Twenty years ago more than half of the city's retail trade flanked Academy Boulevard. With big box stores, chain outlets and restaurants, Academy was one of the city's busiest corridors. Bumper stickers declared, "Pray for me. I drive Academy."
But over the years, the city crept eastward and the lure of Powers Boulevard snatched away major players like Best Buy, TJMaxx, Ross, Walmart and many smaller stores and shops that followed right behind them.
While the section of Academy north of Maizeland Road is keeping its head above water for now, a six-mile stretch south to Drennan Road is doing poorly. One reason is that development was barely taking hold when the flight began. Just notice the large swaths of empty land. Since 2008, though, vacant land in the area has declined by 25 percent to 578 acres, according to a city study of the area, a good sign.
The area, defined as a mile either side of Academy between Maizeland and Drennan, has been under study by the city off and on since 2007. But it's getting renewed attention since Mayor Steve Bach labeled it one of three Economic Opportunity Zones last year and formed a committee to give him and City Council ideas on how to spark a renaissance. (The other EOZs are on North Nevada Avenue and downtown.)
Due to report to Bach on Feb. 25 and to Council on March 10, the committee has formed "actionable recommendations" to make the area "relevant and desirable," according to a draft of the report obtained by the Independent.
According to that draft report:
• The corridor is aesthetically unpleasing. Or, as committee member Realtor Tiffany Colvert said at a recent committee meeting, "It looks bad."
• Roads and intersections discourage pedestrians; cyclists are unsafe.
• Commercial vacancies are high. (City data show shopping-center vacancy rates were 26 percent last year, more than twice that of the city at large, while office vacancy rates were 24 percent.)
• Nearly a quarter of all the city's crime takes place in the corridor, and residents experience 25 percent more crime than the city as a whole, a decline from 45 percent in 2008. (Figures are based on the first half of 2013 compared to the same period in 2008.) Meantime, the number of neighborhood watch groups has declined.
• The area lacks jobs and city and county services as well as an engaged community.
But the committee is far from daunted.
"I'm an incrementalist," says Fred Veitch, Nor'Wood vice president, who chairs the committee. "If we can make 30 things better, that's a start, and it shows the community cares."
Soon, Veitch's group will pass the baton to Bach and Council.
"The policy tools will become City Council's and the mayor's to discuss," he says. "We want to give them the opportunity and let them start the dialogue."
Among the talking points might be some of the roadblocks standing in the way of a breakthrough for South Academy, among them absentee owners and the city itself.
'People don't spend money'
One who's well-schooled on South Academy is Carl Schueler, a city planner who's been studying the area for several years. He makes a good guide for a tour of the corridor, a 12-square-mile area that's home to 66,000 people, a small city.
First stop is Bentley Commons, a two-building apartment complex next to an abandoned 70-acre landfill with vent pipes sticking out of the ground. The landfill, just north of Hancock Expressway, is ripe for an environmental assessment. An EPA program could fund the assessment, but the cost to mitigate the site would be left to the owner, Lockwood LLC of Denver, which the Indy was unable to reach. Left as is, the landfill site is one of several factors that "sterilize" development in the area.
A short distance east lies Mission Trace Shopping Center, on the southeast corner of Hancock Avenue and Academy. The center seems to be beating the odds by having a lot of spaces rented by ethnic shops, nonprofits and small businesses.
Tom Pham opened the Pho Saigon Grill four and a half months ago and reports, "I think it's fine. Business is fine."
But just southeast of his restaurant stands the old King Soopers, replaced with another King Soopers on the northwest corner of Hancock and Academy. The boarded up grocery store is owned by MTSB LLC of Denver, for which the Indy couldn't find a telephone number.
Electric transmission lines tower over Academy, running parallel to the road until they tie in to a massive substation owned by Colorado Springs Utilities north of Mission Trace. The committee will suggest burying the lines, if economically feasible.
The city's 2011 Academy Boulevard Corridor Great Streets Plan notes that Springs Utilities maintains an "undergrounding fund" used to match up to 50 percent of the cost provided by landowners. The Great Streets Plan estimated burial cost at about $1.4 million per circuit mile, twice that for double circuits, which are the type along Academy.
As for the substation, it's cost prohibitive to move and, in fact, is being expanded.
Go north a bit farther and you see a shopping center once anchored by Pace Warehouse, now long gone.
Penny Nabb has run a beauty supply business here for 21 years, and it's seen better days, she says. Asked her thoughts on the city's focus on South Academy, she sighs and says, "I don't know how they're going to help me here. It seems like people don't spend money."
But she speaks highly of the property's owner, Pace Bally Plaza LLC of Colorado Springs, which she says has been willing to work with tenants on rents to keep them in business.
The city also has been amenable to developer and business-owner requests, hoping to boost the corridor's jobs picture. Within the last year or so, city officials took the unusual step of rezoning an area behind the now vacant Bally's fitness center to accommodate BMC Manufacturing, which is expected to employ 50 people.
Jobs are crucial in an area that "underachieves regarding the number of jobs given the number of dwelling units," with many of those "lower paying service or retail positions," the city draft report says.
Other bright spots in the corridor: a couple of Walmart neighborhood markets, a new Taco Bell, Kum & Go, Ace Hardware, Lowe's and the Postal Service processing facility that was targeted for closure until Mayor Bach urged postal officials to reconsider, Schueler says.
Lowe's, which opened a couple of years ago at Citadel Crossing between Platte Avenue and Galley Road, sparked several new businesses there, but access is difficult. One thing that might help is extending Portal Drive East where it dead ends at the center, if the city can work around a looming transmission tower.
Just north of Palmer Park Boulevard stands one of the area's saddest sights. Rustic Hills North, a massive tract that once had Long's Drugs and an Albertsons grocery, is completely empty, save a tiny gyro stand on one corner. Overhangs are falling apart. The parking lot is pocked with holes. It's owned by RHSC LLC of Englewood; the Indy was unable to find a phone number for the owners or property manager.
Absentee ownership, Veitch says, "is an issue on the north quadrant, which is problematic because they're not being responsive to the community or the opportunity. How do we communicate with those owners more effectively to decrease the blight? They're not here. They don't see it."
So the city has a tall order on its hands. While city officials can't pull off miracles, they might be able to engineer a better climate for business to take off. The chief way is by providing infrastructure, much like it did to accommodate the World Arena project in the early 1990s, or as it plans to do for the proposed City for Champions that will require $51 million in infrastructure in the downtown area, including a parking garage and pedestrian bridge.
"How does the market help itself, and what can the city do to help the market revitalize that area?" says Planning Director Peter Wysocki.
He notes that $32 million in state and federal transportation money is included in the region's 25-year transportation plan for improvements to the corridor, such as roads, sidewalks, repaving and street-scapes.
Part of that money, roughly $500,000, will be spent to hire a consultant this year to redesign the Hancock and Academy intersection, Schueler says. By narrowing the sweep of turn lanes, for example, the crossing would become more friendly to pedestrians, a key ingredient in attracting shoppers, he says.
Another $20 million in Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority funding is earmarked for projects along Academy in the next 10 years, and yet another $15 million for the corridor, notably to repave certain stretches of Academy, is on the PPRTA's B-list, meaning all the A-list projects take priority.
Such transportation projects will take years to finish. But Veitch says other things can be done more quickly, such as adding more bus service and making it easier for people to get to El Paso County's Citizens Service Center (CSC) on Garden of the Gods Road, which offers assistance with everything from voter registration to food stamps.
First, the city plans to add 55 hours of weekend transit service this year to the Academy corridor, restoring service to pre-recession levels. Now, buses run on South Academy only every half-hour, a sore spot with Solutions Team member Joe Barrera.
Noting it takes 2.5 hours to go from South Academy to the CSC, he says, "That's really unacceptable. I don't think any of us would put up with that inconvenience. But we expect people there to put up with that inconvenience, almost as a matter of policy."
County Commissioner Peggy Littleton, who joined the committee recently, said last week she's checking the feasibility of using county vans to run regular trips between South Academy and the CSC.
"I'm excited I'm finally at the table to see what the county might be able to do to work with the city," Littleton says.
Veitch hopes the economic recovery that's underway elsewhere spreads to South Academy. Signs are good that it's starting to. Garden Ridge home improvement store opened in the Target building at Platte and Academy last year and Discover Goodwill plans a facility at Hancock Avenue.
"We've seen some additional occupancies in retail buildings which is very positive," Veitch says. "It sends a signal we're open for business, and creates jobs."
Veitch hopes the Council and mayor embrace the committee's recommendations and launch task forces to tackle each section of Academy, relying heavily on citizen input. "As we roll out the strategy section by section, let's get the meetings set up and let's talk about what can be done," he says. "Let's focus on something positive in each, so we send a clear signal that we are engaged."