Transit decision could harm small businesses

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What do we want for our city?

Do we want to build, as Mayor John Suthers suggests, a city and a society worthy of our setting? Or do we just want to muddle through, do things on the cheap and discourage small businesses and entrepreneurs?

Take, for example, the long process of determining a new site for the downtown transit station.

It has been clear for decades that the station needs to move from its cramped, dismal quarters at the corner of Kiowa and Nevada to a larger, more accessible and more welcoming site. But where would that be?

It seems obvious that it should be in or near southwest downtown, an underdeveloped area of abandoned or lightly used warehouses, vacant lots and cracked sidewalks. Most of the area is within an urban renewal district that has seen no activity in the 15 years since it was created. Plans are afoot to anchor the district with the Olympic Museum/Hall of Fame, followed by massive redevelopment.

A new transit center, particularly an inviting structure with airy, light-filled interior spaces, would help create commuting options for downtown Millennials. It would also be close to downtown employment centers, further encouraging commuter transit use.

At a recent meeting, transit planners presented three options. Two are appropriately located in southwest downtown, while the third is … well, bizarre.

Under this third scheme, the city would simply take half the Pueblo Avenue right of way for its entire two-block length, building both a Greyhound bus station and city transit hub. It would basically bring private development in the neighborhood to a screeching halt, as buses and transit infrastructure would overwhelm the area.

“We never had any idea that this was on the radar,” said Jenny Elliott, whose nearly completed luxury apartment building is directly across the street from the proposed location. “We’ve been working with the city on this project since 2013 — and this possibility was never mentioned.”

It appears that the Pueblo Avenue site was first considered in 1998, a sad commentary on the sluggish pace of the project. It might have made more sense at that time, before the current wave of new construction and renovation in south downtown.

Elliott’s building, as well as other new neighborhood developments such as the Blue Dot Apartments and Loyal Coffee, owes its existence to organic growth and redevelopment. Land ownership in the area is fragmented among scores of owners, enabling small businesses and entrepreneurs of relatively modest means to get in the game.

Such developments are like those envisioned by Gen. William Palmer in 1871 when he platted the city. Palmer’s team laid out a street grid, typically consisting of blocks measuring 600 feet by 400 feet, including 24 50-by-190-foot lots, with a 20-foot wide north/south alley. He offered the lots for sale — and sure enough the buyers showed up. Colorado Springs was guided and directed by Palmer, but his customers created the city. They built homes, livery stables, banks, hardware stores, hotels, bike shops — whatever the market needed.

Properly sited and conceived, a transit center could both serve and adorn a city. Consider the 1887 Denver & Rio Grande Railroad Depot at 10 S. Sierra Madre St., or the 1917 Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Depot at 555 E. Pikes Peak Ave. These beautiful buildings remain, although passenger rail has long disappeared from the Pikes Peak region. Will it ever return? A lot of us hope so.

That’s another reason to build the new center near existing rail lines, as downtown advocates have noted. It’s dispiriting to note that both Denver and Pueblo have downtown transcontinental passenger rail service, and we have downtown interstate coal service.

So why is the Pueblo Avenue location even on the radar screen? The answer, sadly, is so Colorado Springs: Because it’s cheap. The city owns the streets, and the city can close off all or a portion of any city street. No pesky property owners to compensate, no rezoning requirements, no need for eminent domain.

But in government, as in life, you get what you pay for. Choose Pueblo Avenue, and you send a clear message to entrepreneurs like Jenny Elliott — we don’t care about you or about transit users. Doing things right is too expensive and powerful folks want the Nevada/Kiowa facility gone. So we’ll just plod along and remember our slogan: “If it’s good enough for government work, it’s good enough for us!” 

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