Red Rock Canyon is a scenic, 787-acre property located just west of Colorado Springs, adjacent to Bear Creek Park and Section 16. Currently part of unincorporated El Paso County, the property is under contract to Zydeco.
Development of the property will require annexation by either Manitou or Colorado Springs because El Paso County can't provide the necessary utilities. Zydeco announced an intention this past March to pursue annexation by Manitou.
Parks and Rec and City Planning staff were caught by surprise last week, then, when Zydeco filed an annexation request with Colorado Springs and a development application with El Paso County.
Nobody at this juncture knows Zydeco's intentions, and the developer isn't talking.
Zydeco spokesman Kyle Blakely told the Independent, "The developer is not prepared to make a statement and he won't be answering questions about his plans until things are further along."
A couple square blocks of Manhattan
At a Manitou City Council meeting last March, Zydeco raised the possibility of an arrangement whereby Manitou would annex the 787-acre property, declare it a "blighted" (slum) area and set up a special tax district called an Urban Renewal Authority that would allow the property to be developed at considerably lower cost.
No formal annexation application was made, but the "concept plan" outlined by Zydeco included a two-hotel resort complex with 600 hotel rooms and an 18-hole golf course, 512,000 square feet of retail space, 1.39 million square feet of office space, 700 apartments, 800 single-family units and 60 luxury estates.
Zydeco told Council that the development could broaden Manitou's tax base from $41 million to $75 million and increase annual sales tax revenues from $1.9 million to $3.1 million.
The proposal, however, provoked widespread opposition among Manitou residents. Worried that the town's population would be doubled and its small-town, mountainside character destroyed, citizens launched petition drives that left Council no choice but to pass an ordinance that requires a citizen vote for annexation of property three acres or larger.
The comments of Rick Laurenzi, author of one of the citizen petition drives, were typical of project critics. "Even if all Zydeco did was build the office and retail space that it outlined that night at Council," he said, "that development would be the size of Citadel Mall. Visualize that with all the parking acreage it would require. They want to construct a couple square blocks of Manhattan up there."
Zydeco called a town meeting in June to assure Manitou residents that the property would be developed at a lower density than the March presentation to City Council suggested.
The audience, however, was left frustrated and upset when Zydeco representatives declined to answer questions. A series of subsequent meetings were promised, but none took place and there was no further news from Zydeco until last week.
Open space issues
"I'm not surprised that Zydeco opted for Colorado Springs instead of Manitou," said state legislator and 30-year Manitou resident Marcy Morrison. "I thought they'd do that all along.
"Zydeco told everyone that they wanted to be annexed by Manitou because they preferred its small-town-atmosphere over the big-city nature of Colorado Springs," Morrison said. "I suspect, though, that it was more because they put two-and-two together and realized that Manitou, with only one planner, has a less stringent and sophisticated review process. I suspect, though, that the idea of having to put their project to a vote of the people scared the pants off them."
The switch to Colorado Springs makes sense for several reasons. Schools on the site would be District 11 (Manitou Springs is District 14), and Elaine Medina of the Post Office reports that, even with Manitou annexation, the site would be zoned 80904, with Colorado Springs mail delivery.
Colorado Springs, what's more, already has four water mains at the site, whereas Manitou would have to construct an infrastructure complex to bring water and sewer services to the property.
Colorado Springs planner James Mayerl expressed uncertainty as to what the city's response is likely to be. "The Zydeco annexation petition does not include a development proposal," he noted. "We'll have to see their plans for land use to determine whether we'd have an interest in annexing."
The application is likely to be brought before Council on October 24. "All that will happen, though," Mayerl explained, "is that Council will direct City Planning to put together a cost/benefit package to see whether annexation would have a positive or a negative fiscal impact. Nothing of significance will happen until we see a master plan, and it could be a while before that happens.
"The key to this thing," Mayerl added, "is working out open space issues -- how much open space there would be, getting access to Section 16, leaving the red rock formations alone -- and then seeing whether its worth their while to build and worth ours to bring them in."
Parks and Rec manager Terry Putman reports that his department has told Zydeco that the city wants to use TOPS money to purchase "around 300 acres" in the undisturbed upper portion of the canyon adjacent to Section 16. Putnam also administrates TOPS, the city sales tax that generates revenue for purchase of open space.
Don Ellis, a member of the Red Rock Canyon Committee, a citizens group formed to preserve the canyon as open space, said that Zydeco offered to sell TOPS "something like half" of the canyon property, "but at a price substantially higher than what Zydeco plans to pay for it. That didn't go over too well."
Putman declined to confirm or deny that report.
Out of the frying pan
Zydeco, however, also faces an uphill battle in attempting to develop the Red Rock Canyon through Colorado Springs.
Paul Tice, development review manager at City Planning, reports that the Sept. 11 annexation filing served to exempt the property from the provisions of Amendment 24, the growth-control initiative that, if passed, would subject most major development projects to a public vote.
City Council approval, however, appears to be anything but a slam dunk.
"They'll have to jump through hoops with us that they wouldn't have had to jump through with Manitou," said City Councilperson Richard Skorman.
Skorman also wondered how receptive Council will be to declaring the Red Rock property "blighted" as a way to justify setting up an Urban Renewal Authority to help finance development.
"Manitou," said Skorman, "saw the URA as a huge source of property and sales tax revenue, but Colorado Springs doesn't get a whole lot of money from property taxes, and it would take a major commercial development for that site to generate significant sales tax revenue. I don't think anybody on Council is interested in seeing a major shopping area go up in Red Rock Canyon.
"Speaking for myself," Skorman added, "the only way I see us being open to a URA for that site is if setting one up would drive the purchase of more open space."