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A sticky situation

Coal tar leaves Cottonwood Artists' School, developers in limbo


Peggy Vicaro, left, with Kay Jeansonne, says the school - ideally will stay put. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • Peggy Vicaro, left, with Kay Jeansonne, says the school ideally will stay put.

Artistic value is closely tied to personal perspective.

For students, practitioners and administrators at Cottonwood Artists' School, on the southwest edge of downtown Colorado Springs, the coal-tar contamination under their home of 3 years invites a similar open-mindedness.

On one hand, they hope that a rising cleanup bill to remove the toxic sludge could scare away developers aiming to build a hotel on the site, along with condos and a parking garage nearby.

But toxic sludge also just sounds scary.

"Should we be drinking the water?" asks Peggy Vicaro, executive director of Cottonwood, a nonprofit that offers painting and drawing classes for hundreds each year while providing low-rent studio space for 43 local artists.

When Cottonwood moved into the city-owned former gas administration building in early 2004, the most immediate worry was a convention center planned for the site, which would have forced the school to search quickly for another spot.

Cottonwood got a reprieve when voters said "no" to the convention center, but the hotel development plan popped up this year, and again the school faced the prospect of homelessness.

Burial ground

Now coal tar seems to be gumming up the development plans for Palmer Village.

The tar is left over from a coal gasification plant on the site. New tests show the tar seems to be staying in the same place and away from America the Beautiful Park. But the tests also reveal a level of toxicity that could make it necessary to burn the stuff instead of simply burying it elsewhere, possibly multiplying cleanup costs.

The developer and officials from the city and the Colorado Springs Urban Renewal Authority met this week with state health officials to begin discussions about how much cleanup will be required for the project to go forward.

As part of the redevelopment of southwest downtown, the Urban Renewal Authority would buy from the city nearly nine acres in the area about $4 million, with additional cleanup costs for the gas building estimated around $500,000.

"The outstanding question is, "Is it going to cost more than a half million to remediate?'" says Chuck Miller, a consultant with the Urban Renewal Authority.

If the costs increase significantly, that could change some equations for Urban Renewal and the partnership between Nor'wood Development Group of Colorado Springs and Classic Homes, which planned to buy a large chunk of the property from Urban Renewal and then sell a slice to a developer for an Embassy Suites hotel.

The snag can be traced to the coal gasification plant, which operated at the site for about 40 years beginning around 1890. The plant, like more than two dozen others in the state, allowed residents to light and heat their homes with gas released from heated lumps of coal.

Marie Baehr, who works with acrylics, says she has had - an explosion - of creativity since she started keeping a studio at - Cottonwood. - L'AURA MONTGOMERY
  • L'Aura Montgomery
  • Marie Baehr, who works with acrylics, says she has had an explosion of creativity since she started keeping a studio at Cottonwood.

The sticky sludge left behind often contains benzene, which can cause cancer if it is breathed or ingested. But in the early 1900s, workers at the plant apparently didn't give much thought to just taking the sludge and burying it, putting it "out of sight, out of mind," in the words of interim Assistant City Manager Paul Butcher.

"Simply put, it came to the attention [of developers and Urban Renewal and city officials] that perhaps the issue is bigger than everybody thought," Butcher says.

Mark Walker, voluntary cleanup coordinator for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, says it is impossible to know at this point what steps will be required for development at the gas administration building to go forward. Once his department receives a formal application with details of the plan and the contamination, it will have 45 days to respond.

Fits and starts

Uncertainty of one sort or another has prevailed since Cottonwood started inhabiting the gas building, and its search for a permanent home has not gone smoothly.

Plans to relocate to the TRW building on North Nevada Avenue soured because of interest from a larger suitor the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

While the search for an ideal alternative continues, Vicaro said, the school is steadily growing, selling $45,000 of art already this year and now offering classes accredited by the UCCS art program.

Still, she admits, from a revenue perspective, the art school will always be a lightweight next to a 300-room hotel.

The uncertainty is hard for some of Cottonwood's artists.

"I do well with change, but not with indecision," says Marie Baehr, who uses mostly acrylics to paint landscapes and floral images in her Cottonwood studio.

Baehr describes her artistic development during 18 months at the school as "explosive," and she was prepared to move with the school to the TRW building when that was the plan.

Now, she wrestles with the uncertain future while hoping Cottonwood will stay in place, giving the arts a presence downtown and allowing artists to feel the buzz from downtown energy.

"My hope and dream is that this area would be an art community," Baehr says.

In 2006, the city cut off negotiations with the Depot Arts District Association as it planned to convert a neighboring building into studio space, galleries, apartments and a restaurant. The idea fizzled when the prospect of federal funding went away.

Vicaro is waiting to hear more about the contamination while hoping for reassurance that it poses no health risks for artists who practice and study there.

If it turns out the stuff is safely buried but just too costly for developers to deal with, she is clear about the school's ideal spot to carry on its work.

"We'd stay," she says. "We'd definitely stay."

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