The ghosts of historic buildings Colorado Springs has lost haunt Mayor John Suthers.
He sees the outlines of the 1912 Burns Theater, which occupied a space on the south side of Pikes Peak Avenue between Cascade Avenue and Tejon Street. Reputed to be one of the finest venues west of the Mississippi, the elegant theater was the centerpiece of Colorado Springs’ cultural life in the early 20th century.
It survived as a movie house — the Chief Theater — until the 1970s, when the voices of modernization and economic realities drowned out those who wanted to preserve the building.
The Burns was demolished in 1973 to make way for an addition to the Exchange National Bank and a parking lot.
“The Burns was a wonderful opera house that we should have preserved,” Suthers said. “The thought that nothing’s been built there — it’s still a parking lot — is rather distressing to me.”
Today, a higher value is placed on celebrating and preserving Colorado Springs’ unique history, and renovation of historic structures is more financially feasible than it was in the 1970s.
To ensure the community’s character is appreciated and honored, the city has adopted HistoricCOS, Colorado Springs’ first historic preservation plan since 1993.
As an adjunct to PlanCOS, the city’s master plan, HistoricCOS is much more than just a look at the past. It’s a strategy for leveraging Colorado Springs’ historic and cultural heritage to generate economic development, create jobs, revitalize downtown and other areas, and attract new residents and visitors.
BENEFITS OF PRESERVATION
HistoricCOS was unanimously adopted by Colorado Springs City Council on Dec. 10. It updates the 1993 plan but “takes a different look at how historic preservation can be a benefit,” said Daniel Sexton, principal planner with the city’s Planning and Community Development Department.
“It has huge ramifications in the sense that if your property is listed on the national or state historic register, you have the opportunity to secure both state and federal tax credits, which can be very useful in leveraging dollars to reinvest in a building,” he said. “From a bottom-line perspective, it can really be an economic catalyst to maybe make a project pencil out financially.”
Historic preservation tax credits facilitated the rehabilitation of the Cheyenne Building, which houses Phantom Canyon Brewing Co.; the conversion of the Mining Exchange Building, once a stock exchange for local mining companies, into The Mining Exchange, A Wyndham Grand Hotel & Spa; and the development of the Catalyst Campus, a reimagining of the old Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway depot into a collaborative space for technology and innovation.
As a generator of economic development, the plan is a tool for “small business incubation, affordable housing, sustainable development, neighborhood stabilization, commercial district revitalization, job creation, promotion of the arts and culture … and heritage/cultural tourism,” the plan states.
It cites a 2017 report by Clarion Associates that states: “[E]very $1 million spent on historic preservation in Colorado leads to $1.03 million in additional spending, 14 new jobs and $636,700 in increased household incomes across the state.”
A SENSE OF PLACE
Historic preservation also helps create a sense of place for the community and a distinctive identity for businesses and organizations housed within historic structures, said Matt Mayberry, director of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum.
Old Colorado City, for example, “was one of our first historic districts in Colorado Springs,” Mayberry said. “We recognized it had its own distinct character and its own distinct narrative. So it was an example of how a neighborhood could be revitalized with historic preservation as a key driver of that effort.”
The area around Roswell, north of Penrose Hospital, is another site with its own unique history.
The Lincoln Elementary School, repurposed as a neighborhood hub and home to several businesses, has helped create a destination for the historic neighborhood around Roswell and spurred economic development.
The same applies to Ivywild School, which has catalyzed business development in the southwest neighborhood.
Many neighborhoods west of Academy Boulevard, as well as some along Academy, meet the minimum threshold for historic significance of 50 years or older.
Mayberry said many Millennials moving to Colorado Springs are showing interest in the midcentury modern, post-World War II homes found in these neighborhoods.
“The area around the U.S. Olympic Training Center is extraordinarily rich in that type of home,” he said. “A lot of Millennials are seeking out those kinds of neighborhoods that to them feel special. I think people want to live someplace other than a cookie-cutter neighborhood, and that’s one of the great things about historic preservation — you create a rich tapestry of neighborhoods that are appealing to new residents.”
Historic preservation is also a sustainable form of development.
“They say the greenest building is the one that’s already there,” Mayberry said. “That’s exactly what we’ve done with our building. We’ve taken what was the 1893 El Paso County Courthouse and we adaptively reused it for a museum.”
The city’s unique story also helps attract visitors to the Pikes Peak region.
“I do think that historic preservation plays a big role in making Colorado Springs, as Mayor Suthers always says, a city that matches the scenery.”
ELEMENTS OF THE PLAN
HistoricCOS does not intend “that every building should be protected and preserved and that we should prevent new, modern buildings from coming into our community,” Sexton said. “This plan allows the opportunity for a conversation of, ‘Is this really a piece of our history, of our culture, that should be preserved, and could it be reused or adapted to still be a cultural asset and an economic asset for our community?’”
The plan lays out a procedure for identifying and evaluating historic properties owned by the city and determining which of those are significant enough to merit preservation. It suggests that a similar process could identify privately owned significant properties.
The new plan contains a list of action items the city wants to implement within the next five years, grouped into four categories: community survey and education; identification and management of city-owned historic resources; preservation and support for the private sector; and improvements to the city’s existing preservation program and land use regulations.
The plan also provides a succinct history of Colorado Springs, a history of historic preservation and maps of historic districts and identified historic properties.
“As a guiding planning document, it does not change the regulatory process at the city, state or federal level,” Sexton said. “What it does, though, is it sets the stage for discussion of refinements … in how we process and handle applications that affect or establish historic overlay [districts].
“Certainly as a result of this plan, we will have some conversations … to discuss whether the [historic preservation] ordinance as currently written is appropriate. It does not infringe, with its guidance or direction, on private property rights.”
As Colorado Springs approaches its 150th anniversary in 2021, “I’m spending a lot of time talking with business owners and organizations in the community to help them be aware of our sesquicentennial and to find a way for them to have a meaningful role,” Mayberry said.
“We’re at this time of immense growth and rising property values,” he said. “Historic preservation plays an important role in helping neighborhoods find their identity. So I think it’s the exact right time to be thinking about historic preservation and to be enacting this plan.”