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Improvements to South Academy Boulevard near Mission Trace Shopping Center will make the commercial area more accessible to nearby residents.

In a couple of months, the city of Colorado Springs will begin a major reconstruction of two portions of South Academy Boulevard, from the ground up.

It will be disruptive, but city leaders and major business stakeholders along the South Academy corridor think it will enhance vehicle and pedestrian traffic, connect Southeast residents with commercial areas, attract people from other parts of the city and contribute to revitalization of the community.

Motorists will have a smoother, more comfortable surface to drive on, with less ponding water. Pedestrian access to businesses will be improved.

The $37 million project, which covers five miles, will be financed with Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority funding. The two parts of the project were approved by voters in 2017 as part of a PPRTA initiative.

“In economic development, we have learned that private investment follows public investment,” said Bob Cope, the city’s economic development manager. “Businesses have increased confidence to invest when a community builds and  maintains the necessary supporting infrastructure.”

The city is already seeing interest in Opportunity Zone projects along the corridor, he said. While these projects have not been formally announced, they include hotel, multifamily, office and light industrial proposals.

James Johnson, Community Investment Trust operations manager for Solid Rock Community Development Corp., thinks the project will help the overall aesthetic appeal of the corridor and will bring more visibility to local businesses.

In particular, improvements planned at the intersection of Academy and Hancock Expressway will enhance connectivity with the surrounding neighborhoods and benefit development taking place at the Mission Trace Shopping Center, located at the southeast corner of the intersection.

Mission Trace, one of the key commercial developments along the corridor, is undergoing renovations, said Matt Craddock, principal at Craddock Commercial Real Estate. 

Craddock, who owns five buildings at the center, hopes the Academy project will revive interest in the long-vacant King Soopers building, where a recent proposal to raze it and build 280 affordable housing units has fallen through.

“Having a new entrance, streetscape and accessibility — all that helps drive traffic through the area,” Craddock said. “That in turn creates customers for our tenants and makes people want to be there. And then if we can make something spectacular happen with that former King Soopers building —  that could be the kickoff that makes it all happen.”

THE PROJECT

The pavement in the South Academy corridor is in poor condition, said Robin Allen, the city’s project manager for the reconstruction.

“It’s been identified as a road that needs basically a complete overhaul to repair it,” she said.

The project will be constructed in two phases: Phase 1 is Bijou Street to Airport Road; and phase 2 is Fountain Boulevard to Jet Wing Drive.

Phase 1 is projected to begin in November.

“We’re at about 90 percent design for that section,” Allen said. The work will include removing and replacing asphalt, repair of curbs and gutters, drainage improvements and replacement of driveways to make them Americans

with Disabilities Act-compliant.

The second phase, set to begin in early 2022, will include the same work, plus repair of medians.

“That section is a little bit more challenging because of an old, abandoned landfill that is between Astrozon Boulevard and Hancock Expressway,” Allen said.

The road was built on top of the landfill and has settled over time.

“We’re going to put in grouted piers to support the roadway — it’s basically a bridge that is buried underground,” Allen said.

Another major piece of the project will be improvement of the intersection at Hancock.

That intersection was identified in a 2016 study as one of the most crucial areas that needed attention. 

According to the study by Centennial-based civil engineering firm Felsburg Holt & Ullevig, the intersection sees more than its share of traffic accidents — crash rates were double the state average at the time of the study. Other challenges at the intersection: congestion, especially at peak hours; poor access to businesses; extensive business vacancies; and lack of community amenities.

When the state owned and maintained the roadway, “they were looking to make that an interchange,” Allen said. “We’re going to make that a more traditional intersection without the ramps.”

That will improve the intersection’s traffic flow and make it more pedestrian-friendly, she said. 

The project will also make a connection between Boychuck Avenue and Academy that will facilitate traffic movement from the residential areas to the west of Academy to Mission Trace Shopping Center.

As part of both phases, 8- to 10-foot-wide sidewalks will replace the 4- to 5-foot-wide sidewalks on both sides of the roadway.

“Multiple users can use that sidewalk — pedestrians, cyclists, people with strollers,” Allen said. “It will make that pedestrian connection feel a lot more comfortable.”

The sidewalk will connect with the Sand Creek trail via a widened sidewalk on Hancock, to further enhance access to shopping and dining. That part of the project is in the early stages of design and likely is a year or two away, Allen said.

The southwest corner of the Academy-Hancock intersection has been identified as a site for a Mountain Metropolitan Transit center. That project has not been funded yet, “but it is a future plan,” she said.

Allen said she expects the first phase of the project to take about 18 months to complete. The second section, which is longer, will take about 24 months. Completion of both portions is expected by summer 2023.

“We will be talking to the businesses during this whole process,” Allen said. “We’ve already reached out to most of them to talk about their driveway construction.”

It typically takes two or three days to remove and replace a driveway and allow it to cure, she said.

“We’ll work with each business owner individually on how that construction goes forward,” she said. “They will have the choice of doing half their driveway at a time. If they have two driveways, we can do one at a time and keep the other one open. We want to make sure they have access for the public to their property.”

Academy Boulevard will remain open during construction.

Allen said the city intends to keep lines of communication open with business and property owners along the corridor.

“They can reach out to me or the contractor with any questions or concerns,” she said. “We will have inspectors out there daily watching the project, and they can always reach out to somebody in the field if there’s an issue.”

MISSION TRACE

Mission Trace, which has been called the heart and soul of Southeast, was last renovated in 2006 and is due for a refresh, Craddock said.

Design plans have been completed for one of his buildings, and Craddock expects to close on financing soon for renovations to two others. A fourth building will get a minor facelift including paint and stucco work.

Craddock is most excited about the remaining building: He aims to create an open market space he’s calling The Hub in a 15,000-square-foot structure at the corner of Hancock and Academy. 

“We’re building much like what you would see at COATI Downtown — food courts, entertainment, you know, sort of a gathering place,” he said.

Craddock says he has plans to visit the new Red Leg Brewing Company on Garden of the Gods Road to see what owner Todd Baldwin has created there.

“I sold them that ground,” Craddock said, “and I’ll probably borrow some of their ideas.”

Craddock has already signed the first tenant for The Hub — Mexican restaurant Las Tortugas, and hopes to sign up two more, including a coffee shop, in the near future.

Craddock does not own the King Soopers building but envisions it as part of the open market concept.

“Hopefully we can turn that into some sort of open space or amphitheater area — maybe through a cooperative effort with a community group,” he said.

Craddock said plans for an affordable housing development on the King Soopers site were scuttled when the backers failed to obtain bond funding. 

“The city had a couple other projects that were ahead of theirs,” he said. “It’s a shame that it didn’t come together, but there’s still hope that the guys that were planning the project can come back and make that happen.”

Toby Gannett, owner of BCR Management, who had spearheaded the project, said in an email that the building “is no longer under contract.”

Craddock said he has more than 40 tenants in his buildings, but he is hoping The Hub becomes a springboard for further revitalization.

That’s where the Academy improvement project comes in, he said. Once there is a unique draw that brings in people from the rest of the city, they’ll have a better way to get there.

INCENTIVES NEEDED

Johnson hopes the Academy Boulevard improvements will bring more visibility to the businesses that are already at Mission Trace. 

“It’s going to take a lot of money and a lot of vision — which is all possible — to make Mission Trace a destination for everyone in the city,” he said.

He’s cautiously optimistic about the Academy project’s overall effect on economic development.

“Southeast is kind of lagging behind in regards to the investment in making the area walkable, safer and to have more appeal,” he said. “We have a lot of small businesses — mom-and-pop businesses — and I would love to see that they actually get a boost from that, as well as more companies moving into Southeast. I think it would be a great thing if it is able to actually produce those results.”

Johnson hopes to see more lighting as part of the improvements at Hancock and Academy “so people feel safe and comfortable coming down there. When the road is good and the lighting is great, is that going to give other businesses the confidence to come down and open up?”

He thinks further incentives are needed for that to happen.

“You have a whole population down here of maybe 80,000, rising every day, that would go out and frequent these places,” he said. “But for whatever reason, businesses don’t see the Southeast as a necessary spot where they want to come and open up.”

What he’d like, Johnson said, is for more people to “experience the diversity, the energy, the vibrance of Southeast, because that’s already here.”

 

Reporter

Jeanne Davant is a graduate of the University of North Carolina. She worked for daily newspapers in D.C., North Carolina and Colorado, and has taught journalism and creative writing. She joined the Business Journal in 2017.