While downtown Colorado Springs has emerged from a recession-enforced hibernation, a group of business owners and developers are quietly working behind the scenes to jumpstart the city center’s renaissance that could rival Denver’s 20-year journey from cow town to world capital.
In aggregate, David Jenkins, Chris Jenkins and Buck Blessing own or control more than 100 acres of undeveloped or underdeveloped downtown property. Some lots have been vacant for more than four decades, such as the Blessing-controlled half block bounded by Colorado, Cascade and Pikes Peak avenues. Others, such as Nor’wood’s holdings in southwest downtown, are dotted with single-story commercial buildings, empty since the 1990s.
Rumors of redevelopment have long sparkled on the horizon — but this time they may be real. The Jenkins/Blessing interests are launching a series of related initiatives that will transform downtown in the next three decades.
The partnership plans a centripetal push, beginning with the development of lower-value parcels on downtown’s near periphery. The culmination of a decade and a half of failed initiatives, this one is already underway.
The partners will begin work with a 172-unit apartment building at Colorado and Wahsatch avenues, to be followed by a similarly sized complex on the vacant half-block at Moreno and Cascade Avenue. The Jenkins family owns the Wahsatch property, while Blessing interests control the Cascade parcel.
“We’ll be beginning construction on the Wahsatch site within days,” Chris Jenkins said in a recent interview. “And it’ll be followed quickly by the Cascade property. We are absolutely building both of them.”
By partnering, they reduce risk and enhance the positive impact of the new development on their downtown portfolios. Next step: the development of southwest downtown and Citygate.
In 2001, the Colorado Springs Urban Renewal Authority created the Southwest Downtown Urban Renewal Area. The area includes more than 100 acres of mostly vacant commercial buildings, roughly bounded by I-25, Cimarron Street, Cascade Avenue and Colorado Avenue, as well as a sliver of land extending north to Bijou between I-25 and the railroad tracks.
The plan’s goals were ambitious, but scarcely outlandish.
“The purpose of the plan,” according to a 2001 document, “is to create an urban neighborhood which leverages the community’s investment in America the Beautiful Park and creates linkages to the downtown core and which is in accordance with the Downtown Action Plan and the Imagine Downtown Plan. Proposed land uses within the plan include office, commercial, specialty retail, entertainment, hotel, performing arts, parks, a variety of residential uses, parking facilities, and lodging.”
A tax revenue analysis prepared at the same time predicted that new development would bring 262,000 square feet of office uses, 375 apartments, a 1,600 space parking garage and a 275,000 square foot convention center to the area
But then came 9/11, two recessions and the virtual collapse of commercial development in the Pikes Peak region. Nothing was ever built and the projected uses seemed increasingly irrelevant. Voters forbade the city from even planning a convention center, much less building one. No apartment building had been constructed in downtown since 1964 and no substantial office building since the 2003 Conover Building at Colorado Avenue and Weber Street.
The site’s principal developer, the deep-pocketed Nor’wood company, has been patient and determined, content to wait until the market strengthened. Downtown advocates criticized the company for its perceived timidity, complaining that the father/son team of David and Chris Jenkins were content to make money in the suburbs and let downtown languish.
Yet as Colorado Springs emerged from the recession, downtown began to stir. Northstar Bank and ANB Bank built new facilities a block apart on Cimarron Street, and work began on the recently completed 32-unit Blue Dot Place apartments at 415 S. Nevada Avenue.
In 2013, Dick Celeste’s Olympic Museum project and Steve Bach’s successful “City for Champions” application for state funding under the Regional Tourism Act created opportunity. Unlike the second-tier convention center that might have anchored the area, the museum is projected to bring 350,000 annual visitors to downtown.
Nor’wood gave the museum a 1.7 acre southwest downtown site at Vermijo and Sierra Madre. When finished, the museum could anchor a neighborhood and jump-start development — but the 2001 plan had to be ripped up and replaced.
A new beginning
This nascent downtown revival led the developers to consider dusting off plans for the long-dormant urban renewal area.
Urban renewal areas allow developers to fund infrastructure through tax-increment financing, issuing bonds that are secured by property and/or sales tax generated by improvements. The bonds can’t have a term longer than the remaining life of the URA, which is limited by statute to 25 years.
Bonds linked to the existing Southwest downtown URA could only have an unworkable 10- year term because the clock has been ticking since 2006, so Chris Jenkins has proposed a dramatic restructuring.
The original URA would be replaced with several sequenced plans, with the tax increment financing kicking in as needed. The first one would include several museum-adjacent blocks, while a subsequent one might include the Blessing-controlled Citygate URA to the south.
The new plans will be presented to the Authority at its meeting on April 27. If approved, the proposal will be presented to the Planning Commission on May 19. Absent unforeseen difficulties, it’ll go to a City Council work session on June 13, and to a final vote on June 27.
The plans are ambitious and could conceivably change the face of downtown’s southeastern side. Museum-centered development will be dense, walkable and bike-friendly. Existing streets, long oriented to commercial vehicular travel, will be rebuilt as “complete streets,” defined by urban design planners as “designed and operated to enable safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities.”
Jenkins previously met met privately with several members of the City’s Urban Renewal Authority prior to a public meeting of the body, where he presented his ideas to all members.
“The building concepts popped up and down so fast that I couldn’t really see them,” said URA board member Robert Shonkwiler, who declined to meet with Jenkins privately. “I’m very supportive of redeveloping all areas of downtown, but it needs to be a very public process.”
Multiple funding layers
The challenges of redevelopment on the scale envisioned for southwest downtown are many. The area’s size combined with its decaying infrastructure, multiple access problems and uncertain markets means that conventional sources coupled with TIF funding may not suffice — so how can the partners pull it off?
It’s been done before.
The $500 million renovation of Denver’s Union Station, funded with a multilevel plan that raised approximately $200 million in cash and $300 million in debt financing, is one of those successful examples.
The city and county of Denver created the Denver Union Station Authority “for the purpose of managing, financing and implementing the Denver Union Station Project.” That enabled the project to go forward without the political baggage of existing entities and created the space to negotiate senior and subordinated project debt. The end result: A magnificent renovation that has sparked nearly $2 billion in private investment.
Jenkins believes it can happen here as well – and believes that downtown renovation can spark a Denver-style rebirth.
Standing before an aerial photograph of the Pikes Peak Region that highlighted family holdings and their links to downtown, he characterized downtown as the key to regional prosperity.
“Downtown is the city’s heart,” he said. “We need to remake it, to attract young people, to make our city the best middle-weight city in America.”
“Why not heavyweight?” a reporter asked.
“Middleweights are faster, more agile, more fun to watch,” said Jenkins with a smile.