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Power Plays

The city's utility company enters the housing business in the Mill Street neighborhood


Nine months after the city-owned utility company bought more than a dozen homes and forced property owners to move away from the Mill Street neighborhood south of downtown, project organizers now say they won't need to demolish those once-targeted homes after all.

Instead, Colorado Springs Utilities will likely partner with a local nonprofit agency and convert the site near the Drake Power Plant into affordable housing, its first such venture.

Utility employees who are brokering the deal said that no effort was made to re-offer the properties back to their original owners. Beginning last March, Colorado Springs Utilities spent nearly $2 million to buy 13 homes and relocate the displaced residents in the Mill Street neighborhood, south of downtown and immediately adjacent to the recently approved Red Cross and El Pomar mega-shelter for the homeless.

"We just realized there's a need in this city for affordable housing and we bought a lot of properties we didn't need, so we want to return this area to the community," said Darlene Garcia, who is working on the project.

Angering the neighborhood

The utility company initially displaced the residents, claiming they needed the space to build a rail spur that would allow additional railroad cars into the area. Though the spur, as well as the homeless mall, has been a bone of contention with surrounding neighbors, project manager John Tancock this week insisted that the housing project will not be used by shelter recipients as transitional housing.

"It's pretty clear to me, after participating in the meetings with the Red Cross and the Mill Street neighbors, the neighbors are not at all interested in having the Red Cross own and operate transitional housing that is directly linked to the shelter," he said. "Why would the utilities sell the property to the Red Cross or an agency that would work directly with the Red Cross to do that?

"We don't want to anger the neighborhood."

However, Tancock realizes it's a little late for that.

"It's crazy -- we don't know what they are doing, and they don't know what they are doing," said Rickie Stuart, a neighbor who lives directly across the street from the project. "They obviously thought none of it through -- they are destroying our neighborhood without any forethought."

Last year, the utility company insisted it needed the properties to make room for a spur would allow 120 coal cars, rather than the 110 to 115 rail cars that currently fit in the yard at the coal-powered power plant.

30 cents to the ton

The utility company only plans to use the power plant for another 15 years. However, last May it signed a contract with its coal company provider that required the city to come up with a plan to accommodate the maximum number of rail cars and thus save 30 cents a ton on its coal purchases.

Tancock said the utility company initially thought it would have to bulldoze the homes in the area for the spur.

However, the utility company subsequently realized that design would increase the likelihood that the train cars could derail. The company has subsequently obtained permission from the Army Corps of Engineers and the city's Regional Building Department that will allow them to build the track closer to Fountain Creek, partially on a flood plain area. The design change means the existing houses will not be affected after all.

Tancock said the sequence of events is "not unusual." However, he could not think of a similar circumstance in which the utility department found itself spending millions of dollars relocating residents for what ultimately was deemed unnecessary.

In retrospect, he said, better planning might have avoided having to dislocate people only to realize later that their forced move was unnecessary.

"Its best to try to minimize the impact, and we're certainly learning more and more as we get into these projects," Tancock said. "In the future we probably need to rethink that sequencing and get our layout and design before we start the whole process."

Easier to destroy neighborhoods

This week, members of the local Housing Advocacy Coalition joined Mill Street residents in a candlelight vigil to draw attention to the beleaguered tiny working-class neighborhood and their struggle for survival.

For Cyndy Kulp, who heads the nonprofit Housing Advocacy Coalition, what is happening in the Mill Street neighborhood is a repeat of what has occurred in other working-class parts of town.

The Lowell neighborhood, which was thriving southeast of downtown, was targeted as an urban renewal project and potential convention center site in the 1980s. More recently, more than 100 homes along the west side of Interstate 25 were eliminated from the pool of working-class houses to make way for Interstate 25 widening and improvements.

"We want to call attention to the houses that are now being knocked down by the utilities department and point out that it's against city code and city policy to destroy neighborhoods," Kulp said. "Apparently it's easier to destroy neighborhoods then to help them build them back up with self-determination and empowerment, and not running over them with the steam train."

Lawsuit filed in shelter deal

Last week, Rickie Stuart and four other Mill street residents filed a lawsuit against the city, its utility company, the planning department and the Red Cross, which will operate the giant complex for the homeless.

Their suit was filed by local land use attorney David Krall and Steve Mullens, an attorney who opposed the plan when it was approved by the City Council last month. The suit alleges the area is not properly zoned for the project and that the City Council acted arbitrarily and capriciously by overturning the planning commission's rejection and approving the plan.

"They were in such a hurry to consummate this closed-door deal that no one was careful enough to look at the zoning," Mullens said.

The approved shelter area is a public facility zone and specifically does not list social services as one of its approved uses. By law, the City Council must hold a public hearing when considering a zoning change to a property, however, the 16-hour long Council session last month that culminated in an approval at 3:40 a.m. was not designed as a zoning change debate.

"They had a very long dog and pony show talking about how wonderful it would be to have this homeless shelter but they didn't consider any of the planning commission's decisions for appropriate use," Mullens said. "This is a glaring booboo on behalf of this plan; no matter how they have characterized or dressed it up, they have missed the boat."

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