As cities age, they tend to rot from the center outward. Old buildings are abandoned. Schools close.
Now, Colorado Springs City Council and Mayor Steve Bach want to pump new life into old neighborhoods and revive commercial spots left behind by locals' migration to Powers Boulevard. But that's unlikely to happen when development rules favor new construction over revitalization.
"Over the years, cities have developed zoning standards to address growth," says city planning director Peter Wysocki, "and some of those may not fit these older areas."
Finding a way to remove obstacles to redevelopment, which includes use of vacant land, is the mission of the recently appointed City Infill and Redevelopment Steering Committee. Composed of developers, neighborhood folks, downtown advocates and urban planners, the panel will write policies for development of the city's 39,000 acres of vacant land, identify barriers for redevelopment of old properties, and identify areas to target for re-purposing. It also should end up with a new section for the city's comprehensive plan, and a call to think about revitalization of this 143-year-old city on a grand scale.
Some infill development is already happening. According to the city's 254-page draft report on infill and redevelopment issued in July, about 43 percent of previously vacant land has been developed in the last 15 years.
But the challenge isn't just building on vacant land. As the study notes, "Without continued reinvestment in the already built environment, much of the community benefit of simply filling in remaining vacant parcels will be lost."
A notable example of reinvestment is the former Ivywild Elementary School south of downtown, which ambitious locals have converted into a brewery, restaurants and other businesses with the help of the Urban Renewal Authority.
Another is Mall of the Bluffs at Academy and Austin Bluffs Parkway. In 2007, it was outdated and had only a handful of occupied spaces. It was razed and replaced with a shopping plaza that now boasts dozens of businesses with "a demonstrated increase in commercial viability," the city's infill report notes.
But those are just two of hundreds of spots ready for a redo, and many of those pose more complex challenges.
The owners of Joseph's Fine Dining, for example, wanted to move across the street to 1603 S. Eighth St., the site of an abandoned gas station. The new restaurant and parking lot sit on two lots, one that had an old gas station and another vacant one, which required a zone change. Combined, the lots are long and narrow. Wysocki says city planners and the Planning Commission worked with the business to adjust setback requirements to allow for more parking. The city also permitted alternative landscaping and required a tall wood fence to buffer homes, he adds.
"It's a terrific addition," says Dr. J.E. Cook, who with his wife, Shirley, stopped for lunch on Friday at Joseph's.
Another case: Rustic Hills shopping center at Palmer Park and Academy. It used to hum with business at a Long's Drugs, Albertson's and other stores. But it's been nearly vacant for years, and there's no plan to revitalize it. "It breaks my heart," says Councilor Jill Gaebler, who represents the district and serves on the Infill Committee.
While incentives may be able to spur some new plans for sites like these, would-be developers also can face problems that are difficult to overcome, such as restrictive zoning. The committee will look at how existing regulations could be changed to make redevelopment easier, as was the case when a warehouse company recently asked to re-purpose an old grocery store on South Circle Drive for its industrial operation. "It's better to have somebody in the building rather than leaving it vacant," Wysocki says.
For Gaebler, making neighborhoods more "walkable" is her goal. She notes that only 6 percent of Springs residents can walk to a supermarket in 10 minutes or less. She hopes to encourage mixed-use redesigns. "For me, it's all about neighborhoods," she says.
Two of the more high-profile targets for redevelopment are in the city's core. One local nonprofit group plans to establish the Colorado Springs Public Market in a portion of the former Gazette building at 30 S. Prospect St. The City for Champions tourism venture calls for an Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame and a sports stadium to be built in the Vermijo Avenue and Sierra Madre Street area where mostly vacant tracts and warehouses lie.
Gaebler calls those projects "catalytic" because they could lead to spinoff amenities, such as a streetcar that connects downtown to the market.
"It's cheaper to build in greenfields, and I don't like that," Gaebler says. "It costs so much to continue that sprawl," she adds, referring to services such as police and fire protection, road maintenance and snow removal.
The committee's first meeting was scheduled for Election Day. It meets again Nov. 18 at City Hall, 107 N. Nevada. Wysocki says the panel hopes to submit recommendations to City Council within a year.