The day Westside residents and business owners have been awaiting for almost three years is finally here.
Nov. 15 marks substantial completion of the Westside Avenue Action Plan, a collaborative project to upgrade the Colorado-Manitou Avenue corridor between 31st Street in Colorado Springs and the Highway 24 interchange in Manitou Springs. A ribbon cutting was held at 10 a.m. Nov. 15 at the Garden of the Gods RV Resort, 3704 W. Colorado Ave.
“The WAAP project is a success story of how numerous jurisdictions and communities can work together to make a significant and necessary change come about that will benefit everyone for generations,” El Paso County Commissioner Stan VanderWerf said. “Modernizing 100-year-old infrastructure, accommodating other modes of transportation and enabling “slow and social” vehicle travel, all while maintaining access to more than 100 businesses, this is a remarkable accomplishment.”
Substantial completion is a milestone that indicates the majority of the work, including major construction, has been done What remains is completion of amenities and punch-list items that won’t cause the significant traffic delays motorists have seen in the past.
“We’re really looking at trying to finish out the project by the end of this month,” said Chris Jennings, project manager with Jacobs Engineering, which is supervising construction on behalf of El Paso County.
The project is designed to stimulate economic development and ease access to existing businesses along the corridor.
But Torie Giffin, owner of the Buffalo Lodge Bicycle Resort, doesn’t think she’ll start to see the benefits until the historic sign directing visitors to her business a block off Colorado Avenue is back in place.
Giffin bought the Buffalo Lodge in June 2016, just six months before the start of construction on the Westside Avenue project.
“That stretch of road sees 23,000 cars a day,” Giffin said. Without her sign, those vehicles have been bypassing her business. “They don’t even know I’m here.”
The sign is being restored at a local sign shop. Giffin expects it will be replaced in January.
“I’m excited for the project, but I couldn’t have anticipated how hard and how long it was going to be in this construction zone,” she said.
The 1.5-mile stretch of roadway that comprises the Westside Avenue Action Plan runs through three jurisdictions: Colorado Springs, El Paso County and Manitou Springs. A portion of the right-of-way was maintained by the state Department of Transportation before it was conveyed to the county.
Though short, it provides access to about 75 businesses while connecting the Old Colorado City and Manitou historic districts and serving as a gateway to more than 4 million visitors each year, according to the Westside Plan website.
Because of the multiple jurisdictions and neglect of the infrastructure, the area was dubbed “No Man’s Land.” It wasn’t a place that attracted businesses.
Officials from the three jurisdictions thought the corridor had the potential to be a catalyst for economic revitalization if it could be improved.
After three years of negotiation and planning, the Westside Avenue Action Plan commenced.
Basics of the plan included creating a “slow and social” roadway by shrinking the four traffic lanes to three — one lane in each direction plus a center turn lane, bike lanes on each side of the avenue and new curbs, gutters and sidewalks; replacement of outdated infrastructure, including undersized stormwater culverts and 100-year-old clay pipes; undergrounding of utilities; and replacement of the deteriorating and unsafe bridge at Columbia Road, which was built in 1934.
The plan also anticipated improvements to the Midland Trail, a new pedestrian bridge over Fountain Creek, a plaza at Ridge Road and installation of amenities including historic acorn lights and landscaping.
Work began at the west end of the corridor in January 2017, and as it progressed, workers from Wildcat Construction ran into many challenges.
Scores of property owners had to be contacted about rights-of-way; pipes weren’t where they were supposed to be; huge boulders were encountered that required the use of special equipment to remove.
Crews had to unearth and dispose of thousands of tires that had been used to shore up the creek in some locations, and, of course, Colorado’s changeable weather sometimes forced construction to halt.
The project was scheduled for completion in late 2018 and was budgeted at $30 million. Because of unanticipated obstacles, the timeline was extended for nearly a year and the cost swelled by nearly $10 million.
Most of the funding was covered through the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority, which collects local taxes to fund roadway projects.
IMPACT ON BUSINESSES
Businesses along and west of the corridor have borne the brunt of construction, and some are still being affected as the work winds down.
“The businesses by the Adams Crossing bridge are still pretty heavily impacted,” said Leslie Lewis, director of the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce.
Lodging properties along the avenue were hit hard as construction moved westward and turned to online advertising rather than relying on passing traffic.
The first summer — Giffin’s second at the Buffalo Lodge — she saw a nearly 10 percent increase in business. That was because traffic was detoured onto Columbia Road and right past the lodge.
But then her sign was taken down, and she’s lost that drive-by business.
“My direct-book numbers are down significantly,” Giffin said.
“I tried to have a farmer’s market,” she added. “It was too frustrating for people to get in, so this year we didn’t do it. I’m still alive, but it’s definitely been challenging.”
HEAVY WORK DONE
Lewis noted that additional construction projects in and around the town, as well as the closure of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway for repairs, also have affected businesses in Manitou.
But they have seen some improvement lately as traffic has been flowing more smoothly on Colorado Avenue, Lewis said.
“I think it will be tremendously better when word gets out and we get some publicity that the road impacts will be done,” she said.
Construction is continuing on the bridge, where pedestrian and traffic crash barriers are being constructed. A storm sewer and sidewalk work in front of the Rainbow Lodge are nearly complete.
At Red Rocks Shopping Center, a block-long retaining wall is being built on the south side of the road, and driveways will be restored, Jennings said.
“The roadway infrastructure will be finished this week,” Jennings said, “and no more heavy machinery will be hanging around. People will still see the contractor working, but a lot of the work will be touch-ups and punch-list items.
“People are going to be really happy they’re not being delayed any more. It will be a much safer and better corridor that flows. Hopefully it’s going to bring in a lot of businesses,” he said.
The Manitou Springs Urban Renewal Authority is focusing on exactly that, said Ann Nichols, chair of the URA board.
“Our executive director [Jim Rees] has been working really hard to attract the attention of developers,” Nichols said.
She noted that the La Fon Motel was sold twice recently, “an indication that people are looking at the corridor.”
The Dillon Motel near the Highway 24 interchange also changed hands recently, and the property is the focus of a proposed tiny house development that could accommodate people who work in the area.
“We are in active discussions with the Holiday Inn Express,” Nichols said, referring to a project that has already been approved for one of the few vacant lots in the URA. “We do think that completion of the [Westside Avenue] project is going to give us the opportunity to continue to talk to developers.”
Although she couldn’t disclose specifics, Nichols said that the URA would be discussing possible property acquisitions in the corridor.
“We have heard from some developers that if we control the property, that would make it more attractive,” she said. “We’re trying to attract good, solid development that would serve residents as well as tourists, like a specialty grocery store or daycare.”
VanderWerf said he is looking forward to partnering with Colorado Springs and Manitou to pave the way for investment in the corridor.
“It’s on its way to becoming a really beautiful street,” VanderWerf said. “It already has had a transformative effect about the way some of the companies look — they look better because the street is nice.”
VanderWerf said he predicts the businesses that have put up with construction for so long ultimately will be rewarded.
“I know the project did go into schedule and cost overruns, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redevelop the area,” he said.
Despite the difficulties, Giffin acknowledges that the county and contractor have worked hard to communicate with business owners and maintain access to properties as much as possible, and said VanderWerf is working with her to get her sign replaced.
“The light at the end of the tunnel is when my sign gets back on Colorado Avenue,” she said, adding she’s also excited about the completion of the Midland trail and bike lanes.
“I lead a bike ride out of here every Saturday,” she said. “We will be a heavy user of the bike trail and bike lanes.”