A decommissioned passenger car from the Pikes Peak Cog Railway will reside at the new Switchbacks stadium in downtown Colorado Springs.
Manitou Springs City Council accepted the cog management’s offer to keep three of the cars it is getting rid of as it rebuilds and restores the railway and adds new cars — a project that will take until 2021 and cost upwards of $95 million.
“Manitou has decided to take up to three of the large passenger cars [that are] 10 feet wide by 60 feet long,” Manitou Springs Mayor Ken Jaray said.
Councilors voted Feb. 19 to move the three cars to a GE Johnson Construction storage site. One of the cars will be given to Weidner Stadium in exchange for a $10,000 donation to Manitou Springs.
The final location of the other two Manitou cars has yet to be decided, and the city’s deliberation on where they will go tracks two of Manitou’s most vexing issues: the fate of Hiawatha Gardens and the need for more parking. Both are critical concerns for the city’s businesses.
A piece of history
The city acquired the site four years ago from the owner of the former Tajine Alami Moroccan restaurant and has been using the lot to provide free parking and a stop for two city-financed shuttles that serve the downtown shopping district and the Manitou Incline.
In its heyday in the early 20th century, the building was an open-air pavilion where the most famous bands of the era played and patrons danced the night away.
The maple floor of the original 1897 pavilion still exists, but many alterations have been made to the building.
Although the structure’s “unassuming” exterior mirrors those of other 20th-century dance halls, “Hiawatha Gardens is one of the historic buildings that has played an important role in the community’s history for nearly 120 years,” according to the Manitou Springs Heritage Center.
After the city acquired the site for just more than $1 million in 2015, Echo Architecture was engaged to evaluate the structure’s integrity and estimate costs for rehabilitation or demolition.
Echo found that the building was basically structurally sound but that restoring it would require abatement of hazardous materials such as lead and asbestos. The architects also found evidence of leaks in the roof and basement, and the need for extensive repairs was apparent.
Echo determined that complete rehabilitation of the building and repaving the parking lot to provide 149 spaces would cost about $2 million — a figure that’s considerably higher today.
Laura Neumann, who leads a Hiawatha Gardens work group, told city council last summer that rehabbing the building could cost up to $4.5 million.
Various uses have been proposed for the site, including an extension of Manitou’s overcrowded City Hall, a retail space, an entertainment and community center, and a transit hub. Others have suggested tearing down the building and replacing it with a parking structure.
A number of community meetings and surveys of community sentiment about potential uses have been conducted. The most recent survey, taken in September, showed that respondents favored retaining the historic portions of the building by a 3-1 margin.
Respondents’ opinions on what should be done with the building, however, were “all over the map,” Neumann said.
That’s been the case since the building was purchased, and there has been no consensus among city councilmembers as to its best use.
The current council will tackle the question at its March 12 work session, Jaray said.
“We expect to ask council the primary question of save the building or not save the building,” Jaray said. “I don’t know exactly what will come out of that.”
Meanwhile, the city is working up costs to remediate the hazardous materials and remove the later additions to the building, Jaray said.
“We’re looking at potentially sprucing the building up for this summer” and adding lighting and landscaping, Jaray said. “We’re trying to see if we can make the bathrooms accessible so we can remove the porta potties. We noticed the other day that some animals had gotten into the building and did some damage.
“We’re trying to be deliberate” in determining the best use for Hiawatha Gardens, Jaray said.
Manitou has for years faced a shortage of downtown parking, especially during tourist season.
When the city started evaluating Hiawatha Gardens, “we did a feasibility study of putting a multilevel parking structure there,” Jaray said. “As part of that process, it was recommended to us that we look at broader mobility issues: If we do that, what is the impact on the community?”
The recommendation from planning and design consultant Kimley-Horn, hired last summer to do the feasibility study, came during the city’s negotiations with the cog railway that resulted in a 50-year tax incentive agreement.
As part of the agreement, the railway’s owners agreed to chip in $50,000 toward the cost of the mobility study. The city of Colorado Springs also agreed to provide $50,000 for the study, with Manitou providing another $50,000.
The study will examine vehicular traffic volume and movement, parking, and pedestrian and bicycle volume and movement, and will address improvements to enhance mobility within the city and connections to adjoining areas and transit systems.
“We recently signed a contract with Kimley-Horn to do the mobility study,” Jaray said. “They recommended we not move too quickly until we know more about that study.”
Neumann said it will take 12 months to complete the study.
Besides the lot at Hiawatha Gardens, the city maintains a parking lot on Canon Avenue near the Arcade, and the Barr Trail lot at the end of Ruxton Avenue just past the Incline, as well as more than 80 paid street parking spaces in the downtown area.
The Metropolitan Parking District, an organization of downtown business owners, owns and operates the Wichita parking lot at 708 Manitou Ave., just west of the Stagecoach Inn, and the Smischny lot at 1134 Manitou Ave. on the far west end of town.
A year and a half ago, the Metro District proposed creating a double-decker parking structure on the Wichita lot that could more than double the amount of parking the lot currently provides.
“Right now, we’re kind of on hold on building of the structure, the reason being that we’ve got to have cooperation with the city,” Metro District Chair and former city councilor Randy Hodges said. “The city is not committing one way or the other until the mobility study is completed in 2020.”
Hodges said the Metro board has a preliminary design for the structure that would blend in with its downtown neighbors.
“We’ve spent quite a bit of money on designs, engineering and finding a means of financing” the structure, he said.
The project’s manager has estimated the structure could cost almost $6 million.
“Businesses feel like the place to have more parking is right in the heart of town, not half a mile away,” Hodges said.
He noted that tourists, who often come to Manitou from lower elevations, “want to park as close to shopping as possible.”
Hodges, co-owner of the Whickerbill, a downtown gift shop, said Manitou’s retail sales tax revenues have been down primarily, he believes, because of the lack of cog ridership since the railway closed in the fall of 2017.
“We’re trying to change up the price point in our store a little bit and move away from people with more disposable income who come to ride the train,” Hodges said.
The city is putting together a group of people with the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce to come up with some specific strategies to improve business, Jaray said.
“The chamber is also looking at some survey work to understand what our retail mix is,” he said. “We’re talking about kicking off this month or next. A group is working on beautification so we get downtown looking as pretty as possible. A number of different things are going on to help ensure a great summer.”