Incentivizing Infill

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MODBOCO SCHOOL OF ART
  • MODBOCO School of Art

Colorado Springs
is finally taking the leap into really digesting and figuring out infill — at least we can all hope it is, as a committee has been appointed and they’re off and running.

The definition of infill can be pretty watered-down, just think back to the Springs’ 2011 mayoral race when ALL the candidates spoke about the importance of infill. (Each probably had different things in mind when it came to the use of the word ‘infill’.) But Wikipedia provides the easiest, most watered down definition: "the rededication of land in an urban environment, usually open space, to new construction."

Any planner worth their salt can make the argument that any land in the city, nay, in El Paso County, can in some way be described as infill under that definition.

“Rededication to new construction” sounds pretty straightforward, right? But where does that get us when we’re discussing the need to incentivize infill development? Nowhere. Absolutely nowhere.

As you could imagine, I have a lot to say about infill. It's pretty much the basis of my professional passion. But if we're talking about rebalancing infill in contrast to exurban greenfield development, we need to carefully establish what, and where, the incentives should be.

Incentives are important but may not be necessary in all cases. Simply ridding the suburban, greenfield regulations for infill would go a long way in attracting infill projects. (Rethinking regulations needs to happen citywide, but that may be too large of a bite of the apple.)

Let's break it down further. There are two broad categories of infill: suburban vs. urban, and vacant land vs. redevelopment/ brownfields. Cleansing the codes and regulations for non-applicable elements for the latter is critical.

But let's not stop there. A proactive urban renewal authority is important too, as Tax Increment Financing is where the true incentives come in. As a former Vice-Chair of the Urban Renewal Authority, the most frustrating part of the authority is that it’s structured and functions as a reactionary board rather than seeking developers to address the blighted portions of the city.

Going back to the city's infill committee, the time was past due and I’m thankful that it's been put together. My hope is that they really dig into where incentives are applicable and where they are not, and what constructed results warrant incentives and typologies that do not. The city needs a clear plan for defining infill and geographically defining boundaries of incentives with the Infill plan. It cannot be left ambiguous.

The results of an incentivized project must provide longevity and resilience in its architectural and contextual form. Replacing a broken model with another built for obsolescence will do nothing for the city. Designs must be built for adaptation with detailed, form-based codes. We can't replace big boxes with more big boxes and expect different results.

The redevelopment of the Mall of the Bluffs — which was needed — is an example where cleansing the code would have been important. However, incentives from TIF wouldn’t have been appropriate because it was replaced with another series of buildings that will be obsolete after 25 years. This project is an example of a site where decay was present and certainly qualified as infill, but the results are nothing more than a punt to do it all over again in 25 years.

The Ivywild School on the other hand is a true gem of an infill project in our city. It’s a wonderfully adaptive reuse of existing architecture. Similarly, I believe that Blue Dot Place will also serve as a gem once completed, providing a mixed-use residential project for downtown.

Ivywild and Blue Dot Place would’ve been perfect candidates for the cleansing of irrelevant codes and fees applicable to suburban development and providing incentives via tax-increment financing. They will both become an asset for our city and will radiate quality redevelopment in nearby areas, and each is contextual and designed for longevity and adaptability.

We need to look at incentivize redevelopment to draw more successful infill projects like these throughout the decaying areas of our city.

John Olson is a licensed landscape architect, residing in Colorado Springs. He serves as the Director of Planning and Landscape Architecture for EVstudio Planning & Civil Engineering. He is also a co-founder of Colorado Springs Urban Intervention, which implemented Better Block Pikes Peak in 2012, the recent Walkability Signage found in Downtown Colorado Springs, and perhaps most notably, Curbside Cuisine.

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