It looks as if the transformation of Downtown’s Vermijo Avenue will actually happen! It had long been a wide, dreary, automobile-friendly downtown street with two rows of parking in the middle. It’s an aesthetic nightmare, a parking lot disguised as a public thoroughfare, lined with lifeless government buildings, parking lots and abandoned commercial properties.

No more! According to the city’s website, “Heading from east to west, the streetscape for each block of Vermijo will build momentum and complexity in design culminating into a rich gathering place at the foot of the museum. The new street design, which will become downtown’s second Signature Street after Tejon Street, will accommodate both pedestrians and vehicles while offering the opportunity to host festivals and plaza-type events.”

The street will live up to every urban quality-of-life buzzword. According to the city, it will be sustainable, bike-friendly and will offer a “combination of pedestrian improvements, low impact development, smart technologies and effective stormwater management [to] provide an overall design that brings together elements to create a unique urban area in our downtown.” And let’s not forget the recently installed “iconic” pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks.

Assuming that the pandemic ends within a couple of years, it’s fair to assume that our once-forlorn southwest Downtown will revive. But will the revival be significant enough to justify the massive public and quasi-public investments in the area? 

The Olympic & Paralympic Museum and Hall of Fame has to be successful for decades to come, annually attracting hundreds of thousands of out-of-state visitors. The city will have to fund money-losing parking structures to accommodate their cars, and will have to do so before the long-term viability of the museum is clear. Private developers will have to create and even subsidize some fun destinations in the 100-acre neighborhood — bars, restaurants, quirky little shops. That kind of street life defines Tejon Street and Old Colorado City, but won’t be easy to replicate in a streetscape of medium-rise generic hotels, apartments and even an office building or two.

We’ll see... but the vast changes that are taking shape throughout our once-sleepy little downtown aren’t reversible. The hotels and apartment buildings are going up despite the coronavirus, even as beloved businesses close (goodbye, Coquette’s Bistro & Bakery — you’ll be missed!). The “creative destruction” of capitalism is sweeping through the historic heart of Colorado Springs, razing the old, building the new and ushering us into a new era. 

Since I was born in 1940, there have been four downtown eras. The first, from 1940-1961 was a time when Downtown was the beating heart of the small city, the center of business, government, industry and commerce. I left in 1962, missing the sad era of decline and destruction in the ’60s and ’70s, as businesses migrated to the suburbs, and hundreds of historic buildings were razed in misguided urban renewal and redevelopment schemes. Returning in 1981, Downtown had regained some of its former vitality — I still loved it. A few years later, we moved from the Rockrimmon neighborhood to a near-downtown house. Downtown wasn’t old and stodgy — it was party time! Tejon was lined with bars and restaurants and defined for some of us by Friday and Saturday nights at the Ritz Grill.

Dave Lux opened the Ritz in 1987, and kept it going for 30 years. Call it the Ritz Era — a stable, intermittently prosperous time that morphed into the Perry Sanders/Susan Edmondson Era of explosive growth. 

The businessman and the president and CEO of the Downtown Partnership, respectively, are restless dynamos who led downtown’s extraordinary recovery from the Great Recession. Sanders bought the derelict Mining Exchange building in 2012 and somehow raised tens of millions to convert it into a luxury boutique hotel. He subsequently bought and renovated The Antlers hotel and acquired other significant downtown buildings. Edmondson became president and CEO of the partnership in 2013, and led the organization as it created or partnered in dozens of Downtown projects (including the Olympic and Paralympic museum). She’s a fierce and formidable collaborator, a joy to work with and a terror to oppose. 

So here we are in the S & E Era, ready to walk down Vermijo Avenue. While we’re at it, a modest suggestion for Edmondson: Change the street name. Gen. William Jackson Palmer’s sidekick, Gen. Robert Cameron, named it after the Vermejo River in New Mexico, but misspelled it. Let’s fix it — after 150 years, it’s about damn time…

 

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.