The city might already have a vibrant core with people living downtown — except for our downtown’s peculiarities.
For growth and change to happen in historic downtowns, you need an attractive built environment with many underused or vacant buildings, a reasonably vibrant economy, committed political leadership, a predictable means of funding infrastructure and property ownership dispersed in the hands of many.
We lag in all five categories.
Our downtown was once blessed both by iconic structures such as the second Antlers Hotel and the Burns Opera House, as well as scores of lesser buildings — two-, three- and four-story brick commercial buildings that housed hotels, theaters, restaurants, hardware stores and bike shops. Many of those buildings were leveled during an ill-conceived “urban renewal” demolition derby in the ’50s and ’70s, leaving a dreary streetscape of parking lots flanked by medium-rise office buildings.
Planners and property owners imagined that developers would soon pull more high-rises out of the parking lots, creating a dense, vibrant mini-Manhattan
in the Rockies. But 50 years later, the parking lots are still there.
For decades, the downtown economy stagnated, sustained by government workers, banking, traditional retail, cultural attractions, Colorado College and a few large employers. Downtown always seemed on the verge of revival, but it never quite happened — thanks in part to a divisive local political climate.
Suburbanites came to view downtown and downtown residents with scorn and contempt. What was downtown: just a junky, dangerous place full of liberals, bums and criminals? Why would anyone go there, unless they wanted to buy drugs in Acacia Park or pick up a hooker on South Nevada? And why should the city spend tax dollars to pretty it up?
So voters killed plans for a downtown sports arena and forbade the city to even consider a downtown convention center, while public infrastructure investment migrated to the suburbs and elected officials bought into Doug Bruce’s zealous taxophobia.
Yet a few people retained a certain optimism. David Jenkins acquired the Plaza of the Rockies out of foreclosure, renovated it and built the South Tower. The family also acquired much of the land within the southwest downtown urban renewal area. Other developers acquired vacant land in and around downtown.
And while many consider the Jenkinses to be downtown’s saviors, that’s not necessarily the case.
Concentrating real estate ownership in so few hands sterilizes organic development. Entrepreneurs and small businesses flourish when property ownership is dispersed, with small lots and buildings readily available on the market. The big dogs are waiting to step in and make a big score; they’re not interested in selling you a 50-by-190-foot lot so you can build your little brewery.
But organic development is slowly reshaping areas just south of downtown — look at the Blue Dot Apartments and Iron Bird Brewing. Those small developments have awakened the big dogs from their decades-long sleep, leading Blessing and Jenkins to contemplate putting some serious money into downtown.
Can it be that they’re influenced by Perry Sanders, whose bold strategy reminds us that cities are not built by timid investors? W.S. Stratton and Spencer Penrose weren’t afraid of failure, and neither is Blue Dot’s Darsey Nicklasson. And neither is the Olympic Museum’s Dick Celeste, the Peyton Manning of Colorado Springs civic leaders.
So who will be the winners and losers as downtown continues to move from aimless torpor to frenzied boom? As downtown adds businesses, attractions and variety, close-in residential districts will benefit, particularly the Westside.
Growth and gentrification will intensify demands to close and demolish the Martin Drake downtown power plant in the near future, not in 20 years.
We’ll all figure out (yes, even City Council) that downtown can be the city’s gleaming penthouse, not its forlorn outhouse.
It’s all good — except for the new traffic. I suppose there won’t be any parking in front of my favorite downtown bar on Friday night … but no problem.
I’ll move to the ’burbs.