Despite having called Colorado Springs home for just 3½ years, Daniel Sexton has been at the forefront of both preserving the city’s past and shaping its future.
Sexton, a principal planner with the city of Colorado Springs, served as project manager for HistoricCOS, an update to the city’s original historic planning preservation plan created in 1993.
“From an outside perspective, I’m always at a disadvantage in a sense, because there are so many people that have lived there their entire lives. They really are a part of that story in their own right,” Sexton said. “I think it was a great opportunity for me, coming here and taking on this project, to really work with all the members within the community to establish that new vision in the context of preservation and cultural heritage.”
A Minnesota native, Sexton has more than a decade of experience as a practicing planner throughout the country, most recently in the Boston metropolitan area. He earned bachelor’s degrees in geography and community development from St. Cloud State University, along with a master’s degree in urban and regional planning and a certificate in urban policy from the University of Albany in upstate New York.
Sexton sat down with the Business Journal this week to discuss HistoricCOS and how the plan advocates not only preserving the city’s past, but integrating that past into its future.
Talk a little bit about HistoricCOS.
The biggest things with the city’s historical preservation plan update that we are moving forward with, HistoricCOS, is an update to the 1993 plan, which is the first ever prepared and adopted by the city. So this update has been 26 years in the making. The previous guidance was very outdated. … It didn’t take into consideration the current context of the community and didn’t account for many of the changes that have occurred in the last 26 years. This is a good opportunity — especially coming on the heels of PlanCOS, which was approved in January — to really evaluate where the city was headed and what are the city’s priorities with respect to historical and cultural resources throughout the community.
What are some of those priorities?
Some of those priorities that we’re looking at — and again, this is still a final draft — but some of those recommendations are really taking another look at survey work. [The 1993 plan] had a really limited scope as to what areas of the city should be surveyed. Now we are looking outward from the downtown core into some of the mid-century neighborhoods — looking out toward the Academy [Boulevard] area, looking at residential and commercial properties to determine, are there areas or neighborhoods that are historically significant and should be a priority for historical preservation on the neighborhood level?
It’s building upon PlanCOS and enforcing some of the outcomes. … As a piece of that, we are looking at folding into our structure an evaluation of the historical context and significance and being able to have that conversation with residents and property owners. How can we work with those neighborhoods to protect those neighborhoods and their story?
What do you think has been the biggest change the city has seen in the last 30 years?
I think for Colorado Springs in the last 30 years, with the changes in our built environment, the city in many respects has come into its own as a mid-level city. When we look at how we compare ourselves to other parts of the country, we have definitely — from a size standpoint and a population, diversity and equity perspective — really come into our own, and I think that in the last 30 years, while certainly there have been challenges and obstacles, we still have stuck through to embracing the vision and legacy of our founders as a community. That is the prioritization of public spaces and being a community where anybody, whether it’s a resident or a visitor, can come to live, work and play. I think that, in and of itself, has really reinforced Colorado Springs as a big draw for many different groups of individuals.
In that 30 years, the city has really been able to affirm that it is more than a collection of roads and buildings. We have embraced the legacy of our founders, and we continue to work to add chapters to the story of our community and of the city. It’s from a perspective of understanding and appreciation for where we’ve come as a means to inform where we’re headed.
What does the next chapter look like for Colorado Springs?
I think we will continue to show how and why we are a great place to live [and] a great place to raise your family. You can’t ignore our gorgeous scenery and setting, and much of that was put into place or set aside by our founders. When you look back to some of the original founders like [Gen. William Jackson] Palmer, they really prioritized and affirmed public open spaces in creating a community. Even though we’re a patchwork of different neighborhoods, we still are able to coalesce as a community as a whole and prioritize certain directions.
Why is preserving the past so important for the Springs’ future?
At the end of the day, HistoricCOS is not a plan that is envisioned to advocate and prioritize locking buildings and places away. We want to — and we should — embrace those resources and recommend they may be integrated into our community in many different ways. Two really good examples of that are the Pioneers Museum and the Catalyst Campus. Both of those buildings were, for all intents and purposes, slated for the wrecking ball. In the case of the Pioneers Museum, for the city to take on that building and transform it into a space and place where we can both talk about the past and various segments of our community, is an amazing opportunity.
Catalyst Campus is another building that was slated for demolition and has been purchased by a private entity, and now houses offices for defense contractors, lawyers, small business administration offices. In both of those cases, the building has been protected and restored, and the grounds around them have been transformed into spaces that are open and welcoming to the community. That says a lot about historic preservation and what it means for the city. Those spaces become both vital and flexible spaces that are participating aspects of the city and its future opportunities.
… Another example is the Lowell School. That now is owned and occupied by the city’s housing authority and provides additional commercial space. It is an amazing, dramatic building right there along South Nevada [Avenue] in terms of placing and prominence, but it also provides a very useful purpose for the city in terms of providing additional functionality and commercial space.
… When you look at the reuse and repurposing of those spaces, they are a unique opportunity for the community to not only embrace that story and that past, but look to the future of what they can be used for. They can function as an integral part of the community.
What role can the public play in planning for the city’s historic preservation?
From the first public meeting that we had on this, we’ve been hearing some of the stories and the knowledge that people had — and in many cases, many stories are just oral history. They’re not actually written. Through this process, we actually sat down with a number of tribal interests within the community that were here pre-settlement. Hearing their stories and hearing how the landscape and environment transformed when settlement occurred, I think we continue to deal with that transformation on a daily basis. The context of the story is constantly evolving. Being able to understand where that started really helps to inform the planning and decision-making process that the city takes into consideration when we’re evaluating all these different proposals. We’re really able to understand, at the city, neighborhood and property level, what is important to the community and being able to leverage that importance and see property owners and residents as active members of the community in that decision-making process.