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From ice to icons

City Sage

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As we go about opining and reporting upon local government, we tend to focus on conflict and dysfunction. Making fun of City Council's marketing plan or exhaustively analyzing the defects of the City for Champions proposal beats leading an amen chorus in praise of all things governmental.

Yet Colorado Springs city government actually functions quite well. Streets get swept, potholes get filled, parks get watered, streetlights are lit, the fire department puts out fires, and the police catch speeders.

It's in our DNA to be suspicious of local government. We expect little and shrug our shoulders at mediocre results. But sometimes we get excellence.

In late October, city workers descended upon Acacia Park to build an outdoor skating rink. Since this is not Leadville, Duluth or northern Canada, you can't expect nature to do the hard work of freezing a pre-existing pond to create a sheet of ice.

The city and its partners had four weeks to install compressors, level the site, line it, lay pipes to carry refrigerant, put up sideboards and build a temporary shelter beside the rink. They had to arrange for skate rentals, sign up musicians to play while skaters frolicked, and publicize the venture. They had four weeks to get it done, and if everything hadn't worked perfectly on opening day, they were screwed. There was no window for delays, mechanical malfunctions or design errors, since the rink would be open only from Nov. 23 to Jan. 5.

Such a schedule would challenge any private-sector entrepreneur, let alone the supposedly somnolent public sector. But as thousands of folks who have enjoyed this rink would tell you, it has been an unmitigated success.

The rink will vanish this Sunday, but it should be an object lesson to those who believe government can't do anything right. If challenged, government can respond quickly and creatively, enhancing our city in ways we might not imagine. City government teamed with the Downtown Partnership and private sponsors to create the rink. Moving forward, city government and partners both public and private will have a once-in-a-generation chance to remake our city.

A century ago, Colorado Springs was known for its beautifully designed public buildings. Many still remain: the Pioneers Museum, City Hall and the City Auditorium. They weren't built to be ripped down and replaced in 25 years — or 50, 100 or even 500. They were created as gifts to future generations, the foundation for the great city that would rise around them.

Since that Golden Age, we've built junky, graceless hulks that neither inspire nor delight. Consider the City Administration Building, County Office Building, Pikes Peak Summit House and various parking structures. Great buildings have been created — the Fine Arts Center, Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel and the Gaylord Center — but not by local government.

Now we have five chances to redeem ourselves. By the end of 2014, design processes for the U.S. Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame, a sports and events center, and a new Summit House (not part of City for Champions, but with more than $1 million in initial funding tucked into the 2014 city budget) should be well underway. The UCCS Sports Medicine Center will likely follow, as will the AFA Visitors Center.

All could become iconic structures that redefine our city. All will benefit from state or federal funding. The two downtown buildings (including associated infrastructure improvements) will be supported by local public funding as well, given voters' blessing. We have an opportunity to create new buildings as imaginative, defining and exciting as the Cadet Chapel.

Why not have an international architectural competition for the projects? Each job would be interesting and prestigious, and each project might receive dozens of entries. The very fact of the competition would make international news, and the outcomes would permanently rebrand our city.

Colorado Springs as a pilgrimage site for contemporary architecture? Colorado Springs at the cutting edge of design? Colorado Springs as the coolest city in the West?

Those who preceded us a century ago didn't accept mediocrity. They wanted to be proud of their city, to create buildings that lifted the heart and delighted the eye.

Can we not do the same?

hazlehurst@csindy.com

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