Revisiting Palmer's vision: Building heights

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As most Springs’ residents know, General William Jackson Palmer is attributed to the design of our city today — the original, historic downtown portion anyway. He was methodical with how the city should be oriented in its design and did a great job utilizing many of the elements of historical planning, especially with capturing the important views.

Palmer’s design took shape around 1869, two years before the settlement of the city, when the Civil War hero first visited the Springs. Colorado City, or Old Colorado City as it is known today, already existed and provided a framework for Colorado Springs to link to. The OCC street grid wasn't based on vistas, but instead, like most early cities, aligned with the natural features of the land, Fountain Creek in this instance.

The terminated vista is an element of Palmer's design still evident today. Palmer framed views of Pikes Peak and prevalent architecture like the historic El Paso County Courthouse, known today as the Pioneer's Museum, and the original Antler's Hilton.

There are two primary elements of design that aid in the vision of maximizing the views of Colorado Springs. The first, which I’ll elaborate on in a future post, is the wide right-of-ways that exist to frame the vistas.

The other is a bit more controversial in nature: building height limitations. Currently, the core of our downtown doesn’t have a height-limit restriction — me bringing this up will inevitably raise some eyebrows — but it’s important to discuss.

One notion on building heights is that we should not place limits and allow the market conditions to dictate the needs. (See A parking enigma) This has a lot of validity for development, however I’m not convinced that this mindset should be in place for building heights.

Another thought is that where there are height limitations in place, it can actually create a demand for more development with lower building heights. The waiting game of speculation is decreased and market demands are easier met.

Let’s attempt to play out a scenario, and pretend with me that you own a half block of land in a downtown setting with a parking lot providing modest annual revenue. The land doesn’t have a building height restriction and therefore its revenue potential could be incredibly high. But to construct a building that meets the potential, you’d want to wait until the perfect speculative conditions, the sweet spot in the market if you will, which could be like chasing the end of a rainbow. In this scenario, it’s discouraging to build a modest wood-frame building on a podium when there could be a bigger pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

As a part of the committee in place at the time of the writing of the form-based code for downtown, I recall this being a hot topic of discussion. As I recall, it was the only major topic that the committee went against the advice of consultant. The discussion was great, with cordiality all the way around, and perhaps something worth revisiting.

Barcelona, Paris and Washington D.C., all have restrictions in place to frame and preserve views, and all are wonderful cities. Other world-class cities have height restrictions too, some that would be considered extreme in our community, but it's tough to argue with the density and quality of urbanism those cities possess.

The Springs’ original framework was laid out to maximize the amazing views of Pikes Peak — arguably more worthwhile than the views in the aforementioned cities. Shouldn't we work to preserve and enhance the views of Pikes Peak?

Perhaps we should use our current tallest building, the Wells Fargo Building, as a maximum baseline at 16 stories and 247 feet? What do you think? Is that too low, too high? Should we covet an iconic architectural skyline, or maximize on the natural skyline?

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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