End of the road for S. Nevada blight

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The shape and scope of Creekwalk — a key piece in the burgeoning development in the South Nevada Urban Renewal Area — has been revealed.

The 61,700-square-foot shopping center will sit on approximately 11 acres, stretching from Ramona Avenue south to East Cheyenne Road, bounded by South Nevada Avenue and Cheyenne Creek.

 

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Creekwalk will be a mix of restaurants and retail shops in eight free-standing buildings ranging from 3,100 to 18,363 square feet, along with 500 parking spaces. It will also boast a new trail connection and public plaza next to the long-neglected Cheyenne Creek, which developers say will see a renaissance thanks to their projects.

The debris-choked creek sits on the west side of the planned shopping center, but developer Danny Mientka says it will be central to the project, and to his goal of building “a destination, as opposed to a quick stop.”

The plan is to “massively re-landscape and redefine Cheyenne Creek — not to change the thread of the water, but make the creek more approachable through benching the earth and bringing in natural pools and plunges,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is create this backdrop with Cheyenne Creek to be one of the more unique shopping center experiences and restaurant experiences.”

Anchored by nature

The vision for the shopping center has changed at least 10 times over the years, he said.

“Even within a three-year time frame we’ve gone from targeting Whole Foods to Sprouts to an unanchored mix of 65 percent restaurants and [35 percent] retail that you can’t get out of a brown truck — which is where we are today.

“… At this point we’d consider ourselves unanchored and without drive-thru, and we’re proud of that. We don’t want to see cars lined up at a drive-thru … what we want is people to get out of their cars and they get to take a stroll along the creek and they get to chill.”

Perhaps the development will secure a restaurant so distinctive that people will eventually describe the shopping center that way, he said.

“But purposefully I wanted to have a descriptor — and ‘Creekwalk’ is it for us. If there’s an anchor, it’s nature.”

Creekwalk will feature distinctive architecture tracing a “transition from nature to urban,” Mientka said. “As the buildings are located closer to the creek they’re going to have more natural features — so you may see some rock, gabion fencing or patio enclosures that speak to Cheyenne Cañon and Seven Falls — and then as you work towards Nevada [Avenue] with the properties, you get into a material palette that is a little more edgy and urban and polished.”

Creekwalk’s shops and restaurants will sit close to the street — “an urban nod, if you will,” Mientka says — and parking spaces will be set back from the road, because the main aim is to build a pedestrian-friendly space that’s nothing like a suburban mall or fast food strip.

“Retail has changed … and retail centers need to be experiential and they need to be convenient,” Mientka said. “Creekwalk will have multiple outdoor patio experiences, to take in the creek improvements, and to get you out of your car and into a seat and give you a moment of reflection and an experience that you’re just not going to get at a drive-thru.”

Creekwalk is about to go to market, he said, and leasing brokerage firm Kratt Commercial will deploy a “very intentional, very defined retail leasing strategy” targeting a mix of local restaurant operators and “great cutting-edge, best-in-class restaurant options from the Front Range that have not yet come to our market.”

Nothing to see here (yet)

Before everyone expects to see the glossy renderings spring to life, Mientka said, there are months of complex projects ahead — and for a while there won’t be much to see.

“We have four more months of plan approval, then we close on financing, then we have to take [the properties] and convert it to a piece of ground before we go vertical — and then we have six or eight months of construction before we open doors. So it’s unique,” he said. “It’s one thing to take a green field out on Powers [Boulevard] and talk about a project that’s going to come, and show a picture. In our case, we still have a lot of work to do.”

For Mientka, the public improvements are what urban renewal is all about, and the scope of the improvements that will accompany Creekwalk are what really stand out.

Those major offsite projects include streetscaping on both sides of South Nevada Avenue between I-25 and Cheyenne Road, electrical undergrounding on the west side of South Nevada Avenue and the widening of Cheyenne Road.

“Our Creekwalk project will finance almost $2.5 million worth of offsite public improvements — that’s not within my development and that’s not the Cheyenne Creek improvements, that’s just getting the road widening, electrical undergrounding and the west side of Nevada streetscape installed,” Mientka said. “The other developers are completing their streetscape in front of their developments; our project goes beyond. Our project accomplishes what all of us know, at the end of the day, is in it for the community — and that’s to see it safer and more accessible, more beautiful.”

As soon as the Urban Renewal Authority board defined the boundaries for the urban renewal area, “to me, it was all about cleaning up Nevada… and widening Cheyenne Road,” he said.

“I grew up in this city and while there’s little pockets of problems along Tejon and some of the side streets — certainly along the creek — the real challenge was South Nevada Avenue. So I, from the beginning, proposed what I thought needed to be done, which was to bring in a consistent streetscape along both sides of Nevada and bury the overhead electrical transmission lines where the poles [currently] run really right down the middle of the sidewalks… .”

Widening Cheyenne Road is necessary to manage the already high volume of traffic, he said.

“Safeway is a big traffic generator, and we’re funneling a lot of residential people from the west to this larger corridor of Nevada [Avenue] and to the bigger retail developments of Broadmoor Towne Center,  et cetera. … I proposed a lot of offsite public improvements and I believe that’s what urban renewal is about. You need to incentivize developers to be able to make economic sense of buying really overpriced property, and then converting it back to land, and then going vertical again. There’s a lot of risk in it.

“Up until this plan was approved, people put their blinders on as they drove through Nevada and tried to not look left or right — just didn’t want to see what you saw,” Mientka added. “As developments like Creekwalk come to fruition and people start to experience it, it will drive demand for more. And that’s just what the basis is for urban renewal — it will be an incubator for more growth and more redevelopment and raise the bar for all that real estate.”

Renewal: It’s complicated

While Mientka warns the road ahead is long, the path to this point in development has been even longer.

Mientka said he and developer Sam Guadagnoli, who has a number of projects under construction in the URA, wanted to work on renewal in the area in 2007-2008, but the credit crisis put the brakes on that.

“The economics of our community and the industry were just so challenged, so you have to sort of pack your files up for a while,” Mientka said. “We got back to it in early ’14 and the city decided there was so much that needed to be done that, to the extent that they could get multiple developers together, maybe they could accomplish more, quicker.”

Ray O’Sullivan, the development manager for Guadagnoli’s Ivywild Development company, described the urban renewal as “a monumental undertaking.

“Normal urban renewal boundaries are probably less than 10 acres and this is a hundred-acre boundary,” O’Sullivan said. “People saw these beautiful renderings and pictures a couple of years ago when we were announcing these projects. I think people in the know realized it would probably take about five years to get everything started … and I think beyond that I can see where people would wonder what the heck’s going on. But the reality is the huge investment that has been made, from land acquisition, planning, engineering and processing through the city, [by] all three of the developers down here … is a testament to their commitment to seeing this whole area revived.

“That stretch along Nevada which was probably the center of the blight that was authorized by the city of Colorado Springs — it’s gone,” he added. “So to that end, I think everybody’s got to be pretty thrilled.”

Jariah Walker, executive director of the Colorado Springs Urban Renewal Authority, described it as “the most complicated urban renewal area, I would bet, in the state of Colorado. It’s got a lot of nuances through it,” he said.

“There’s so many moving parts to it, and it’s always difficult when all the property isn’t assembled in advance before you do an urban renewal area,” he added. “It can be challenging because sometimes you get owners who don’t want to sell — and that’s OK — and then you have owners who want maybe six times what their property’s worth, and that’s not going to work. So it takes time. It just takes some time.”

Mientka said he was proud to be able to pull 26 adjacent properties together for Creekwalk.

“I sort of got to this point where, if I didn’t get to the finish line, I just didn’t know anybody that would ever take it back up and try again. So I really put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure that we were successful, because it is so difficult.”

Getting people to buy in to the vision is critical, Mientka said, and acquiring 26 properties from more than 20 owners takes a lot of communication and coordination.

‘100 percent execution’

“We’ve bought property from people that live in New Jersey, in California, obviously local, Denver, Fort Collins,” he said. “And we’ve been in a pretty frothy real estate investment market for, say, the last 36 months and so it’s been a tight rental market.

“People have, to the extent possible, increased their rental rates and that increases the value of their property, so when you’re trying to assemble these properties everybody has a different motivation — or they’re busy and there’s a limited amount of time they’re going to invest in listening to what you’re trying to do. And the reality is you need every one of them.

“We could have survived without the two [final properties] and still built our project, but the rest of the project absolutely needed 100 percent execution. …” Mientka said. “You know, it’s just better to say, ‘Look, the area is blighted, and we offer a solution. We need you to come on board.’”

Mientka said the proposal has always been to engineer public improvements in a manner that does more than just enable retail development, adding that the development should improve the city, remove blight and become a catalyst for more development.

“We’re anchored by the best military base in the country for the Army, and we’re anchored by the finest 5-star hotel in the world, and we’re anchored by a reviving Colorado Springs central business district. We’ve got a lot of points of light around us. So you’re willing to take the risks when you’re in the middle of all that.”