Is it all puppies and rainbows for the Colorado Springs economy? It sure seems to be.
South Nevada is no longer blighted, downtown is booming, the unemployment rate has never been lower, the local real estate market is absurdly healthy, wages are up and most businesses are solvent and profitable.
Even our nation’s bitter political disputes seem less resonant here. When business is good and the weather’s perfect, it’s hard to get worked up over the hot mess in Washington.
Will the boom last? Regional history suggests that it won’t. In the last half-century, we’ve gone from boom to bust every 10 or 12 years. We haven’t had the kind of lasting, powerful economic expansion that has ignited the Denver Metropolitan area and much of the northern Front Range.
Yet we’ve grown and prospered, despite occasional periods of stagnation. Economic slowdowns have some benefits as well, forcing overextended and marginal firms to get leaner and more efficient, and rewarding careful managers. Slowdowns also often lead to political change, as fed-up voters replace incumbents with energetic newcomers ready to shake up the status quo.
That’s what happened in Denver in 1982, when political upstart Federico Peña became mayor, and called upon the voters to “Imagine a great city!” He kept his word, and his legacy is today’s gleaming city on the Platte River, a far cry from yesterday’s dusty old cow town. With few hiccups, Denver has enjoyed almost four decades of extraordinary growth and change.
Mayor John Suthers may be the Federico Peña of Colorado Springs. First, he persuaded our quarrelsome and divided electorate to come together and approve funding to fix a broken city. Having filled the potholes, paved the roads, funded stormwater infrastructure and settled our regional feuds, Suthers can now sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labor. Like Peña, he may have laid the foundation for a great city.
But we need to protect and nurture that future city. If we don’t, prosperity may bring gridlocked freeways, hollowed-out historic neighborhoods and sharp divisions between rich and poor — a place to escape, not a place to love.
Let’s start by considering our perhaps imperiled neighborhoods.
I’ve lived in a house on the 2100 block of West Bijou Street since 2000. There are 15 houses on the street, eight on the south side and seven on the north. Fourteen were built between 1888 and 1904, and no two are alike. Eight are single-story cottages, five are 1.5 or two stories and one is 2.5 stories. Lot sizes range from 5,400 to 13,800 square feet.
It’s not a fancy neighborhood, but it’s safe and tranquil. There are retirees, couples, singles and families with kids. During the past 25 years, property values have dramatically increased. One 1,035-square-foot cottage on a 6,000-square-foot lot sold for $58,000 in 1994, $138,000 in 2002 and $215,000 in 2015.
Over the years, I’ve walked or biked most of the Westside and our block is pretty typical. Almost every residential block features once-grand Victorian homes flanked by simple cottages from the same era. Especially along Colorado Avenue, many of the grand Victorians have been converted into apartment buildings.
The Westside grew organically. There was no master developer, no overarching comprehensive plan, no forest of rules and regulations. In its present form, it’s the built expression of the dreams, aspirations and hard work of not just the original builders, but of all those who followed them.
In the last few years, the Westside has undergone a renaissance. Rundown dwellings have been renovated and a few expensive infill homes have been jammed into narrow vacant lots.
There are a couple such homes in the 2000 block of west Bijou, and that’s fine — they contrast interestingly with their Victorian neighbors. But if property values accelerate sharply, will we see Denver-style scrapeoffs? Will these quirky, economically diverse neighborhoods disappear in the rising tide of gentrification?
It may be time for city officials to take notice, and work with the Organization of Westside Neighbors and other organizations to help protect our sprawling, and sometimes unruly neighborhood from the wrecking ball of prosperity.
The Westside is a municipal treasure, a historic neighborhood that isn’t an invisibly gated community for the rich.
May it always remain so!