Braxton Joins Downtown Renaissance

Four years ago, Colorado Springs business people and civic leaders finalized Imagine Downtown, an ambitious plan touting more retail, housing, employers and attractions for the area.

Today, supporters say the economy has made it tough for downtown to become the round-the-clock, live-work-play environment they’ve visualized, but strides have been made.

Critics, however, say there’s not much they can do other than imagine a better downtown because the area remains troubled.

“Our downtown’s in intensive care,” said Rich Walker of First Properties Inc., a commercial real estate broker who’s marketing an empty downtown space that, until May, had been occupied for nearly 25 years by Mrs. Fields Cookies.

Traditional, big-name stores have been replaced by tiny, no-name shops, he says. There’s no convention center or baseball stadium to attract visitors; financial incentives to woo businesses are lacking; and nightclubs and bars have taken over prime retail spots along Tejon Street, bringing undesirables to downtown’s shopping district, Walker said.

“I fully expect those three blocks, Colorado to Bijou on Tejon, to be ‘Bourbon Street west,’ ” he said. “I think it will be populated by bars, restaurants, tattoo parlors, novelty stores. I’m just waiting for the first ‘X’ (adult) store to open. The reality is that the retailers are leaving. The quality retailers downtown have voted with their feet.”

Chris Jenkins board president of the Downtown Partnership advocacy group and head of Nor’wood Development Group, has a much more positive view.

The area has a lower office vacancy rate than any part of the city and new employers and businesses have arrived or are coming, Jenkins said. The area maintains a vibrant retail mix, even as some stores have come and gone. And the Imagine Downtown plan demonstrated there’s a broad, civic commitment to the area.

“As we look at this last political campaign, both (mayoral candidates) ran heavily on the heart of our community and how important our downtown is,” said Jenkins, whose company has invested tens of millions of dollars in downtown real estate.

The different assessments underscore downtown’s still uncertain future.

Downtown boosters have known for years what they want the area to become, but still are trying to get there. Critics, meanwhile, complain not enough is being done to maintain downtown as the city’s governmental, cultural and business hub.

For now, though, there’s little disagreement that the dismal economy has taken a toll on downtown.

The area’s retail vacancy rate jumped to 14.3 percent in the second quarter of this year,  according to figures compiled by Sierra Commercial Real Estate, a Springs brokerage; it was 5.9 percent in the months just after the Imagine Downtown plan was completed.

Other parts of the community have been hit hard by the economy, too, of course, and there are plenty of gaping storefronts along Powers Boulevard or Academy Boulevard and in some of the city’s newer and trendier shopping centers.

But it’s just not the economy that has hurt downtown retail. Linda Hunter owns Johannes Hunter Jewelers at 124 N. Tejon St. and has operated her business downtown since it opened in 1988. By Thanksgiving, she’ll have moved her store to the University Village Colorado retail center, northwest of Nevada Avenue and Garden of the Gods Road.

Hunter said she remains a vocal downtown supporter, but it’s not the same place it once was. Tejon’s nightclubs and bars don’t open until early evening — effectively becoming vacant retail spaces in the daytime that don’t attract shoppers during the hours she’s open. Hunter said she wants to be near a critical mass of storefronts similar to hers, which she’ll find at University Village, where a Costco Wholesale Club, a Kohl’s department store and several other stores and restaurants have opened in recent years.

“Downtown just is not getting the growth we’d like to see,” she said.

The homeless people who frequent downtown are an issue, too, she says.

“If you have a high homeless population,” Hunter said, “it’s a less relaxed atmosphere.”

Gary Feffer of commercial brokerage Fountain Colony, said closings over the last several years of the Chinook Book Store, the Elgin Edwards clothing store, Michelle Chocolatiers & Ice Cream and Hathaway’s newsstand have left downtown lacking the one-of-a-kind retailers that made the area special.

“Those have been the anchors of our downtown,” Feffer said. “And we have not replaced those anchors, to a certain degree.”

One big name retailer did move to downtown late last year — 7-Eleven, which has leased the ground floor of the former World Savings building on the northeast corner of Pikes Peak Avenue and Tejon Street in the heart of downtown.

Some downtown boosters welcomed the retailer and its variety of convenience items. But for Walker and Feffer, putting 7-Eleven on arguably downtown’s most prominent corner is a waste of prime retail space.

“That’s the best we can do?” Feffer said.

Downtown also won’t be helped by the loss of several hundred employees when El Paso County government offices move to the former Intel chip-manufacturing plant on the city’s northwest side, Feffer said. And panhandlers who hit on downtown patrons and drunken customers spilling out of bars and nightclubs are problems that hurt the image of the area, he said.

Walker, meanwhile, says the area needs major financial incentives offered by other communities, such as loan programs and tax credits, that would encourage retailers, businesses, employers and headquarters companies to move downtown. A combined convention center and civic arena — the kind of anchor urban planners have identified as potential downtown people generators, but which voters routinely have rejected — also would attract stores, restaurants and visitors, he said.

“The bottom line is, with our downtown, there just isn’t any reason to be downtown,” Walker said.

Not true, say downtown supporters, who point to plenty of businesses that have chosen to be there.

There are more office users downtown, on a percentage basis, than in other submarkets around the city, said Jenkins. The vacancy rate for downtown office buildings was 11.5 percent in the second quarter, compared with 14.5 percent citywide, according to Turner Commercial Research of Colorado Springs. And the vacancy rate for Class A, or top-of-the-line, buildings was 9.9 percent downtown; across the rest of the city, the rate is nearly 20 percent.

Last year, the U.S. Olympic Committee moved its Boulder Street headquarters to a new building at Tejon and Colorado Avenue, after receiving a $42.3 million community incentives package. Freedom Financial, a Colorado Springs mortgage company, also opened an office on the building’s first floor.

Meanwhile, a partnership that includes the majority owners of Braxton Technologies of Colorado Springs bought the Chase One building, across the street from 7-Eleven at Pikes Peak and Tejon, in June, and Braxton plans to move its 80 employees there by year’s end, said company president Kevin O’Neil. Braxton will take the building’s second floor and basement, and is looking to attract other businesses to the building, where the Vladmir Jones advertising and public relations agency is among the tenants.

The Chase One building’s $5.8 million purchase price — coming out of foreclosure — was right, and its central location was attractive, O’Neil said. But the decision was more than just dollars and cents and location, he added.

As a Springs native and downtown resident, he says he strongly believes downtown is worth investing in. Not only will the building’s value grow, he said, but downtown has stores, restaurants, parks and other amenities that will help his company attract highly paid, young software engineers who enjoy a pedestrian friendly, urban environment.

The company hopes to double its workforce in the next two years — which might mean leasing or acquiring a second downtown building, O’Neil said.

“We believe if you’re going to be somewhere,” he said, “why not be downtown?”

For other businesses considering downtown, incentives are in place, said Ron Butlin, executive director of the Downtown Partnership.

A so-called form-based zoning designation approved for downtown is designed to offer more flexible zoning that will make it easier to develop mixed-use projects. A portion of that zoning designation includes relaxed parking rules for development taking place within most of downtown’s core; a developer constructing an office building, for example, would determine how much parking is needed to make the project attractive to tenants, instead of being required to provide a specific number of spaces.

The Downtown Development Authority, approved by downtown property owners in 2006, was created to help spur area improvements, such as spruced up building facades, creating sidewalk cafes and nicer business signs, Butlin said. Since its creation, the authority has distributed nearly $608,000 in grants to downtown businesses, who also are required to provide matching funds. So far, the money has come from a special downtown tax.

Russ Mallery, who opened the 7-Eleven store at Pikes Peak and Tejon in December and who owns two other convenience stores just outside downtown, is happy to be downtown, although he acknowledges he’s had a few problems.

Mallery said he deals regularly with homeless people who sit on the benches in front of his store and ask for money. It doesn’t bother men so much, but “a female customer who sees five or six homeless people, they want to walk by as quick as possible.”

A brawl one night between downtown bar patrons resulted in a shattered window and $6,000 in damage, he said. On New Year’s Eve, a young woman threw up in the store, which forced Mallery to throw out $900 worth of products.

Mallery said he’s making money, although he isn’t yet hitting the numbers he projected. But his store has proven to be an oasis for downtown shoppers and employees who want food and drug store items they can’t find elsewhere else, especially since downtown has no grocery store or Walgreens. Mallery said he gets repeated requests for panty hose sales, and he’s trying to figure out if he can add greeting cards and flowers.

“The store has made a positive impact on the downtown community,” Mallery said. “I think people really enjoy that it’s there.”

Officer M.J. Thomson, of the Police Department’s special unit that works with the city’s homeless population, said downtown always will be a place where homeless people gather, in part, because the Marian House Soup Kitchen is on downtown’s west edge. But things seem to have improved since the City Council’s action last year to remove homeless camps along Fountain and Monument creeks, Thomson said.

“That said, we’re always going to have people panhandling. You can go to any city in the United States, you’re always going to have that population there.”

Meanwhile, a coalition of downtown business people, nightclub owners and Colorado Springs police has worked diligently in recent years to curb nighttime problems, said Butlin, of the Downtown Partnership.

A downtown team of officers regularly patrols downtown Tuesdays through Sundays, while the Police Department has created a separate radio frequency for downtown calls, which speeds law enforcement’s response to problems in the area, Butlin said. Meanwhile, police meet regularly with nightclub and bar owners to discuss issues and what remedies have worked or not worked.

The downtown Syn nightclub — the scene of several violent incidents over the past several years — lost its liquor license and closed. The former nightclub has been bought by a church and is being remodeled for its new owners’ use.

“The tenor of what’s going on downtown is just vastly different,” Butlin said.

Kathy Guadagnoli, who along her husband, Sam, operate Cowboys and several other downtown clubs, said they’ve gone to great lengths to work with police and downtown businesses to identify and address problems. One of the latest innovations that police and downtown officials plan to announce soon: A high-tech system that will allow participating bars and clubs to capture the names, driver’s license numbers and photos of patrons, and use the information to identify troublemakers.

Downtown nightclubs have gotten a bad reputation because of one or two establishments, Kathy Guadagnoli says. Her businesses have been regular sponsors and contributors to many downtown events and charities.

“We’re not responsible for the world’s problems,” she said of her nightclubs, “but we try and do the best we can.”

Contact the writer at 636-0228

 

HITS, MISSES AND WORKS IN PROGRESS

For years, civic leaders, developers and business people have envisioned a thriving downtown: Residents of apartments and lofts strolling to nearby shops and stores; employees of downtown businesses dining at restaurants and coffee shops; and tourists and visitors enjoying the area’s parks and other amenities.

Several downtown dreams have come true in recent years, others have flopped and some remain under way or on the drawing board. Here’s a look at a few of them:

HITS

•  The 280,000-square-foot, 13-story Plaza of the Rockies south tower, southeast of Colorado Avenue and Tejon Street, was completed in 2001 by Nor’wood Development Group of Colorado Springs. It’s now one of downtown’s top office destinations.

• Several hundred lofts, townhomes and apartments were built starting in the late 1990s on the south edge of downtown, southeast of Rio Grande Street and Nevada Avenues, as part of an urban renewal project around the former Lowell Elementary School.

• The upper floors of a handful of buildings in downtown’s core have been converted into trendy lofts, including along Tejon Street, the area’s primary retail district. A newly constructed building with luxury condos was constructed along Monument Valley Park.

• Downtown business people and property owners approved creation of the Downtown Development Authority in 2006. Using a special property tax and revenue from future downtown development, the authority was envisioned to promote housing, retail and office development, building upgrades and other improvements.

MISSES

• In August 2001, the Colorado Springs City Council declared about 100 acres of southwest downtown as an urban renewal site, and developers bought property in the area envision a large mixed-use development known as Palmer Village. A decade later, little has happened in southwest downtown, other than the city’s construction of America the Beautiful Park.

• CityGate, a council-approved urban renewal project in 2007, was supposed to go up southeast of Cimarron and Sawatch streets. Like Palmer Village, CityGate has never taken off.

• Six years ago, two local developers announced separate plans to build mixed-use buildings on the City Auditorium block. Both projects were envisioned with 20-plus stories of offices, residences and retail, and both developers spent thousands of dollars on their plans.

Developer Ray O’Sullivan later pulled the plug on his Cooper Tower, lost the property he had purchased on the block to foreclosure and later declared bankruptcy. Nor’wood Development Group, whose project was called Pikes Peak Place, shelved its project because of the ailing economy, and might reconsider it when conditions improve.

WORKS IN PROGRESS

• The former Mining Exchange Building, which is being remodeled into the The Mining Exchange, a Wyndham Grand Hotel, was scheduled to open in late spring at Nevada and Pikes Peak avenues. The hotel hasn’t opened yet, but work continues on the project.

Read more at http://gazette.com/as-businesses-come-and-go-views-of-downtown-differ/article/123520#QzWfFALV5KvWYX6z.99

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