By John Harner
North Nevada Avenue, between Austin Bluffs Parkway and Interstate 25, has been targeted for urban redevelopment. The goal is for private development on the west side to work in harmony with the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs on the east side to build a vibrant mixed-use center.
The east side will be a future entranceway to the campus, possibly including a research park, performing arts center, sports complexes and other buildings serving the educational mission. Commercial development will be the engine that funds infrastructure improvements through tax-increment financing.
To that end, the North Nevada Corridor Avenue Urban Renewal Plan was approved by City Council on Dec. 14, 2004. Sales taxes generated from the new retail environment will pay for infrastructure improvements.
The language of the plan speaks to a project that provides a unique sense of place, creates linkages to surrounding natural amenities, neighborhoods and educational institutions, with a variety of land uses. Councilman Richard Skorman enthusiastically endorsed the project as a way to better integrate UCCS into the community and to stamp an identity on this underused but important part of town.
In 2005, Kratt Commercial Properties bought most west-side properties, consolidated them and named the development plan "University Village." We all probably have an image of a university village similar to the original plan a mixture of small stores, at the human scale, which invites people to mingle and browse. Places that encourage social engagement, such as coffee shops, bookstores, galleries, pubs and restaurants.
Certainly the 900 students living on campus and thousands of commuting students, faculty and staff could use a place to go the funky element most college towns have near campuses. This project presents an enormous opportunity to UCCS and the entire city. It is a rare urban initiative that would help foster a campus identity and create a vibrant new place off the new I-25 interchange.
Instead of this vision, the plan as currently proposed is a typical suburban shopping center anchored by big-box stores Costco and Lowe's. It would have a 3,500-car parking lot, Nevada Avenue as a six-lane arterial and stores facing inward, their backs to Fountain Creek and Monument Valley bike trail. We could also expect a great increase in runoff from the impermeable surfaces.
Rather than something like an Old Colorado City, we will have another Academy Boulevard. It will not create any lasting sense of place, nor will it be an environment where people would want to go to socialize. As Howard Kunstler says, "This is Nowhere," the generic landscape of suburban America.
While many U.S. cities build innovative places, all too often Colorado Springs settles for mediocrity. The insult is compounded when considering what this site offers: a creekside location and fantastic view of Pikes Peak, Austin Bluffs and Pulpit Rock, and a university across the street all coveted amenities. Other cities attract the "creative class" with dynamic places full of diversity and character. We take a spectacular setting and reduce it to a generic formula that will deter the entrepreneurs who drive the new economy.
Why does this happen? There are no "bad guys" in this project. As urban planner and architect Peter Calthorpe discussed at the State of the Rockies conference at Colorado College, these developments are created by specialists who do their jobs well. Kratt builds suburban strip malls; its formula is low-risk and economically successful (at least in the short run).
What's neglected here is the whole: putting the pieces back together. Without a vision of the entire project and consideration for long-term sustainability, we are left with a sterile place built to accommodate cars, not humans.
Is this the image our city should project for the 21st century? The built landscape is a reflection of community values. What does this tell us about ours?
John Harner is an associate professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at UCCS.
Note to readers
This project is currently under review, and the city planning office is accepting input from the public.
City Planning Office, 30 S. Nevada Ave. #301, Colorado Springs, CO 80903