“You can’t have a strong city economy without a vibrant, prosperous downtown,” said an acquaintance that I happened to encounter on Tejon Street last week.
It’s an unexceptional statement, one that almost any downtown businessperson might make. But coming from David Jenkins, it was telling.
To a degree unimaginable in any other medium-sized city, downtown development hinges upon David and Chris Jenkins, the canny father/son team who control most vacant or easily developed parcels in central, southwest and south downtown through their Nor’wood Development Group. Remember, the Jenkins family owns the half-block vacant lot in the City Auditorium block, bounded by Nevada Avenue, Pikes Peak Avenue and Weber Street; almost all of the southwest downtown Urban Renewal Area; the vacant Colorado Springs Health Partners building adjacent to the CSBJ/Independent building and many other sites. The family also owns the Alamo Corporate Center and Plaza of the Rockies.
They’ve been investing in downtown for decades, waiting patiently for that halcyon time when downtown would finally come into its own.
It’s been a long time coming — but that time is finally here.
After downtown businesses followed the rooftops to the blossoming eastern and northern suburbs, the city core deteriorated. Many of the magnificent buildings of the Cripple Creek era fell to the wrecker’s ball, either through functional obsolescence or as the consequence of a singularly disastrous “urban renewal” initiative. Scores of perfectly good commercial structures were demolished, leaving vacant lots ready for new development — or so city officials believed. Some were developed with parking structures and office buildings, but much of downtown’s lively diversity vanished.
Despite losses, much remained. The Tejon Street core was intact, resilient and self-renewing. Jerry Rutledge’s eponymous men’s clothing store has anchored the Tejon spine for a half-century from two different locations. Other retailers, including Runners World, Mountain Chalet and Terra Verde, have done business on Tejon for decades. Yet the storefronts are in constant flux, as new businesses replace old.
As downtown’s largest landowners, the Jenkins family has always been expected to lead the revival. Impatient downtown advocates have often asked (usually in private), why don’t David and Chris get off their butts, take some risks and jump-start a downtown renaissance?
The answer was always the same: because there were better investment opportunities elsewhere. Like most successful real estate developers, the Jenkins family is patient and tenacious. They buy; they hold; they wait. And when the time is right, they build.
Partnering with Buck Blessing, David and Chris have broken ground for two downtown apartment complexes which, when completed, will bring 350 new rental units to the downtown market.
Why now? Look around.
Communities — whether in core cities, historic neighborhoods or new suburbs — are the sum of hundreds of individual decisions. In the past four years, a new downtown has gradually taken shape, thanks to dozens of bold entrepreneurs. Start with the fearless Perry Sanders, whose magnificent renovation of the Mining Exchange Building began the process, which now includes The Antlers. Look at Darsey Nicklasson and Kathy Loo’s Blue Dot Apartments. Consider Urban Steam, Wild Goose, the new Tony’s, Odyssey, the reinvigorated Richard Skorman businesses, Brooklyn’s and many others.
Finally, imagine the day when the U.S. Olympic Museum opens. Will that be the transformative moment, the single project that will forever alter Colorado Springs? Maybe, maybe not.
Curiously, the formidable Dick Celeste’s fundraising efforts for the museum appear to have stalled. Is that just a temporary glitch or is it a sign that donors are pulling back, fearing that the Rio Olympics may become a public relations disaster? Worst-case scenario: Rio is an epic fail and the museum gets postponed indefinitely.
Despite Olympic uncertainty, Jenkins has revealed plans to build a million- square-foot building atop a new publicly funded parking structure at Sahwatch and Vermijo streets. The structure’s funding will be tied to the Olympic Museum — no museum, no parking structure, no Jenkins high-rise. One thing is for sure: A lot of downtown investment decisions hinge upon Celeste’s fundraising skills, but if it doesn’t happen, we’ll know what 1984 movie to rent: “Blame It On Rio,” with Demi Moore, Michelle Johnson and Michael Caine.
The loss of the museum, the parking structure and the high-rise would be a setback for downtown, but only a temporary one. With downtown’s new energy and vitality, we could see the once-derided baseball stadium open its gates in the near future. And as Denver becomes ever more crowded, unaffordable and unpleasant, relocating businesses may look at us with fresh eyes.
And this time, Chris and David Jenkins won’t be on the sidelines.