Downtown Colorado Springs’ southwest side has never lacked the potential to become a high-profile redevelopment area. Fulfilling that promise, however, has always been southwest downtown’s problem.
Past projects to anchor the light industrial area’s transformation into a vibrant residential and commercial district – including a convention center, baseball stadium and municipal arena – fizzled for a variety of reasons. Without a people generator, plans to replace the area’s warehouses and aging buildings have never gotten off the drawing board.
A cyclist walks across the Colorado Avenue bridge Friday, June 2, 2017, over the railroad tracks and the edge of southwest downtown where after 16 years of redevelopment talks construction of the U.S. Olympic Museum has begun, giving promise that the transformation has begun. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
But this week’s groundbreaking of a $75 million U.S. Olympic Museum could signal southwest downtown’s turning point after at least 25 years of sputtering revitalization efforts, several commercial real estate experts and elected officials say.
Museum organizers expect the venue to draw 350,000 visitors a year while also attracting local residents. Its location, on nearly 2 acres at Sierra Madre Street and Vermijo Avenue, sits in the heart of southwest downtown, a roughly 100-acre area bounded by Interstate 25, Cimarron Street and Colorado and Cascade avenues.
With the museum as a centerpiece, the area will be positioned to attract housing, restaurants, stores, hotels and entertainment venues, the experts say. No one has committed to any of that yet, they caution, and nobody can say for certain how successful southwest downtown’s makeover might be.
Still, expectations for the museum’s role as a long-sought redevelopment catalyst for the area are flying as high as an Olympic banner.
“It can become a marketing engine,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said of the museum.
Hickenlooper knows a little about revitalization efforts. As Denver mayor, his administration supported redevelopment of that city’s downtown’s Union Station and surrounding neighborhood. And as Wynkoop Brewery co-founder in the late 1980s, he witnessed Lower Downtown’s transformation after Coors Field opened in 1995.
A crew begins to install barricades closing off Sierra Madre Street Tuesday, May 16, 2017, in preparation for the construction of the U.S. Olympic Museum. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
“It takes, in most cases, certainly with the museum, it would take a few years,” Hickenlooper said. “But if you look at the Baseball Hall of Fame or the NASCAR Hall of Fame, any of those things, I think the Olympic hall of fame has the potential to be every bit as popular and maybe even more popular than the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, or the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, in upstate New York. Those are not big tourist destinations, whereas the Springs already is a pretty powerful tourist destination.”
Museum excavation and utility work actually started last month, but a ceremonial groundbreaking is scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday at the site. About 250 attendees are expected, including Hickenlooper, Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers and U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun. The museum is scheduled to open in early 2019.
Railroad tracks, seen from the Colorado Avenue bridge, run between America the Beautiful Park, on the right, and the future home of the U.S. Olympic Museum and southwest downtown Colorado Springs. The redevelopment plans for a pedestrian bridge connecting the two. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
Organizers tout the 60,000-square-foot venue as a showcase for the nation’s Olympic and Paralympic movements. It will include a hall of fame, 20,000 square feet of interactive exhibit space, a theater, retail area, cafe, broadcast studio and outdoor plaza.
Colorado Springs is a logical home for the museum because of its ties to the Olympic movement, according to the nonprofit group that proposed the venue several years ago.
In 1978, the U.S. Olympic Committee moved its headquarters to the Springs from New York City, and its Tejon Street offices are short walk from the museum site. The Springs also is home to one of the nation’s three Olympic Training Centers, while about two dozen Olympic national governing bodies – amateur sports groups – have their offices here. Last year, city officials began a branding campaign to label the Springs as “Olympic City USA.”
Southwest downtown, meanwhile, is a mix of land uses. Some business thrive in the area, including the century-old Olson Plumbing Co., Wells Fargo and Aventa Credit Union branches and a used book store. The Sun Plaza office building is full with tenants; the Pikes Peak Center plays hosts to concerts and shows; and El Paso County has an office building and parking garage in the area.
But elsewhere in southwest downtown, large swaths are dominated by older industrial buildings and vacant lots. Empty buildings from the old Crissey Fowler Lumber Co., which shuttered in 2003, cover almost 1-1/2 blocks, while other Crissey Fowler structures already were razed to make way for the museum.
Community leaders years ago targeted southwest downtown for so-called higher and better uses. A downtown improvement plan in the early 1990s recommended a convention center be built in the area; in 2001, the Colorado Springs City Council designated southwest downtown as an urban renewal site.
But the area’s only significant changes have been the city’s development of America the Beautiful Park and remodeling of a former Colorado Springs Utilities building into offices for national governing bodies. Proposals to build a convention center or a baseball stadium went nowhere. Private redevelopment efforts, meanwhile, were stymied by recessions in 2001 and 2007.
Enter the museum.
In 2013, it was added to the City for Champions roster – a series of projects proposed by Springs officials and civic leaders to enhance local tourism. As part of that proposal, the museum would be built in southwest downtown.
Nor’wood Development Group, the Springs’ biggest locally based development company and a City for Champions backer, donated land for the museum.
Nor’wood – developer of some of the city’s highest-profile office, retail and residential projects – is the largest private property owner in southwest downtown, according to El Paso County land records. Nor’wood and another Springs developer began assembling land in the area in the late 1990s in anticipation of the city’s urban renewal declaration. Nor’wood now controls the land, and has nearly 18 acres, records show.
Not surprisingly, Nor’wood is eager to see its investment pay off. But southwest downtown’s makeover isn’t just about his company, said Nor’wood president Chris Jenkins.
A pedestrian bridge will span railroad tracks in the area to link the museum to America the Beautiful Park and the Pikes Peak Greenway trail network. Spruced up streetscapes, improved bicycle access and a new Colorado Department of Transportation interchange at nearby Interstate 25 and Cimarron Street will help transform the area “beyond what any could have imagined,” Jenkins said
“The vision for southwest downtown represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform an underutilized corner of downtown into a new urban neighborhood,” he said.
But can a museum – unlike a ballpark or convention center where crowds gather for regularly scheduled events – be the people generator southwest downtown needs to spur development?
“It would seem like it’s going to have all positive effects,” said Gary Feffer of Springs commercial brokerage Fountain Colony Co. who specializes in downtown properties. “But to what extent, no one really knows. We’ve never had anything like this before. Never. We’ve never seen anything like it.”
Bill Mosher, a senior managing director with the Denver office of national real estate firm Trammell Crow Co, is bullish on the museum. Mosher, with more than 30 years in the planning, developing and managing of urban real estate, has been a key player in Union Station and other Denver redevelopment projects; he also served as president of the Downtown Denver Partnership in the 1990s, when Coors Field and other projects were developed.
“If you look at our art museum, the art museum here spurred some development,” Mosher said. “The contemporary art museum was a little bit off the beaten path and spurred some development. I think if it’s in the path of progress, it really helps. It’s not as big a draw as a stadium or something. But on the other side of it, everybody has art museums and everybody has history museums and such. Not very many people have an Olympic Museum. You guys sort of own that space. So I think it’s a little more special than just a museum.”
Southwest downtown’s redevelopment, however, has to be about more than just a single building, Mosher said.
The area’s planning effort needs to have a vision that encourages private investment, without dictating to developers, he said. Public improvements – to provide access and linking the area to the rest of downtown – will be key.
City officials also must help make southwest downtown a destination. Denver built Commons Park along the Platte River, while other investments improved the river’s frontage, cleaned up the water and added bike paths, Mosher said. A decade later, 2,500 housing units had sprung up in the area.
As planned, Mosher said, the Olympic Museum as a southwest downtown anchor “creates a reason for people to go there and will hopefully stimulate and be a catalyst for private development on the private properties around it.”
But southwest downtown will need more than just the museum, said Buck Blessing, CEO of Griffis/Blessing Inc., the Springs-based apartment investment and management firm. The community should take another swing at bringing a baseball stadium to the area, he said. City for Champions included a stadium, which evolved into a general use sports and event center. Funding issues forced city officials to drop it, however.
“That is a lot of activity nights, between the games and concerts and all the things that go on in that ballpark,” Blessing said. “That sort of thing is a huge generator of diners, shoppers, people going to the bars. You’ve got to keep it rolling. You just can’t say, ‘Oh, we’ve got the Olympic Museum and now we’re done’.”
For now, however, Nor’wood’s Jenkins expects the museum will create enough demand for compatible uses, which likely will include restaurants, retail, hotels, apartments and condominiums. As the area’s dominant property owner, the company will develop some projects on its own and already has talked with new businesses that might want to locate in the area.
“Nothing is a foregone conclusion or definite, but we are working hard to bring as much as we can to life in and around the museum as possible,” Jenkins said.
Hickenlooper expects a ripple effect.
“The Olympic Museum will attract other hotels,” he said. “Those hotels will attract other restaurants. There will be more of a churn, people coming through looking for a place to eat.”
Developer well positioned
One use that might not be sustainable in southwest downtown: office space. Les Gruen, owner of the Urban Strategies land planning firm in Colorado Springs and a longtime downtown advocate, said there aren’t enough employers – at least, for now – to support additional offices in the southwest area.
Nor’wood, meanwhile, is well positioned to drive the area’s redevelopment.
It owns the block directly east of the museum site that was home to Crissey Fowler. Nor’wood also owns most of another block south of the Crissey Fowler site.
Last month, Nor’wood and the Pikes Peak Regional Building Commission agreed to a deal in which the company will buy three Pikes Peak Regional Building Department parcels south and southeast of the Crissey Fowler block; the price will be $3.1 million, said Regional Building official Roger Lovell.
In April, the City Council and Nor’wood agreed to a land swap in which the company will give up a parcel northwest of Cimarron and Conejos streets to accommodate the city’s trail needs. In return, Nor’wood will take over two parcels northwest of the museum site.
Not only does Nor’wood own land in the area, but it has the track record to make things happen, Feffer of Fountain Colony Co. said.
Among Nor’wood’s numerous developments: the First & Main Town Center and InterQuest Marketplace; the south tower of the downtown Plaza of the Rockies office complex; the Nor’wood and Wolf Ranch residential areas; the Powers Autopark; and several apartment projects.
“He doesn’t have to go find a developer to go do retail,” Feffer said, referring to Nor’wood’s ownership, which includes Chris Jenkins and his father, David. “He doesn’t have to find a developer to go do office. He doesn’t have to find a developer to put up a multi-family. It’s all in house. He can do it all.”
The timetable for redevelopment efforts? Nor’wood hopes some stores, restaurants and the like would open in conjunction with the museum’s ribbon-cutting in two years, while others might arrive soon after, Chris Jenkins said.
Other commercial real estate experts say the area’s makeover will take years, even if there are initial successes.
“If all goes well, you could anticipate something along the lines of greatly enhanced activity in that area because things hopefully would build upon each other,” Gruen said. “Does it happen overnight now? No. But when we’re looking 10 or 15 years down the road, can one possibly envision a completely different environment than what we have now? Absolutely.”