John Hazlehurst

John Hazlehurst

Our hyper-booming Downtown is a dream come true for Downtown businesses, developers and property owners. For adjacent neighborhoods, it’s sometimes a mixed bag. 

Take the Westside, a vast neighborhood west of Downtown and east of Manitou Springs. It includes the largest number of Victorian houses and buildings of any Colorado neighborhood, the coolest new neighborhood in the city (Gold Hill Mesa), the coolest 1960s development in the city (Pleasant Valley) and Old Colorado City — the unrivaled, miraculously preserved 19th-century commercial district. 

OCC and the neighborhoods that surround it have always been more fun, more egalitarian and poorer than Downtown. We were diverse when diversity wasn’t cool, so broke in 1917 that we were annexed by Colorado Springs (a day of infamy!), and suspicious of authority. We’re fine with our mixed use neighborhoods, with churches, tattoo parlors, breweries and family residences all jumbled amiably together in adjacent blocks. Historic preservation overlays, overarching neighborhood plans, overzealous code enforcement — stay away, soulless bureaucrats! But thanks to these prosperous times and Downtown’s glamor and excitement, we’ve become cool and fashionable. Dingy old cottages have been renovated or ripped down, vacant lots have been redeveloped and stuffed with slot houses and suddenly there are more young families, dogs, cyclists and skaters enjoying and enlivening the neighborhood. It’s great — we’ve actually moved into the 21st century! But what about the traffic, the congestion, the population growth? How do we deal with it?

Now’s the time to learn from Downtown’s success. We need to figure out what might help our neighborhoods, jobs, schools and businesses. That means looking at the world with new eyes, and working with city planners, bureaucrats and elected officials. 

Take our main thoroughfare, Colorado Avenue. It’s often traffic-choked and difficult to safely cross, especially in OCC. Couldn’t we transform it into a pedestrian-friendly, business-optimizing “complete street?” That’d mean reducing it to two lanes, with better parking, safe bike lanes and a much-improved pedestrian environment.

That idea has been bruited around for sometime, and has had little support from residents, businesses and OCC merchants. I was among them, until I read an insightful piece that John Olson posted on his Urban Landscapes blog. Here are a couple of excerpts. 

“Gas stations, strip malls, and other land uses with a focus on the automobile are effectively repellent for walking,” Olson wrote. “They are a cue for a visitor to turn around and not proceed further. The west side of Old Colorado City includes those uses, repelling people from walking further. These walk repellent land uses are not exclusive to this district, they exist all over the City, State and Country.”

The solution? Form-based zoning similar to Downtown for OCC, and a road diet for Colorado Avenue. Such zoning deemphasizes land use and provides for a better pedestrian experience. Pointing out that “Development will be quickly moving toward Old Colorado City and the preservation of the sense of place that exists could be quickly threatened,” Olson thinks that we’d better get our act together and move forward.

Seven years ago he helped create a “Colorado Avenue road diet plan” that he believed would “bring new life to Old Colorado City, doubling the amount of on-street parking and decreasing the number of traffic lanes and pedestrian crossing distances.”

Despite support from the OCC Security & Maintenance District and a few businesses, the plan died. I think I know why. 

The idea that reducing auto traffic will increase business is profoundly counterintuitive.

“OCC is a wonderful place,” Olson told me earlier this week. “I think the question to be answered is how much of the traffic today on Colorado Avenue is productive to OCC? My suspicion is that because all the lanes are there, and it is just as fast to drive Colorado Avenue as it is to take Hwy. 24, much of the traffic is pass through, or non-productive. What the businesses of OCC need is traffic that is productive. Sort of like good and bad cholesterol, there is a difference between good and bad traffic congestion.” 

In other words, wouldn’t our lives be improved if we refused to be roadkill for out-of-area drivers and prioritized our own well-being? It sure has worked for the Old North End…

John Hazlehurst, whose great-grandfather came to Colorado in 1859, is a Colorado Springs native. He has worked as a reporter/columnist for the Indy since 1997 and the Business Journal since 2006.