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There Goes the Neighborhood

How a well-intentioned homeless shelter and a money-conscious publicly-owned power company are killing downtown's last low-income community



Like many stories, this one started with a phone call.

KRCC radio announcer Lyn Akers phoned to ask if I had heard that an unnamed buyer was offering to purchase homes in a four-block area two blocks west of her home on Mill Street.

Understandably, Akers was concerned. "This is a good neighborhood, I don't want to see it just bought out," she said.

Armed with a few last names, I hit the phone book. Some, like Chris and Ramona Prado, didn't know to whom they were selling, and didn't care. The mystery buyer was offering 110 percent of the appraised value for neighborhood homes.

"This house isn't worth fixing up," said Chris Prado.

"For us, 110 percent is a good deal," Ramona Prado added.

Others, like Jeff Hovermale, who lives in a bungalow at 922 Baltic St., were not so thrilled. Like many in the neighborhood, Hovermale had put a lot of work into his home with the idea that he would stay.

"They have to realize we also purchased property on its potential," says Hovermale, standing on newly refinished oak floors, and surrounded by immaculate, white stucco walls.

Under the headline, "Mystery Buyer Stirs up Neighborhood," the Independent ran the story two days later. It included the residents' speculation that the mystery buyer was either a consortium of homeless providers hoping for a site for a planned mega-homeless shelter, or Colorado Springs Utilities, playing out a long-rumored plan to build a train track through the neighborhood.

As it turns out, both assertions were right.

The mystery buyer, it turned out, is the city's largest and most powerful foundation, the El Pomar Foundation, which is helping a consortium of nonprofit homeless providers build a 50,000-square-foot homeless complex on land owned by the city utilities department.

The Foundation wanted to buy the neighborhood plats to build a day care center for shelter children and families. Ultimately, they only wanted six residential lots.

But there's a twist -- in exchange for providing land for the shelter, Colorado Springs Utilities director Phil Tollefson wanted help from the nonprofits in getting land for a long-desired rail spur through the neighborhood.

The rail spur would save the public power company about $1 million a year because it would allow workers at the Drake Plant to unload coal more cheaply, he said.

The combination of proposals has acted like a one-two punch to the neighborhood gut. Now, only two months after the shelter plans were made public, the neighborhood of working-class families, low-income residents and retirees is in serious crisis.

Facing the prospect of the homeless facility, the loss of four to six homes to build a day care center for shelter kids, and the potential for another two dozen homes being lost to a rail spur, the neighborhood caved.

Last month, 26 residents of the working-class neighborhood sent a letter to Tollefson asking him to make them an offer. The letter, which gave Tollefson until last Monday, Feb. 14, to respond, was written by Baltic Street resident William Burke.

Just before press time, the Indy learned that the utilities department had decided to build a truncated rail spur that would require the destruction of eight to ten homes between Conejos and Sierra Madre streets.

Because the rail spur would not entirely circle the neighborhood, utilities department staffers say the neighborhood can survive and there will be no need to buy out all 26 homeowners.

But the new proposal does not sit well with some.

"I say if you build the shelter, go for it all," Burke said. "Get the homeless under control, give the power plant what it needs and we get to leave with a handshake and start over somewhere else."

The public good

Like any self-respecting writer for a liberal rag, I have a healthy skepticism of NIMBY-like neighborhood efforts to push things like homeless shelters somewhere else. But as I headed down to the Dec. 15 press conference, scheduled to officially announce the shelter plans, my head was full of questions.

How would El Pomar, the Red Cross and the city power company justify the dismantling of one of the city's oldest working-class neighborhoods in order to build a homeless shelter, day care center and a rail spur?

And why the shroud of secrecy? Didn't El Pomar get into trouble with the mostly African-American Hillside neighborhood for not clueing community leaders into their plan then to locate the shelter at an industrial site on Costilla Street and Wahsatch Avenue?

Indeed, this would not be just any homeless shelter. The 50,000-square-foot homeless mall would consolidate homeless services now spread through the entire community, including the Red Cross Emergency Shelter, the Marian House soup kitchen, as well as a host of other medical, mental health, employment services, an idea fondly embraced by some homeless advocates, but controversial among others (see sidebar, p. 17).

On any given day, during the peak summer season, anywhere from 500 to 1,000 homeless people would likely visit the facility.

Though I certainly didn't expect a whole lot of hand wringing about a neighborhood that until last year housed the Sons of Silence motorcycle club, I was even less prepared for the complete denial from project planners regarding the effect their project would have on the community.

In fact, the mood at the press conference was downright giddy.

"It's been a dream of ours to have a separate, licensed day care facility," said a jubilant Debbie Mitguard, the Red Cross Director who was named as the project manager of the planned Montgomery Community Center.

Thayer Tutt, who's managing the project for the El Pomar Foundation, furthered the optimistic vision. After the shelter is built, "Phase II" of the project could include affordable housing projects by other local nonprofits.

As for the secrecy, Tutt said the anonymous buyer routine was necessary because plans for the site were not complete. In the Hillside case, he said, the project ran into trouble because the proposed complex became public before plans were well developed. As a result, he said, the neighborhood thought shelter promoters were being evasive.

But Tutt and Mitguard both assured reporters that now things would be different. "The process of planning with the neighborhood can begin now that everything's out in the open," Mitguard said, adding that shelter partners had ways to mitigate the effects the shelter might have on the residential neighborhood.

A community garden, neighborhood clean-ups, free use of shelter meeting rooms, neighborhood use of the day care center, and even use of shelter services have since been pitched to me as reasons why the community center would be a boon to locals.

"That's why it's being called the Montgomery Community Center," a shelter supporter told me later.

But could these efforts minimize the loss of more than a dozen homes and the encircling of a neighborhood by a rail line? I asked the mayor a broader, more philosophical question.

"The city recently grappled with a larger public good versus a neighborhood when it dealt with Memorial Hospital's proposed incursion into the Boulder Park neighborhood. How do you reconcile this project with the stated goal of preserving traditional neighborhoods?"

The mayor began by cracking a joke, "Well, luckily, in this case, it's not the city," she chortled, referring to the fact that in this case, it was El Pomar buying the land, not the city. She added that any neighborhood concerns could be ironed out in the planning and development approval process and that the day care center would be a plus for the neighborhood.

"We like to think of this as an enhancement to the neighborhood," she said as the klieg lights blared and reporters scribbled.

The press conference left me with more questions than answers. Wasn't the city utilities department -- a city-owned enterprise overseen by the city council -- the one hoping to put the railroad spur through the neighborhood?

How could anyone talk about enhancing a community in the same press conference in which you're proposing running coal trains through people's living rooms?

'Ground Zero'

At Jeff Hovermale's one-floor bungalow on Baltic Street -- a one-lane, unpaved gravel track that is often mistaken for an alley -- the mood is very different than the press conference the day before.

His face is tight with anxiety and sadness. Hovermale walks around the back of his home, the outdoor walls painted granite pink.

"This is ground zero," he said, noting that his two neighbors to the north had already signed contracts with El Pomar's real estate agents, Griffis-Blessing, Inc., to make way for the proposed day care center.

Though Hovermale -- who is not opposed to the shelter itself -- is known for working tirelessly on his property, it's his garden that has won him a reputation.

A restoration biologist for the U.S. Forest Service, Hovermale has turned his backyard into a model of what is known as permaculture, plantings that provide food but don't require much maintenance or fertilizers.

In all, Hovermale has planted more than 300 species of native plants, converting a yard full of weeds into a showpiece.

In one raised bed, small rocks covered with lichens are surrounded by sorrel, irises, and asparagus. Toward the back of his property, the "forest garden" is a plantation of buffaloberry, elderberry, Siberian pea, aspen and mountain ash.

Around the property, he's planted perennial onions, native plums, roses, ice plants, grapevines, herbs, wildflowers, and native grasses, even bamboo. Hovermale figures he's invested about $6,000, and from 3,000 to 4,000 hours in his backyard.

Expressing something I'd hear over and over from residents in the following weeks, Hovermale's real concern is that he would never be able to afford a comparable home in Colorado Springs for what El Pomar was offering.

If he moved, Hovermale would likely have to take out a larger mortgage with interest rates almost two points higher than when he bought his home, and he'd not be able to take advantage of first-time homebuyer incentives.

Hovermale is not alone in his frustration.

"The El Pomar deal is not cutting it," said Peggy Pantoja, whose house on Mill Street, according to preliminary maps of the rail spur, is in the path of the proposed new tracks. "You can't buy a condo in this town for less than $80,000."

The forgotten zone

Note to self: "History belongs to the rich."

I made the above scribble as William Burke peeled back the yellowed pages of the deed to his house as the second coal train in an hour screeched by only 40 feet from Burke's kitchen table.

"Live with that!" he says, loudly, turning back to the task at hand.

The first few pages of the deed described the lot: platted in 1870, the house was built in 1902 and belonged to General Palmer's Colorado Springs Company before it was sold to a man named George Beck.

Okay, so the comment about history belonging to the rich is oversimplified class-warfare rhetoric. But it is not too far off. Local libraries carry very little information on the area, and city agencies have generally denied or ignored neighborhood requests for civic improvement.

"This is the neighborhood that time forgot," said Burke, a truck driver who has tried for years to get the city to pave Baltic Street, which runs by his home.

While residents have worked hard to restore the neighborhood, residents say the city kept the area from improving, turning down permits on home-improvement projects, and leaving vacant utility-owned lots to turn into a tassel of weeds and trash. Nearby city park land along Fountain Creek is not much better.

In that context, Burke and others say, the shelter and rail spur proposal is just another slap in the face. "Why is it always the little guy who pays the price?" Burke asked, sucking from a bottle of Budweiser. "This is ethnic cleansing of the low-income. That's what it is. And you can quote me on that."

"We've come in here and done our best to make ourselves cozy little homes, and they do this to us," he said, standing in a well-kept yard outside his perfectly painted brown house.

It comes as no shock to many residents here that their community -- sandwiched between a power plant and railroad tracks -- is being squeezed. The neighborhood has faced industrial encroachment since its birth more than 100 year ago.

More recently, in the early '80s, the city bought out and removed about 36 homes nearby in order to expand coal delivery rails at the Drake Plant, said John Tancock, the utilities construction manager who managed the project for the utilities department.

According to others who remember the relocations, the neighborhood removal also settled, once and for all, neighborhood concerns over chronic smokestack and coal dust emissions from the plant.

Burke said he turned to the utilities department after it became clear what the shelter would mean for his family. "We're going to have 500 to 1000 people in our face every day, wandering up and down the block, pissing and shitting in the bushes," Burke said of the shelter.

"If the utilities can save a million dollars a year [on the rail spur], then it's only fair what we all ought to be able to make a profit," said Burke, noting that once sold, the land would have to be converted to much more valuable commercial property.

"If they don't buy everybody out, it's a case of 'they get the gold mine, we get the shaft.' Or in this case, they get the coal mine, we get the shaft."

'Positive coverage'

After the city council gave its nod to putting the shelter on power company land at a utility board meeting in late December, I frantically interviewed residents and shelter backers as people spilled out from a small boardroom obviously not designed for public attendance.

One of the first people to seek me out was Linda Dickinson, a Conejos Street resident and one of the first people to agree to sell her home. "I'd really love to see some positive coverage from the Independent on this," she chided me.

"My stories have all had quotes from residents who want to sell, along with those that don't," I shot back, a tad indignant.

Dickinson was probably referring to the Independent story that ran that morning, headlined, "Shelter plan could destroy neighborhood."

"We already have trains coming through our backyards," she said. "This isn't going to ruin the neighborhood. The city needs this shelter. In the long run, this will help a lot more people than just the people in the neighborhood."

"But you're moving out, no?" I asked.

"Yes, but not because of the shelter," she said, noting that she never liked the neighborhood and has wanted to move out for some time.

Indeed, Dickinson was not the only one supporting the shelter. Other residents had just spoken eloquently of their general support for the homeless at the meeting that just ended -- though most of them strongly conditioned that support with opposition to the rail spur.

In response, members of the city council, who act as the utility's board of directors, assured residents that they'd make sure neighborhood concerns were heeded as the project went through the city's planning and development approval process.

In stark contrast to the Hillside experience, it appeared this would not be a strict NIMBY issue. "I was very proud of my neighborhood at that meeting," Akers would tell me later.

Hostage takers

However this all shakes out, the Montgomery Community Center will likely have a tough time shaking the image of the shelter that helped take apart a neighborhood.

No wonder both El Pomar and The Red Cross are now trying to distance themselves from the rail spur project. "We are not in the business of helping utility companies build rail spurs," Thayer Tutt said, adding that El Pomar never agreed to help Tollefson get land for a rail spur.

(Tollefson tells it differently, saying that El Pomar's Tony Koren did in fact tell him early in the process that the Foundation might buy land in expectation for a potential land swap with utilities. Tollefson now describes those conversations as "preliminary" and "conceptual," though the land swap idea was presented publicly to city council and was also reported in The Gazette.)

Land swap or no, the projects are inextricably linked in a chain of events that is now leading the neighborhood to ruin.

"I'm saddened that in order to help the homeless, they have to destroy a bunch of homes," said Steve Handen, who's worked with area homeless for 30 years. "It as if poor people's homes don't matter, as if these neighborhoods can be thrown away."

The really sad part of it, though, is that some of this could have been avoided if those in charge had indeed treated neighbors as partners in the project, not impediments to be overcome.

Though suited men in SUVs, and engineers in pickups, have been cruising the neighborhood, making field notes and surveying, none of the project partners have initiated meetings with residents to explain what in fact is going on.

"We still have not been any given any information at all," Akers told me last week. "We contact them on a regular basis but we don't hear anything from them at all."

Nor have project planners met with residents to find out what mitigations might be offered. So far, project proponents have attended only one meeting with residents, a meeting at Nemeth's Restaurant on South Tejon that was set up by residents.

At press time, the Independent learned that consultants for the shelter have scheduled a meeting with the neighborhood at Nemeth's on Feb. 28.

And while shelter proponents list the proposed day care center as the key reason the project will improve the neighborhood, shelter partners concede that they've never asked residents if they want, or would use, any of the services proposed as potential mitigations.

"What do they think we are?"

The call came late in the afternoon.

I had just returned from city hall where the city council all but nixed suggestions that the city put more money into affordable housing, opting instead for efforts to promote and preserve affordable housing with bureaucratic means.

With this news fresh in my mind, the caller informed me that all the residents of the neighborhood had signed a letter to city utilities director Tollefson announcing their desire to sell -- assuming he offered a fair price.

It was a surprise, but not unpredictable. I had talked to many of those residents and many swore they'd never sell. But as nearby resident Akers told me later: "They're terrifying people so even people who swore they would not sell are doing it."

Once again, I was back in the neighborhood.

"I am not opposed to the shelter, but I'd be right across the street from it," said Alicia Garcia-Smith, who rents her home on Conejos Street from her mother.

Garcia-Smith said she signed the letter to the utilities department because she felt she had little choice. "There would be just that much more depreciation on the house," she said, noting that some of the houses purchased in the neighborhood would likely be used to house homeless families in transition.

"They want low-income housing; what do they think we are?" she asked.

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