Preserve and cherish the past, or move forward to a bright and promising future? That community debate has taken many forms, most recently over Perry Sanders’ proposal to repurpose Antlers Park as the site of the sports and events center that was a key element of the 2013 City for Champions vision. Opponents of the deal see it as just another developer-driven attempt to defile Gen. William Palmer’s legacy, while supporters characterize it as a win/win for both public and private interests.
I understand the reflexive suspicion from opponents. Many longtime Springs residents remember the “Age of Destruction” in the 1960s and ’70s when many of downtown’s great buildings fell to the wrecker’s ball. We lost the second Antlers Hotel, the Burns Opera House, the First National Bank Building and scores of others. Several city blocks were leveled in an ill-conceived urban renewal scheme that sought to recreate downtown as a suburban office park.
A starkly modernist multistory hotel replaced the demolished The Antlers, flanked by a companion high-rise that originally housed the Holly Sugar Building. The development eventually expanded to the south with the construction of what is now the Wells Fargo Tower. Antlers Park, which once served as the landscaped garden and west entrance to the hotel, was cut off, bordered by a dismal industrial façade of loading docks and a multi-level parking structure.
Yet as the city’s population center moved eastward, downtown stagnated. Businesses fled for greener pastures, suburbanites gained political clout and preservationists were forced into wars with developers and shortsighted elected officials. Neighborhood organizations were created to protect historic neighborhoods such as the Westside and the North End, while preservation-minded builders and architects such as Mike Collins and Chuck Murphy renovated and repurposed dozens of threatened structures.
One of the era’s biggest recurring battles was fought over the Constitution Avenue Freeway, a proposal to create a much-needed east-west expressway from I-25 to Academy Boulevard that would cross Monument Valley Park. It was a scheme worthy of Robert Moses, one that sacrificed established neighborhoods to improve mobility for residents of then-distant suburbs. It was first batted aside by a 1971 League of Women Voters lawsuit contending that Palmer-dedicated parkland could not be used by the city for non-park purposes. The city settled in an agreement that present Colorado Springs City Attorney Wynetta Massey cited in an opinion that questioned the Sanders proposal. Yet similar schemes have surfaced since, and east-west mobility remains problematic.
It’s interesting that Sanders is being cast in the demon developer role, given his history as an historic preservationist who risked millions of his own money to restore and recreate the then-derelict Mining Exchange Building. Sanders and his partner, John Goede, have taken other big risks downtown, including buying and renovating The Antlers.
What would Palmer think of Sanders’ plan? That’s irrelevant. Our revered founder has been dead for more than a century. It’s up to us to build, preserve, create and recreate the city he founded in 1871.
Absent a few million general fund tax dollars, the park will remain just as it is — forlorn, uninviting, unused and unloved. That’s the sad fact, one that sideline preservationists would do well to consider.
Thirty years ago, I was the spokesman for an ad hoc group that had banded together to oppose a taxpayer-funded downtown sports arena. The proposal was defeated, arena advocates figured out how to fund it without a major city commitment, and the World Arena opened exactly 20 years ago.
It may be downtown’s turn. The modestly scaled sports/event facility won’t tap the city’s general fund, won’t require new taxes and will bring new life and energy to downtown. Any other location, such as the Citygate tract south of Cimarron Street, would cost the city many millions to buy and improve.
So it’s up to city councilors. They met in closed session to discuss the proposal on Wednesday, and may formally consider it in open session next week. The meeting should be a doozy, as old wounds are reopened, ancient battles refought and the idealized past meets the hopeful future.
This time, I’m for the future.