Eight years after a ULI Advisory Services panel gathered in the shadow of Pikes Peak to brainstorm about revitalizing downtown Colorado Springs, the city’s 120-block urban core is riding momentum that even a global pandemic has failed to disrupt.
Among other signs of progress, developers have added nearly 600 residential units downtown since 2016, and some 1,260 more are planned or in development. The 8,000-seat Weidner Field minor league soccer stadium, in addition to the 3,500-seat Robson Arena for Colorado College hockey and other events, is under construction, while the 104,000-square-foot (9,700 sq m) sports medicine and performance center for the Colorado Springs campus of the University of Colorado just opened. A 10-mile (16 km) pedestrian path under development will encircle downtown and connect to Pikes Peak and other parts of the city.
To be sure, those projects and others are changing the complexion of downtown. From 2013 to 2019, investment in the downtown totaled $827.4 million, and $628.5 million in additional investments have been announced since. But of all the projects completed to date, the recent opening of the $91 million U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum in the southwest corner of downtown represents an important cornerstone of the city’s urban renewal effort while bolstering its identity as “Olympic City, USA.”
In Knowledge Finder: ULI Colorado Webinar: U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum, Colorado Springs | ULI Webinar: Affordable and Attainable Housing in Colorado Springs | Advisory Services Panel Report: Downtown Colorado Springs
The three-story, 60,000-square-foot (5,600 sq m) attraction, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, houses a visual and interactive archive of Olympic and Paralympic accouterments as well as the stories and achievements of athletes. Yet it is also considered a catalyst to transform surrounding industrial and underused properties into a 5.2 million-square-foot (483,000 sq m) neighborhood of offices, shops, housing, and hotels proposed by Colorado Springs–based Nor’wood Development.
A rail yard that splits the industrial district has been a significant obstacle to investment in southwest downtown. It also has largely isolated the 15-year-old America the Beautiful Park, a 17-acre (6.9 ha) green space on the west side of the tracks. But a bridge connecting the museum to the park and future residential and commercial development is under construction. Weidner Field, which is being developed by a partnership that includes Dean Weidner, the founder of Seattle-based Weidner Apartment Homes, is also in southwest downtown.
“We’ve had massive investments in the museum and in the redevelopment of streets, the installation of the bridge and other infrastructure, and private investment in southwest downtown is going to come next,” says Christopher Jenkins, president of Nor’wood, which also has built roughly 350 apartment units in other parts of the core over the past few years. “We’ve just gotten that first remedy of blight in this old, obsolete area to really create a ‘there’ there.”
Nor’wood’s first phase of the mixed-use development would straddle the rail yard and include a 220-room conference hotel, 370 apartment and condominium units, 179,000 square feet (16,600 sq m) of offices, and almost 28,000 square feet (2,600 sq m) of retail space. Kristopher Takács, a director with architect Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Washington, D.C., drafted the southwest downtown development plan. When he first traveled to Colorado Springs, he says, right away he saw an opportunity to increase the connectivity between the urban areas and nature.
“Here you have a downtown that’s at the foot of Pikes Peak—you can stand on any street corner and the allure of nature is omnipresent,” says Takács. “We focused on connecting what was essentially the Main Street of downtown to the mountain—the city to nature. And honestly, it’s that duality that draws people to Colorado Springs. It’s the ethos of the place.”
It is an ethos that the city of about 486,000 is using to its advantage, especially when comparing itself with Denver 70 miles (113 km) to the north. Prior to his assignment in Colorado Springs, Takács worked on the redevelopment of Denver’s Union Station and its surroundings. As that was happening, downtown Colorado Springs was languishing. But the city can now offer a downtown unlike any other, says Susan Edmondson, president and CEO of the Downtown Partnership of Colorado Springs.
“In Colorado Springs, you can walk out your door in the city center, get on a bike, and be in the mountains or a great mountain biking area in five or 10 minutes. You can’t in Denver,” she adds. “And a mountain town will give you all of the great outdoors, but not the urban feel. We can do both.”
Downtown’s renaissance took root more than a decade ago when Jenkins was attending ULI events and witnessed how the organization could help guide development. Looking for ways to “build a great city,” Jenkins and other civic leaders brought the ULI panel to the town in summer 2012.
“We believed that our downtown definitely needed to step up,” Jenkins says. “The panel gave the community something to believe in and a vision that was exciting.”
In addition to recommending that it beef up downtown’s lean housing stock and strengthening its parks and trail system, the panel urged the city to leverage its ties to athletic organizations to fuel development of sports venues, health and wellness facilities, museums, entertainment, and cultural space. Not only are the headquarters and primary training site of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee located in Colorado Springs, but roughly 70 national Olympic governing bodies and national sports organizations also call the city home.
To help fund that vision, Colorado Springs launched a campaign that received $120.5 million in state sales tax increment financing from a state program created in 2009 to boost regional tourism. In addition to helping fund the museum, soccer stadium, hockey arena, and sports performance center, some of the money is going toward the United States Air Force Academy Gateway Visitor Center north of Colorado Springs.
Downtown’s turnaround has renewed a sense of pride in the city. For years, professionals like Doug Carter, a multifamily broker, watched Denver’s urban areas flourish while nothing was happening in downtown Colorado Springs. That has begun to change, he says, particularly given increasing congestion and the escalation of property prices and rental rates in Denver.
“When Denver was going great guns, I was a little envious of all the apartment development and all of the energy there,” says Carter, managing director of SVN/Doug Carter. “Denver was the cool place to be, but I didn’t think we were cool. Now, I think Colorado Springs is cool again, and we’re going to continue to attract people and grow.”