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Plotting an avenue's evolution

City Sage

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As Gen. William Palmer's planners laid out the Colorado Springs grid in 1871, they took care to provide streets wide enough for carriages, pedestrians and street railways to coexist. They imagined a city of stately thoroughfares shaded by towering trees and a thriving downtown supported by close-by residences ranging from modest bungalows to spectacular mansions.

They couldn't have anticipated the automobile age's strip cities, which evolved, flourished and decayed as the Springs outgrew its original borders.

Nevada Avenue was the first auto-dependent commercial district. It wasn't just an arterial street — it was the state's principal north-south highway. Southbound traffic from Cheyenne, Fort Collins and Denver traveled along Nevada, as did northbound vehicles from Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Pueblo.

The avenue flourished. The signs of motels, nightclubs, bars and used-car dealers illuminated the night, a thin neon ribbon extending more than a mile north of Fillmore Street.

But when Interstate 25 was laid down through the Springs in 1960, the corridor changed. Travelers whizzed by the suddenly invisible strip, patronizing businesses visible from the freeway.

Today, Nevada between Fillmore and Garden of the Gods Road is dreary and uninviting, a once-vibrant commercial/industrial strip fallen on hard times. A few tired motels share the highway with the closed greyhound track and an aging K-Mart. It's a street without sidewalks or urban amenities.

But north of Garden of the Gods Road, a once-blighted stretch of Nevada has been transformed. In 2004, the Urban Renewal Authority partnered with area landowners, including developer Kevin Kratt and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, to create the North Nevada Corridor Urban Renewal Area. The designation allowed CSURA to issue bonds supported by anticipated tax receipts from new development, which helped fund construction of the University Village Colorado shopping center.

The sprawling complex, anchored by Costco, Lowe's, Kohl's and other national tenants, redefined the corridor, clearing the way for UCCS to expand its campus to Nevada's east side. And it's now inspired the freshly minted North Nevada Economic Opportunity Zone Committee to attempt a revival south of Garden of the Gods Road.

The committee had its first meeting last week. Attendees included Colorado Springs Utilities CFO Bill Cherrier, Utilities economic vitality specialist Elena Nunez, UCCS chief operating officer Martin Wood, city planners Peter Wysocki and Carl Schueler, veteran planner/developer Nolan Schriner, real estate broker Wynne Palermo, City Councilor Don Knight and Colorado Structures CEO Rob Oldach.

"We need to decide upon a priority area," said Nor'wood developer Fred Veitch, who helped create First & Main on Powers Boulevard. "We don't want to be so broad that we never get off the ground."

Veitch, who's also advising a similar task force on South Academy Boulevard, made his role clear: "We have no property interest along the corridor. So if I can help facilitate my competition, I'd be delighted."

City planners had created maps of uses and zoning along the avenue, which sparked a discussion about the inherent difficulties of redevelopment projects.

"What do you do if you create the new zone, and an existing property owner wants to sell to a user that may not fit?" Schriner asked. "He might be saying, 'Oh boy, now I can retire,' and the bad ol' city is saying, 'Nope, you can't sell.'"

"'Eminent domain' is not a phrase in the city vocabulary," observed another participant.

The group quickly agreed to focus on Nevada's west side for possible ideas such as medical research. No one mentioned the obvious — that the heavy industrial uses to the east, including a concrete batch plant and CSU's Birdsall power plant, are not easily altered.

Instead, they focused on a still-challenging goal: addressing the "easier" side, creating a framework to encourage new development, feeding off positive energy from University Village.

"You have to set the table," Veitch said. "That's what Denver did 20 years ago. You have to be ready for development when the time is right. It's a little like herding cats, but it's not that difficult. So let's not recreate the wheel — let's jump on this and get going."

hazlehurst@csindy.com

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