Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content Previous owner of Lowell project in Colorado Springs returns with development in mind

By Rich Laden Updated: June 10, 2014 at 8:42 am

Developer Earl Robertson, who four years ago gave up his 50 percent stake in the redevelopment project around the former Lowell Elementary School, recently assumed full ownership of the project.

Two limited liability companies controlled by Robertson purchased 11 undeveloped acres in the 58-acre Lowell area and six commercial condominiums in the Poet Lofts building, which was constructed as part of the project.

Robertson declined to disclose the purchase price, which wasn't listed in El Paso County land records.

In taking over the Lowell project, Robertson said he hopes to accelerate development of the remaining land at the site, southeast of Rio Grande Street and Nevada Avenue on the south edge of downtown Colorado Springs.

Downtown advocates have long clamored for more housing in the area, and an improved economy could help smooth the way for residential development, Robertson said. The Lowell area also could prove attractive for more housing because it's a few blocks from the proposed City for Champions tourism projects in southwest downtown, he added.

The 11 undeveloped acres - zoned for residential uses - will yield 13 parcels for development, Robertson said. He might develop the land on his own or sell parcels to others. Two developers have shown an interest in building what could amount to 300 townhomes and apartments on site, Robertson said.

Currently, Robertson said, there are nearly 250 finished residences in the area, which is home to about 400 people.

"It's not the project; it's always been the Springs market and the financial markets that's been the biggest hindrance," Robertson said. "Both of those are on the mend. So I'm very optimistic that over the next three to four years, we will develop or sell all of this property."

At the same time, Robertson is seeking to sell the six units in Poet Lofts, which has a mix of residential and commercial condos. Two have been leased to tenants who have an option to buy; two others are close to being sold within 60 days and two more are for sale, he said.

Robertson's takeover has brought him full circle on the Lowell project, which has had a long and sometimes rocky history.

The area around the Lowell school - once dominated by boarded-up homes and vacant lots - was declared an urban renewal site by the Colorado Springs City Council in 1988. A Wichita, Kan., real estate company bought property near the school with hopes of creating a mixed-use residential and commercial project. However, the company eventually walked away from the project, leaving the area to languish.

Several years later, the city's Urban Renewal Authority sought proposals from new developers. Robertson, then a developer of upscale properties on the southwest side, was chosen by the authority in 1998 to tackle the Lowell project.

Robertson and partner Lehman Brothers Holdings successfully launched a series of residential projects, which started with Robertson's construction of the 21-unit Poet Lofts building in 2002. Other developers they worked with built projects that included 55-and-up apartments and several townhome buildings.

Lehman, however, declared bankruptcy in 2008. Two years later, a New Mexico bank filed a foreclosure notice against the project, although that action was later withdrawn.

In December 2010, Robertson turned over his stake in Lowell to Lehman. In exchange, Lehman swapped its portion of the southside Spring Creek project to Robertson; the two were partners in that residential development. After that swap of properties, Robertson stayed on to manage the Lowell project.

But little happened in the Lowell area after Lehman took full control. Because of its bankruptcy, the company was slow to make decisions, Robertson said. At one point, Lehman unsuccessfully sought to auction off the bulk of the remaining property at Lowell.

With little interest in the property from other developers, Robertson said he made an all-cash offer. The deal was completed in March. The urban renewal designation on the property, meanwhile, expired in 2013 after 25 years, meaning tax revenue generated by the project can no longer be used for on-site public improvements.

"I birthed this thing," he said. "I know it intimately. I know there are no problems with it. We've just had a bad market for a number of years.."

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