Gone are the days when “urban development” meant lining a vacant street with characterless office buildings and chain restaurants.
Developers these days need to be more mindful of how they are restructuring the cultural building blocks of the neighborhood — particularly when employing the infill method, which involves developing vacant or under-used parcels within existing urban areas that have already been largely developed.
“When we infill, we have to be making sure have enough grocery services and school districts,” said Regina Winters, assistant dean of UCCS’ School of Public Affairs. “We want [that infill to be useful], and make sure we’re not just moving around that property base.”
When Kee Warner moved to Colorado Springs in the early ’90s, the Springs had “a real surplus” of vacant land inside its city limits, he said.
“That’s starting to get used up,” said Warner, a professor of sociology and public administration in UCCS’ School of Public Affairs.
This is the time members of a community need to not only ask themselves what kind of development they want to commit themselves to, but also how those desires match up with the opportunities for development available inside the city, Warner said.
“You’re getting beyond the old days of encouraging any kind of development,” he said. “Space within the community is becoming a more scarce resource, so how can that be guided to create that kind of urban community? That’s a real balancing act.
“Things are created by individuals coming up with ideas and making it work,” he added. “It’s not the role of the government to predetermine that, but there are things that can be encouraged.”
The most successful infill developments are the ones providing necessities that are missing from a neighborhood, Warner said.
“[The developers] are not only mitigating their impact, but there actually is a value added,” he said.
An example of this is the neighborhood surrounding the Patty Jewett Golf Club, known informally to locals as the greater Patty Jewett neighborhood, Warner said.
“You look at a project like that where… [developers] really created something in that neighborhood which had never been there before in terms of a social gathering place, access to bike trails,” he said. “The most interesting infill development is putting on those kinds of lenses and not just looking at the specific requirements, but thinking about what the real potential is when you’re going into an existing urban fabric.”
The ultimate goal of any urban renewal project, infill or not, is livability for the surrounding area’s residents, said Jariah Walker, executive director of the Colorado Springs Urban Renewal Authority.
“With all of our projects, we want a public art component, a walkability component, we want it to be connected to transit or trails,” Walker said. “That’s just part of our mission.”
Walker cited the Gold Hill Mesa development, a master planned community built atop the former site of the long-closed Golden Cycle Mill, as an example, along with the former Ivywild School and the upcoming U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum and Hall of Fame.
“There was a lot of dirty soil [at Gold Hill Mesa] because of the old gold mill, and all the property tax that they’re generating goes to the URA and we give that money back to the developers for certified costs. That immediately made that more livable,” Walker said. “We want [these developments] to be more livable, and we want it to be something that the neighbors enjoy that would not have been there had we not gotten involved.”
Challenges of urban renewal
Infill projects often are looked at as a way to meet a community’s affordable housing needs — especially in urban markets that are heating up, making affordable housing that much more scarce — but those discussions have to be part of a broader framework that the community has laid out, Warner said.
“I think that’s a hard thing to do on a project-by-project basis,” Warner said. “It needs to be tied into a broader commitment to what we’re trying to create for our community.”
However, when it comes to infill development, urban renewal projects — public-private partnerships designated by the Colorado Springs Urban Renewal Authority and City Council — have their limitations, especially when it comes to affordable housing, Walker said.
Urban renewal projects are driven by tax increment financing, which essentially means banking on an increase in property tax revenue that will result when the project is finished, Walker said.
This means urban renewal, as a funding mechanism for redevelopment, is only as good as any net new property taxes or sales taxes that are created from new development, he said.
“Whatever exists for that property is the base, and the base doesn’t go away. The city is still going to collect that much in taxes; the library, school district and county still collect their portion,” Walker said. “[Those taxing entities] say, ‘OK, you can put a project here, but just remember that the base is going to always exist. There is not going to be any new increment or tax dollars until that base is overcome.’”
This makes the affordable housing piece of redevelopment an especially interesting challenge, Walker said.
“We typically talk about the [decommissioned] Drake Power Plant. Let’s say that somebody went in and said, ‘We want to do an affordable housing project, and the land is obviously super dirty, but we can’t do it unless there’s some public dollars,’” he said. “Whatever they build, if it’s not generating any new sales tax, it’s not going to be a lot of dollars that I’m able to give back to it in order to help pay the developer back for cleaning up all the dirty soil.
“Typically, property tax isn’t a ton in Colorado Springs,” he added. “[A project] may not generate any tax revenue at all. If it’s tax exempt, my tool is worthless.”
The No. 1 challenge is finding a developer willing to wait for a return on their investment, Walker said.
“A lot of people think the URA is an organization that has money that they invest in a project directly,” he said. “We’re really just a mechanism for capturing net new dollars generated from a project. … A developer has got to have enough money in their pocket to be able to fund everything on the front end. It takes time for the tax dollars to come in. Sometimes it can take a few years.”
Some communities hand developers long lists of requirements for infill development, sometimes including amenities such as child care facilities, Warner said.
“However, those usually come about from a place that has a pretty tight level of control over development — probably a lot tighter than Colorado Springs,” he said. “Developers are willing to negotiate things that are above and beyond to get approval for a project.”
However, those requirements are less of an option for local governments in an environment that allows developers a fair amount of slack, he said.
“In the bigger scheme of things, Colorado Springs has not been highly controlled in terms of development,” Warner said. “That would be a new trend in Colorado Springs — to be adding additional requirements for infill, especially things that have to do with some of the indirect impacts of an infill development.
“The requirements are pretty focused on what’s actually generated by the project, in terms of access to the street and so forth. I think there are other ways of thinking about it.”
Ultimately, Walker said, the URA’s biggest contribution is generating new development adjacent to, but not part of, an urban renewal area, and therefore not subject to the same funding constraints.
“[That development] isn’t urban renewal, but it’s going there because an urban renewal project went in first and now is creating a little bit more of a market,” he said. “How do we jump start an area that’s languishing and put in a new project in there that’s going to be a game-changer?
“That’s our goal, and it is a [time-consuming] process.”