Darsey Nicklasson determined that her second development project, the Casa Mundi apartments under construction on South Tejon Street, would have shorter hallways than her first project, the Blue Dot Place.
The design decision was highly intentional.
“We want people to run into each other,” Nicklasson said. “Neighbors are less likely to talk with one another if the hallways are too long.”
“Community” is a word Nicklasson uses often. The local developer grew up in rural Colorado, near Hugo. She moved with her parents to another small town in Montana. It was in Montana that she graduated from high school and college and met and married her husband.
The two decided to give up places where everyone knew their names and moved to Washington, D.C., where they lived for five years before yearning for the West.
It’s been about six years since Nicklasson purchased the property Blue Dot Place was built upon along South Nevada Avenue. The project, which was constructed in collaboration with prominent local philanthropist Kathy Loo, the other half of BDP Development LLC, broke ground in September 2014. The 33-unit apartment complex opened to residents in January 2016.
It was touted as the first residential project to open in downtown Colorado Springs in more than 50 years.
Nicklasson, who expects her newest venture to be completed this fall, spoke with the Business Journal about her part in reviving downtown Colorado Springs and what’s yet to come.
Talk about your time in Washington.
We lived in D.C. for five years and loved it. That’s where I ended up doing more business and marketing. I worked for the American Society of Clinical Oncology managing websites. It’s funny because I’m not a techie person. I’m a project manager, a go-between person who understands both worlds.
But I loved standing in Washington, D.C., looking two stories down to where they were digging out a block to put in a development and holding up a façade for historic preservation. I could stand there all day long watching construction. I loved it! I think our built environment is fascinating — how we interact and how the built environment either connects us to people or separates us from people.
I ended up taking a couple classes at the University of Maryland, College Park in community planning and economic development. I loved it and went back to grad school for community planning and historic preservation. I worked in a small suburb of Washington, D.C., doing everything from annexation analysis to low-income grants — anything that needed to be done.
What happened next?
After that, my husband and I moved here. I loved D.C. but we’re both from the West.
We moved to Colorado Springs in 2005. He was able to transfer because he was in missile defense contracting. We were going to be here five years, tops, and move somewhere cooler — Portland, Seattle, somewhere. But we invested in the community and loved it. I worked for Pulte Homes … in the field, anything land-use development — lots of sewer, working with homeowners on landscaping, anything but building the building.
I basically worked myself out of a job. They slowly built out all the communities. They moved operations to Denver. I had a young son then and wasn’t going to drive back and forth to Denver. My last year there was 2010.
Fill in the gaps since 2010?
In 2010 I had my daughter, my second [of three children] and stayed home with her for a year. That spring my husband said, ‘You can go back to work if you want to. You’re a little crazy. We’re eating organic and you’re making your own jelly and you’re always cleaning the floor. You need to go do something else.’
We put the kids in day care and I started looking for a job in land development in 2011. The economy had not come back around yet, definitely not in Colorado Springs. … Truthfully everyone already had their land development and entitlement people. Nobody was hiring.
But it was July or August  and I was standing at the corner of Willamette and Wahsatch [avenues], which was halfway between day care and home. I’d been toying with an idea and called Matt Mandino — he had been the president of Pulte Homes in Colorado Springs and he’d been laid off at the time. I said, ‘Matt, I have this idea. I want to build residential downtown. I think there’s a demand for it, there’s a market for it.’
I remember Matt’s exact words. He said, ‘Yes, you’re on to something but you’re going to have to prove the market.’
That’s what everybody was afraid of.
What kind of market research did you do?
I accosted anybody who would talk to me: ‘How much do you pay in rent? Where do you live? Where would you like to live? How much money do you make?’
I also checked out area rents and what they were doing. I did an online survey … with more than 300 responses and I looked at different land I could develop.
I was going to start reasonable, buy a building and put three apartments above it.
But I kept putting together investment packets and talking with people. Eventually I met Kathy Loo at a women’s group. I said I was interested in building downtown residential and she goes, ‘That’s interesting. We should talk more.’ That’s the first time I met Kathy and she’s my partner on the Blue Dot Place.
We realized we had similar goals and aspirations and wanted to create a better community and knew residential was the key. Residential is the key to developing any neighborhood because it needs to be sustainable and that means you need people to live there.
Did people think you were crazy in 2011?
Yes … But doing all of the research — the trend around the entire nation — and actually around the world — is people are moving back towards the city.
We’re seeing this trend. … I was citing case studies in Wichita, Kan. … It’s happening in so many cities. The fact that people wanted to live downtown was known.
But if you just did a market research study based on area rents, it would never support [the Blue Dot Place]. At the time, I was charging some of the highest rents in town. Not anymore.
But that’s why you have [to cite] other cities. What would people pay to live in downtown Denver? Those people still live here in Colorado Springs. I call them ‘urbanites’ — people from all walks of life, all age groups doing all kinds of different things. They just want that urban lifestyle.
And if they’re paying rents that are comparable to nice luxury high-end apartments on the north end because that’s the only thing they could find, they couldn’t find it down here.
You built the first multifamily housing downtown in 50 years. You’re kind of a pioneer.
I’ve worked closely with [Nor’Wood Limited Inc. President] Chris Jenkins and [retired principal] Steve Engel when he was with Griffis/Blessing over the years about this. They were already planning [downtown housing] themselves. … They were some of the pioneers with what they did with the form-based code and work they did with the Downtown Development Authority. They helped get the tax increment financing in place, which does make a difference. They were the forerunners of making changes to make this happen. Them doing that work made it much more possible for Blue Dot to happen.
What’s happening now?
Right now we have Casa Mundi, which is under construction on Tejon Street. We’re really excited about it. It’s four stories and 27 units. I really like the smaller boutique projects. It means we’re very one-on-one with the residents and very in touch with them. We’re a first again because this will be a natural mixed-use building. We’re the first new mixed-use building to come in. The Downtown Development Authority has supported us again through TIF financing.
We already have a waiting list for residential, which surprises me because there are already places you can rent — but I had people waiting for Casa Mundi.
Talk about the mixed-use aspect.
We have three commercial spaces on the first floor. We have one tenant already — Paris Crêpe. They had been farther north on Tejon. … We’re particular about the space. Whatever goes in has to mix with the residential and the neighborhood.
I’d love a juice bar. Somebody in retail is great. Restaurants are always good. We’ve looked at fitness centers. I love the idea of creating amenities in our building that way, but if they play loud music, it’s not going to work.
We’re getting a lot of calls but we’re looking for the right tenant.
What’s your take on the city’s affordable housing issues?
As a developer, I’d love to be part of the solution on that, as well as an apartment owner. It’s tough. … I’ve looked at doing it and I’ve run numbers on it and it’s hard to make it work. And not just downtown where land prices are higher. If you look in other parts of the city where land prices are lower … we’re fighting construction costs. They’ve gone up 30 percent from building Blue Dot to building Casa Mundi. … So guess what happens? I still have to make a certain return for the investor, I have to pay the bank debt. Interest rates have gone up and construction costs have gone up. It comes from the rent side, which is unfortunate.
I absolutely applaud people like Beth Roalstad, [executive director of] Homeward Pikes Peak, for doing the things they are doing. It’s a long road. They have to buy and hold land for sometimes over a year to get tax credits. If there’s one glitch, you don’t get those credits that year. I can’t sit and hold property for a year. I just don’t have that luxury. But maybe there are ways we can work with the city. I don’t know yet — but I’d love to be part of the solution.