The issue: Downtown is booming. Are we ready?
What we think: Build infrastructure, transportation options and amenities to keep pace.
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City planner and urbanist Brent Toderian has said the eight most frustrating words anyone in planning can utter are: “We could never do that in our city.”
Toderian, founder of Vancouver-based urban design consultancy Toderian UrbanWORKS and former chief planner for the city of Vancouver in Canada, made that point when he addressed the Downtown Partnership’s City Center Series audience two years ago. For the crowd assembled at Colorado College’s Edith Kinney Gaylord Cornerstone Arts Center, the statement was significant.
The city had recently seen its first residential development built downtown in about six decades (Blue Dot Place) with the promise of more downtown development ahead. Last week, another piece of that promise fell into place as dignitaries gathered for the ribbon cutting at Casa Mundi, a 27-unit boutique apartment property located on South Tejon Street. (Darsey Nicklasson, one of the developers responsible for Blue Dot Place, was also instrumental in the development of Casa Mundi.) Casa Mundi readies for renters after several other downtown residential projects have come to fruition — and even more are in the works. Although the Springs was seen by many as a “never-in-our-city” kind of burg, downtown residential living is gaining real momentum.
Things have changed, but there’s still work to be done. If a downtown teeming with residents is going to function as it should, infrastructure and services must keep pace.
The majority who work downtown commute from surrounding suburbs, adding significantly to time spent in traffic on crowded central streets and along Interstate 25. They also add to the perceived shortage of parking, and that volume is not going to subside anytime soon. That means the city should prioritize more — and better — public transportation options both in the city and at its periphery. The more we cling to planning downtown development around cars, the worse off we’ll be in 10 years.
“There are three elements of density done well,” Toderian said in 2018. “First is aligning land use and transportation and connecting land use and density … with infrastructure that achieves a mode shift from driving.
“If you design density for your car, it will be bad. It will fail. The only thing worse than low-density sprawl is high-density sprawl in car-dependent places.”
But Colorado Springs, with its infamous sprawl, has always been a car-dependent place. A robust network of bus routes, bike lanes and even rentable electric scooters could go a long way toward shaping the Springs’ image as an eco-friendly and accessible city.
The second building block for a thriving downtown is creating amenities that make density livable and lovable, including well-maintained parks, community centers, day cares and schools.
“These are all things we need and should expect as density goes up, but they are often not provided,” Toderian told the City Center Series crowd.
One solution is density bonusing, which requires developers to pay for infrastructure that makes density work, he said.
“But that sounds like a regulation and American politicians hate regulation,” he said. “Americans are ideologically against success when it comes to city-building.”
And don’t forget about design, the third component, Toderian said.
“Cities should have a very high design standard. You have to design density well — even beautifully,” he said.
When people picture density, they often assume the worst “because the worst is often provided,” Toderian said. “If you put all the elements in place, you stand a chance to have successful density, but all three often mean culture changes for a municipality.”
Our downtown is sitting on the cusp of great things. This is the time to be deliberate about the details of how we want downtown to look and feel, where we want it to grow, and the lifestyle we want it to encourage. It’s time to do the hard work of advocating for all the pieces of a place we can be proud of. It’s time to pay attention, no matter which part of the Springs you call home — because as downtown goes, so goes the city.
We are now a city of doers — so let’s be sure we do it right from the start.