How do you revitalize fading, once vibrant downtowns? Progressive developers teamed with Colorado Springs city planners in the 1960s and ’70s, when scores of late-Victorian downtown buildings met the wrecker’s ball, to be replaced with gleaming, glass-walled towers and modernist low-rises.
Too bad about Gen. Palmer’s Antlers hotel, Jimmie Burns’ splendid opera house and all the rest — we had to build a new shining city on the banks of Monument Creek.
It didn’t work out.
A few buildings arose from the dusty vacant lots thus created, but many remain empty to this day, sad reminders of the glories of yesteryear. Half a century later, we’re in the midst of a downtown revival, one focused on recreating the lively, pedestrian-friendly, diverse downtown that we so casually threw away half a century ago.
Preserving the buildings would have required more than a few toothless ordinances. The structures became essentially valueless for several reasons, including suburban flight, regulations that incentivized greenfield construction (and still do), inflexible building codes that made it economically impossible to bring old buildings up to code and well-meaning federally funded urban renewal schemes that encouraged teardowns. In retrospect, you would have had to junk 30 years’ worth of so-called “progressive” thinking to save downtown — and folks like Exchange National Bank president Jasper Ackerman and First National Bank president H. Chase Stone would have thrown you out of their offices had you dared suggest such changes.
Radical policy changes don’t come very often in our creaky democracy, but we’re about to experience unprecedented upheavals in federal regulatory regimes. Some may be beneficial.
Our southern neighbor, the once-booming industrial city of Pueblo, has a rich supply of empty or underused industrial buildings from the city’s storied past. Renovating and repurposing them for new uses can be difficult. Consider the obstacles faced by the developers, architects and historic preservationists who want to save Pueblo’s now-closed downtown power plant.
Built in 1922, it’s an amazing building — an art deco brick structure that could define Pueblo’s renascent downtown. Located on the edge of the Pueblo Riverwalk, many uses are possible for the building, but nothing has come to fruition.
“The Pueblo Steam Plant,” wrote Pueblo developer Mark Mihelich in a Gofundme plea earlier this year, “has a footprint of 27,000-square-feet and rises 8.5 stories above the ground and is Pueblo’s tallest structure with the main stack towering 273 feet above the city.”
Black Hills Energy, the investor-owned utility that operated the plant until its closure, wants to get rid of it. They’ll happily hand it over to the city, the county or any credible developer, with but a single condition.
The company wants to be sure that it isn’t on the hook for fixing possible on-site environmental problems that might surface in the future. Tearing it down and mediating the site now would cost at least $5 million, but get the company partially out of the liability chain. Selling as is? Black Hills wants $11 million.
Such liabilities are the consequence of one-size-fits-all environmental regulations.
“That’s what makes it so difficult for smaller cities like Pueblo to restore buildings like the power plant,” said a Pueblo official who declined to be identified. “If you have an old power plant in Portland, the ground is worth 20 times as much as it is here, so a few million bucks in remediation isn’t much of an obstacle. Here, it’s a deal-breaker.”
The Trump administration is sure to make dramatic changes in the leadership, philosophy and operations of the Environmental Protection Agency. A more flexible, less rules-bound regulatory environment might empower a new Region 8 Director to help expedite a deal to preserve and renovate the power station. By loosening regulatory constraints, removing Black Hills and the city from future liability, while also working proactively to preserve the magnificent old pile of bricks, the new administration would demonstrate the virtues of its small government approach to problems by actually solving one.
In return, the developers could preserve and rename Pueblo’s tallest structure: The President Donald J. Trump Smokestack.