For downtown, the future looks bright



The Gazette, Colorado Springs


Work-from-home arrangements soared during the pandemic and set a trend that didn’t phase out when governments lifted quarantines. That puts Colorado Springs in a unique position to grow as the city of the future. “America’s Downtowns Are Empty. Fixing Them Will Be Expensive,” says the headline of an Oct. 21 Wall Street Journal article datelined “Minneapolis.” “Many cities riddled with half-empty office buildings hope to survive the new remote-work era without bulldozing swaths of downtown and starting from scratch,” the article explains, detailing how once-thriving city centers appear lonely and unwanted — even dangerous. That’s not the case in Colorado Springs, where downtown building assets have not kept up with the city’s rapid population growth. While the citywide vacancy rate this summer hit 12.52%, office vacancies nationwide recently hit a 30-year high of 18.2%. Cities known for elaborate skylines of glass-and-metal skyscrapers — places including Denver, New York, San Francisco and St. Louis — have growing vacancy rates already in double digits. The journal explained how America’s largest cities are racing to convert office space to residential, which they can do with only a small percentage of empty commercial space. As it turns out, buildings with massive floor spaces designed for cubicles would leave most potential residences without windows or balconies. That and other structural concerns make it impossible for much of the space to meet fundamental residential safety codes. Despite architectural and engineering obstacles, market forces have cities scrambling to convert downtowns into places where families live, work and play with less reliance on suburban commuting. Young generations want to work from home or easily walk, cycle or scooter their way to the office, restaurants, bars and shops. Downtown Colorado Springs has been on an upward trajectory for years, as decades of rapid population and economic growth have driven more demand for retail, entertainment, dining, work and residential space. The city doesn’t have a surplus of white-elephant office towers with diminishing relevance and no easy conversion options. Instead, downtown Colorado Springs has space and a growing demand for the unique experience of central urban living at the base of Mountain’s Majesty. We perceive a quiet demand for residential living within easy reach of the city’s growing selection of entertainment, dining and work opportunities. Even better, the trend toward downtown living and working from home has positive ramifications for decongesting traffic and reducing pollution. Cranes represent the progress in downtown Colorado Springs. Most of the new and emerging buildings are hotels, condominiums or apartments. Compared to most of America’s largest 100 cities’ downtowns, Colorado Springs — the country’s 38th-largest city — provides space and pent-up demand for modern residential living. For that reason, it should be no surprise the city’s Urban Renewal Authority gave overwhelming initial approval last week to a proposed 36-story, 500unit downtown apartment high-rise. It is proposed for a 1.1-acre parcel bound by Sahwatch and Costilla streets and Cascade and Vermijo avenues. It would more than double the vertical profile of the city’s highest building, the 16-story Wells Fargo Tower. As proposed by Vela Development and The O’neil Group, the Vela Peakview tower would establish 497 units. Leases would range from $1,818 up to $10,000 for 2,500-square-foot penthouses. The ground floor would make way for 7,000 square feet of retail. A five-level parking facility would provide 489 spaces. About 41,000 square feet would contain a fitness center, conference room, outdoor pool, indoor/outdoor bar, party room, dog runs and dog wash stations. Elected city leaders, their planners and the developers will work out details, but the vision makes perfect sense as our country and state rush to convert downtowns to changing market dynamics. The planets have aligned for Colorado Springs to emerge as the city of the future.