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City Development Muddle Could Sink Affordable Housing Project



An innovative development project that would create up to 83 desperately needed affordable housing units is floundering because of yet another complicated Colorado Springs development muddle.

A joint project of nonprofit Greccio Housing and Ohio-based Concorde Capital Corporation, the development, called Rockrimmon Vista, would create 154 senior and multifamily apartment units at both market and low-income rates.

The 27-acre site, however, is rife with expansive soils, landslide-susceptible terrain, environmental difficulties and unresolved drainage issues. As noted by city planner and project supporter James Mayerl, "This is a very difficult piece of dirt."

As such, it is provoking considerable flack from public safety advocates and a coalition of 10 surrounding homeowner associations who insist that it has not been adequately planned, that the approval process circumvented a number of city, state and federal regulations and that current design would put surrounding houses and properties at risk.

City officials, public housing advocates and the developer equally insist, however, that the project can proceed safely and to the benefit of the surrounding neighborhood. Opponents, they claim, are motivated less by concerns for public safety than by a classic case of NIMBY-ism.

"We've worked diligently to ensure a good project," said Greccio founder and CEO Claudia Deats. "We've complied with everything asked of us by the city."

The project would include a senior complex with 40 apartments and a multifamily complex with 43 apartments that would be designated as affordable housing units. Its occupants would be those whose incomes comprise 40 to 60 percent of the area median -- i.e. between $20,500 and $30,800 -- whose salary range is that of entry level teachers, police officers, fire fighters and service industry workers.

Deats believes the project's detractors are "people with an anti-affordable housing agenda."

The neighbors adamantly deny this. According to Rockrimmon resident Jan Doran, president of the Council of Neighborhood Organizations (CONO) and board member of the Discovery Homeowner's Association, "This is not an affordable housing issue. We hope this project gets built. Our concern is with the geologic hazards inherent in the property. Neighbors have every right to expect that it be done responsibly for the sake of both existing and future residents."

Land slides and old mines

The area surrounding the project site has a history of geologic and drainage problems. Rockrimmon Terrace and the Ridge Apartments, which are directly across the street from Rockrimmon Vista, have suffered severe landslide damage, and several houses adjacent to the site have been recent beneficiaries of FEMA taxpayer bailouts due to landslide damage.

Project critics note other concerns as well.

One is the potential for ground subsidence due to the fact that the site is catacombed by mine tunnels dug by the Pike View Mine, a mining operation that dug for coal in the Rockrimmon area between 1900 and 1957.

A mine subsidence, or sinking ground, study done by a geotechnical engineer company, CTL Thompson, said that subsidence dangers were low, but another study by another engineering company, Dames & Moore, found high danger of sinking. Those conflicting conclusions have never been reconciled, according to geologist John Himmelreich, who is critical of the project.

A June 7, 2000, letter from the Colorado Geologic Survey to the city recommended that any homes built in the area be covered by subsidence hazard insurance, but the State Mine Subsidence Insurance program expired for new construction in 1989.

That letter also recommended additional and more thorough slope stability studies to ensure proper mitigation of site problems.

Another significant concern, opponents say, is that the master drainage plan for the area -- The Rockrimmon North Drainage Basin Plan, which was conducted in the late 1980s and early 1990s -- was never completed, and it was never adopted by the city.

The Rockrimmon Vista site, meanwhile, is subject to severe erosion and drainage problems. No final drainage plan has been approved for this specific project.

Piecemeal approach

Himmelreich, an outspoken critic of the way projects are approved by the city and county, argues that the delays and problems associated with this project are rooted in the process by which the city approves hazardous development projects in general.

Given the difficult terrain endemic to much of Colorado Springs, the current procedure, he insists, is insufficiently rigorous and the ordinances are inadequately enforced, and the Greccio project is victim to this process.

For example, the city-certified environmental assessment performed by a Concorde consultant failed to identify a wetland area in the site. In consequence, Greccio has had to return $1.78 million in tax credits awarded to it by a Colorado Housing Finance Authority program to facilitate affordable housing. The agency will have to re-apply for those highly competitive funds. If they are not re-awarded this time, the senior apartment complex won't get built.

Delays are jeopardizing other state and federal funding sources designed to facilitate new affordable housing projects as well.

A report, called The Internal Affordable Housing Team Action Plan, prepared by Ron Cousar of Neighborhood Services and Chad Wright of Community Services," is highly telling in this context.

The report notes that the city has "no structured method of receiving and conditionally approving affordable housing projects," and that the approval process needs changes.

It also recommends lowering the required improvement standards for affordable-housing projects and creation of an affordable housing investment fund that would allow the city to circumvent rules and regulations that accompany funding assistance from state and federal sources.

"Here," Himmelreich noted, "lies the real problem. The problem isn't dotting a few more i's and crossing a few more t's. The problem is piecemeal approaches to development and inadequate city policy linked to a reluctance by Council to regulate development on problematic terrain.

"The issues plaguing this project still haven't been sufficiently addressed, tax dollars are being spent to subsidize projects in high-hazard areas and ordinances are being circumvented and unenforced.

"It's not the neighbors. It's the process."

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