Analysis: Summit Complex set to rise after slow build

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At 7 a.m. on a bright, sunshiny Monday, more than 100 civic leaders boarded Gray Line buses and headed for the summit of Pikes Peak to witness the ceremonial groundbreaking for the new Pikes Peak Summit Complex.

It was a slow trip, as the buses labored up almost 8,000 feet of altitude gain, carefully negotiating the hairpin curves of the “W’s” and finally depositing their passengers a few steps from the existing 19Summit House.

A crowd of about 250 people and one dog (a lean, alert German Shepherd that guarded part of the work site) gathered on an observation deck for the event. Mayor John Suthers gave a brief speech, as did representatives of the U.S. Forest Service and the summit’s major permit holders, including The Broadmoor hotel-owned Pikes Peak Cog Railway, the U.S. Army High Altitude Research Laboratory and Colorado Springs Utilities.

Broadmoor CEO Jack Damioli assured the crowd that the hotel is working diligently to create a viable way forward for the Cog Railway, noting that such enterprises are key pieces of the regional tourism economy and directly benefit local businesses. Reviving and renovating the cog won’t be easy, though.

“The only companies that make the components we need to modernize the railway are in Switzerland,” Damioli said. “It’s the most expensive country in the world, so it’s very costly.”

A controlled symbolic blast sent up a puff of smoke to kick off the work, which was already in evidence. Heavy construction machinery was parked in the perimeter of the summit plain, and construction crews were ready to begin.

“I can’t express enough how excited I am about this project,” said Suthers. “I am particularly proud of the collaboration between the major stakeholders that has guided us to today’s groundbreaking, and I am confident the new Pikes Peak Summit Complex will provide a worthy crown for the popular destination, inspiring visitors from all corners of the world and of all ages and abilities for generations to come.”

The 38,000-square-foot building should be ready for occupancy by the fall of 2020, depending on the weather. At 14,115 feet, the summit’s weather is arctic, as a wind reminded the bundled-up crowd. Much of the building will be fabricated at lower altitude and assembled during the summer months.

“I hope that we can open the new building on July 4, 2020,” said Stuart Coppedge, principal of RTA Architects, which is designing the new structure. “But that’s probably not realistic. Besides, we can’t demolish the existing Summit House until the new one is open.”

Coppedge confirmed that since the structure is more than 50 years old, it must be assessed for eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places. If so designated (although no one has come forth to nominate it), that could lead to unanticipated delays in demolition.

The city estimates the project will cost about $50 million. According to a press release, “It will be funded in part by reserves from Pikes Peak – America’s Mountain, an enterprise of the city that generates revenue through toll fees and concession sales; revenue bonds taken by Pikes Peak; and public and private donations.”

The back story

Getting to Monday’s groundbreaking has been a long, strange trip, one that began in earnest during the early 1990s. The existing Summit House had experienced severe structural issues months after construction, and was considered by many to be unsightly, unwelcoming and unworthy of its location.

Both environmentalists and tourism-related business owners sought change on the mountain. The city-commissioned 1994 Pikes Peak Highway Erosion and Sedimentation Study documented the continuing problems with the then-unpaved Pikes Peak Highway, while several Colorado Springs City Councilors advocated for a new Summit House.

An early rendition by Colorado Springs architect Cliff Taylor showed a lodge-like structure situated near the center of the summit plain. Much larger than the existing building, the new facility would have had room for interpretive materials and would have been the sole structure on the peak.

The 1998 Pikes Peak Master Plan delighted both groups by designating highway paving and a new Summit House as coequal first priorities. Political barriers had apparently been swept aside, then-Congressman Joel Hefley had secured a congressional earmark of $1 million for the new Summit House, and it was expected that both projects would be completed by 2003 or 2004.

But the dazzling dreams and schemes abruptly collapsed.

Earthjustice, the legal arm of the national Sierra Club, filed suit against the city in 1999, alleging that the city was violating the Clean Water Act through its operation of the Pikes Peak Highway. For decades, gravel from the road, constantly replenished by city maintenance operations, had choked streams, covered fragile alpine tundra and damaged forestlands.

Rather than fight the suit, the city settled. Under the terms of the settlement, the city was obliged to pave the highway, mitigate previous damage and build appropriate drainage structures. The decade-long process absorbed any funds that might have gone toward a new Summit House, and the Great Recession stalled new initiatives for several years. In 2012, then-Mayor Steve Bach assigned the project to Karen Palus, parks, recreation and cultural services director, whom he had hired a few months earlier.

By 2014, Palus had brought all the players to the table and mapped out an agreed way forward. As she told CSBJ at the time, it wasn’t easy.

“We had to give up the idea of centralizing everything in a single structure,” she said. “The Army had to have a separate facility, and we wanted to locate utility structures well away from the new Summit House. The two functions are side by side in different buildings, but they won’t appear to be separate. Utilities needs a clear shot at the reservoirs, but their building will be pretty invisible, without any antennae. The roof may be an overlook along the pedestrian path.”

After agreement was reached, the city began the process of securing permits, estimating costs, designating funding sources, selecting architects and contractors and building public support. Almost exactly four years later, the project has been formally launched and even has its own commemorative coin, a handsome bronze medallion minted in 2017.

“It’s hard to believe we’re here at last,” said Jack Glavan, who has managed the highway and the Summit House for more than 25 years. “It’s great!”

Judging from the shouts of delight from spectators that followed the symbolic blast, Glavan has a lot of company. 

Disclosure: John Hazlehurst served on Colorado Springs City Council from 1991-1997 and was an advocate for a new Summit Complex.