By Regan Foster
Darsey Nicklasson has a big vision when it comes to a field in Southeast Colorado Springs.
The developer behind two of Downtown’s premier apartment complexes — Blue Dot Place and Casa Mundi — knows she’s taking a leap of faith on the 18.6-acre parcel at 2155 Hancock Expressway, and that some will likely view her project as gentrification. But if she sees her vision come to fruition, Nicklasson said, she will create a residential development that is a mosaic of people truly reflective of the diverse community.
“It’s about building a place for families, a place where everyone’s accepted,” Nicklasson said. “A place where the priority is caring for the community and creating a space for neighbors to get to know one another and care about one another.”
She dubbed her proposed 223-unit multi-family development, Mosaica. The name is a nod to the three-dimensional art technique that puzzles together small pieces of colorful material to create a larger image.
If approved by the city’s Planning Department staff, the development would be built north of Hancock, west of Delta Drive and east of the South Union Boulevard/Circle Drive interchange, currently home to some mid-sized elm trees and little else. Some of those trees could remain; those that don’t would be replaced by manicured lawns, cottages, multi-unit “great houses,” play space for kids and even a sledding hill, Nicklasson said.
“I just had this ‘aha’ moment,” she said. “I could see the end product and it’s like, ‘That’s what I need to do.’
In a mosaic, Nicklasson explained, each piece is incredibly important.
“When you put it all together it creates something gorgeous,” she said. “That’s how I feel about communities: You honor and respect each individual and when they all come together … it’s beautiful.”
According to a project development plan and statement filed with the city in June, Mosaica would cater to: “families, singles and couples whose livelihoods, traditions and seasons of life are varied, but who share the desire to connect, contribute and make their community a better place to live.”
The plan calls for one- to four-bedroom rental units, built in a mix of five- to six-unit “great houses” and single-unit cottages. Preliminary site plans show the buildings would be clustered in groups of two to five, with common areas like shared yard space and a central playground, on 14.58 acres. The property’s remaining 3.9 acres would be designated for future commercial development.
The tentative plan includes wide sidewalks, walking and cycling trails, courtyards, an enclosed dog run and a community center that can support programming like after-school care and neighborhood get-togethers. Nicklasson was influenced in the ideas by her own experience as a mother of four.
“I feel like we’re an oasis in a sea of asphalt,” the Colorado Springs-based developer said. “I can’t imagine being a mom and living in the apartment buildings you see now.”
Nicklasson emphasized that the amenities are tentative because she is seeking input from neighbors and would-be residents.
“I wanted to keep reaching into the Southeast community to make sure I knew more and more and more,” Nicklasson said. “I want to make sure we have something that means something to the residents.
“You can’t put all of these ideas together yourself. You’ve got to have other people.”
A history of high end
Nicklasson burst onto the Springs’ development scene in 2014, when she and business partner Kathy Loo broke ground on Blue Dot Place on South Nevada Avenue. That 33-unit complex opened in January 2016 and launched a boom in urban infill and luxury living downtown.
That was followed by Casa Mundi, a 27-unit boutique complex on South Tejon Street, which has been in operation since late 2019.
Rents at Nicklasson’s Downtown properties start at $1,530 (Blue Dot Place) and $1,615 (Casa Mundi) per month, and top out at more than $2,500 per month. The one- and two-bedroom apartments come with amenities such as stainless steel appliances and natural stone countertops, according to the developments’ respective websites.
Although resurrecting urban-center living has been rewarding, Nicklasson said something was missing. As the affordable housing crisis worsened in the city, she wanted to have a hand in developing a property with attainable rents that would become a community, not just a complex.
“I didn’t feel comfortable always building high-end housing,” she said. “I don’t always want to be in that market.”
And although she acknowledges that some will view the Mosaica development as gentrification, Nicklasson said governmental oversight related to rent controls, tax credits and other challenges tied to Section 8 Affordable Housing kept her from pursuing that designation. Instead, she cast her eye toward attainable housing, fixing rents to the city’s average median income — about $56,000 per year, by her calculations; although the U.S. Census Bureau pegged the median at $61,324 in 2019, the most recent year available. The average rent will ring in at about $1,500 per month, Nicklasson said, noting that the large three- and four-bedroom units played a roll in boosting that figure; and she’s committing to the rents staying fixed, minus adjustments to cover the costs of routine expenses like property tax increases, for at least 10 years.
“We’re not truly affordable housing, but we’re going to do what we can do,” Nicklasson said. “We’re going to maintain rents because it’s the right thing to do.”
The property is zoned for planned-unit development so it doesn’t require a formal rezoning process. Nonetheless, Nicklasson is eager to engage with the community via meetings and conversations — to the extent that COVID-19 will allow it.
“The best thing we can do is work with the [community] as best we can,” she said. “It’s a matter of trust with people that they’re telling us a true story and they trust us that we’ll do our best by them.”
If the project is approved, she hopes to break ground this fall and build out the community in three phases. And although Nicklasson wouldn’t commit to hiring exclusively Southeast Colorado Springs builders for the work, she was open to hiring qualified local subcontractors. She grew animated when discussing the possibility of partnering with local schools to get trades-skills students hands-on experience, or of hiring a Mosaica resident to help manage the community.
The cornerstone of the mosaic, Nicklasson reiterated, is the residents.
“I’m really excited about it, I really care about it,” she said. “I want to know the Southeast community more and better. My biggest concern about it is there’s something that I don’t understand.
“I think there’s still probably a fair amount of things we could do.”