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Why we're not living downtown

City Sage



Here's a typical young professional's lament about the paucity of downtown apartments, this one from my friend Katie.

"It'd be pretty cool to have a downtown loft. I wouldn't want to be too close to the clubs on Tejon, though — maybe a few blocks north or south. I don't understand why the stupid developers refuse to respond to the market — I'm sure they could sell hundreds of condos, or rent hundreds of apartments!"

Alas, downtown residential developments present challenges very difficult for developers to overcome. To build anything at all in Colorado Springs, you need good credit, strong relationships with contractors and their subs, and a sure sense of the market. If you want to build apartments or condos, you've likely built some in the past.

Let's start with the dirt. You know what you need: a well-located site with ample room for the buildings and amenities the market demands. You might include recreational space, an indoor workout facility, maybe a pool. But there's one thing you can't do without.


The city requires developers to provide at least 1.1 off-street parking places per unit, depending on the mix. Three-bedroom units require two spaces. Code requires that "parking areas be designed and located to provide safe and convenient access, and to avoid excessive parking ratios and avoid excessive expanses of pavement."

Out in Edge City, that's not a problem. Your planner and architect will tell you how much dirt you need: five acres, eight acres, 12 acres, whatever. Your job is to make the numbers work. It will cost you about $1,500 per space to provide off-street parking, so you plug that cost in, and go ahead.

Once you get more central, regulations are tweaked. In "traditional neighborhood developments," on-street parking can count toward the parking obligation. Downtown developers may benefit from form-based zoning, which encourages flexibility and creativity. "Development standards, prohibited and allowed uses, and parking standards may be adopted to be permissive and not limiting," according to planning guidelines.

Theoretically, downtown multifamily construction should be easy. Just build it and they will come! And don't worry too much about parking, since downtown's bright-eyed new denizens will want to bike and walk everywhere ... won't they?

Not exactly. Perhaps we're heading for a carless future, when Colorado Springs becomes Copenhagen in the Rockies. Uber, Lyft and other car-sharing services will transport us occasionally, and we'll rely on bikes and buses. But developers, part of the reality-based community, invest according to perceived mandates.

A downtown residential development could attract an interesting mix of young and middle-aged professionals, retirees and empty-nesters. Almost all would have cars, and most would use them frequently.

This isn't New York or London. We live in Colorado; we want to go skiing, hiking, climbing and fishing. We want to go to Vail, Breckenridge, Aspen, Crested Butte, Telluride, Taos and Santa Fe. We root for the Rockies and Broncos, love concerts at Red Rocks and Pepsi Center, and we're training for the Copper Triangle in August. Sorry, but we need our cars.

You could build 20 or 30 units and put parking on an open ground level. Such a development is difficult to justify: relatively expensive and time-consuming, and it won't make a lot of money. Anything much bigger demands a parking structure, costing $15,000 to $40,000 per space.

There's a way to make the numbers work, though. You go up, 40 stories or more. You have a "parking podium" on the first seven or eight floors, and then apartments. You have hundreds of units beneath a single roof, instead of 16 or 18 roofs on stick-built structures in the 'burbs.

You'd be spending tens of millions on the venture, pioneering a new market. You'd be as brave and venturesome as Mining Exchange developer Perry Sanders, who took on a deal that no other developer would consider.

It worked for Sanders, but you might not be so lucky.

Remember Bob Womack? He was the guy who discovered gold in Cripple Creek ... and died broke.

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