Updated: December 29, 2007 at 12:00 am
Big-box stores are about as common as traffic signals on Academy Boulevard in Colorado Springs, so the addition of another large retailer along the highway hardly seems like a big deal.
But when the City Council approved construction of a Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse at the Citadel Crossing shopping center in October, the decision was as much about reversing deterioration along Academy as it was about providing another place to buy power tools.
Large chunks of Academy - once the city's most prominent commercial and retail corridor - are in trouble, city officials say.
The southern stretch, from Platte Avenue to Drennan Road, is as dysfunctional as it is diverse: Mom-and-pop businesses, ethnic restaurants, car dealerships and a handful of national retailers thrive next to graffiti-covered buildings and gaping holes in shopping centers.
On central Academy, from Platte north to Austin Bluffs Parkway, a few major shopping centers have lost key anchors and a former restaurant has been boarded up and vandalized - signs that conditions along south Academy are creeping north, some city officials say.
"You hear about great American cities rotting from the inside out," said Councilwoman Margaret Radford, whose district covers most of central and south Academy.
"We're at a turning point in that part of Academy where I believe that's happening."
That's why getting Lowe's to build in Citadel Crossing, at Academy and Galley Road across from The Citadel mall, was so important, say some city officials, real estate experts and nearby homeowners.
It means new life for a shopping center that Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Burlington Coat Factory and others have abandoned over the years, and gives city officials hope that economic vibrancy can return to other portions of central and south Academy.
Stores may not be the answer
Attracting Lowe's to Citadel Crossing is only one success story, however. The seven-mile stretch of Academy from Austin Bluffs to Drennan has shown signs of decay for years, and solutions to its problems are more complicated than filling empty storefronts, said Andy Firestine, a former senior Colorado Springs planner who authored a report this year on conditions along the highway.
Central and south Academy have evolved since the 1960s and ‘70s, and there are now too many stores, restaurants and shopping centers along the corridor and not enough rooftops to support them, Firestine said.
Some real estate experts say south Academy in particular needs more employers and jobs for residents on the city's south and southeast sides. Perhaps city officials should look at reinventing central and south Academy - examining whether they want to attract a broader mix of offices, industrial buildings and housing to go with retailers, Firestine said.
"There is an opportunity for redevelopment and to create a better balance of uses and a better mix of uses in the corridor," said Firestine, who recently left the city for a planning position in Centennial.
"If it's (the city) able to do that, Academy Boulevard has a significant opportunity to reinvent itself in the future."
A failure to pump life into central and south Academy would mean more empty storefronts, graffiti and crime, which will harm property values for businesses and homeowners in neighborhoods near Academy, city officials say.
Boarded-up stores and vacant buildings mean less sales tax and property tax revenue, which pays for roads and other city services.
Academy Boulevard runs from the northside Air Force Academy - from which it gets its name - to Colorado Highway 115 on the south side. Much of the commercial development along central and south Academy spread from the 1960s though the ‘80s as developers and retailers followed homes.
In the 1990s, growth shifted to Colorado Springs - north and northeast sides and outlying areas of El Paso County.
New neighborhoods gave rise to major retail centers on north Academy, a mostly vibrant section of the corridor from Austin Bluffs to Briargate Boulevard.
Other growth areas in the 1990s included Powers Boulevard on the Springs' east side; Monument, north of the city; and unincorporated Falcon, northeast of town.
Incomes lower, crime a concern
Mayor Lionel Rivera targeted Academy as one of several problem areas during his stateof-the-city address in June.
A month later, the city Planning Department presented a report to the council that outlined conditions along Academy from Austin Bluffs to Drennan, assembling an inventory of developed and vacant land and taking note of empty storefronts, graffiti and other issues.
Using 2000 U.S. Census Bureau data and recent Colorado Springs Police Department statistics, the report also gave an overview of central and south Academy demographics: - Academy-area residents had less money in their pockets than did the rest of the city. In 2000, the annual median household income in eight census tracts along Academy south of Platte was $39,441, while seven tracts north of Platte had a median household income of $42,460.
Citywide, the figure was $45,081. - Crime has been a concern. The Police Department divides the city into about 60 areas to tabulate crime reports. In 2006, only four areas exceeded 2,000 crime reports.
Three of the four were adjacent to central and south Academy. - Minorities made up about half the population of eight census tracts along Academy south of Platte in 2000. In seven Academy-area tracts north of Platte, minorities were about one-fourth of the population, matching the citywide total.
City planners were careful to say in their report that income, crime and population data were intended to describe central and south Academy - not to suggest a link between, say, crime and minorities.
Still, some demographics have played a role in the area's deteriorating conditions, experts say.
For instance, developers and retailers don't like central and south Academy's lack of growth and lower household incomes. "It's just an older area," said Mark Useman, a Sierra Commercial Real Estate broker who markets Gateway Center on south Academy.
"There are some examples of existing boxes that might want to put in an infill location.
But there aren't a lot of them that are clamoring to go to central and south Academy." Al Nabb sees Academy's problems daily.
Since 1993, he and his wife, Penny, have owned New Look Beauty Supply in the Bally Plaza, northeast of Academy and Chelton Road.
Business was good for years, but empty storefronts now give south Academy a "lowrent" look and feel, he said. Customers from other parts of town are reluctant to go there to buy $500 wigs and other supplies, Nabb said.
Also, nearby Fort Carson's deployments hurt business; when soldiers go to Iraq, families cut spending or move home with relatives.
"I can't see this area getting a quick fix," Nabb said. "Nothing within 10 years. This area of town will be down for a while."
"Developers and retailers don't avoid areas with higher minority populations; they're more interested in numbers of rooftops and incomes," said Jay Carlson, a Front Range Commercial broker who markets property along Academy.
But that's not true in every case, said Les Gruen, owner of the Urban Strategies consulting firm and a longtime Springs commercial real estate expert.
After they consider incomes and rooftops, a few retailers might examine an area's racial and ethnic makeup because they recognize some shoppers aren't comfortable in diverse areas of town, Gruen said.
Developers and retailers do watch crime rates, Useman said.
Crime in a few of the areas along central and south Academy might have contributed to retailers bolting for Powers Boulevard or other parts of town, he said.
Central and south Academy's aging shopping centers are another factor. Retailers prefer newer centers, even if lease rates are higher, Useman said.
In the Springs, 29 of 68 large shopping centers were built after 1994, and their vacancy rate in 2007 was a skimpy 3.2 percent, Useman said.
The vacancy rate for pre-1994 centers was about five times higher. Retailers also like convenience, and central and south Academy's traffic signals create frustrating stop-and-go conditions for shoppers, said Fred Veitch of Springs developer Nor'wood Development Group.
Nor'wood has built major shopping centers along Powers Boulevard, which has fewer traffic signals.
"People tend to shop where it's the easiest, most convenient and current, modern presentations," Veitch said.
"Consumers want the best." But razing or remodeling older shopping centers can be more expensive than building on vacant ground, experts say.
Footprints of shopping centers along south Academy, in particular, are long and skinny, while developers prefer them wide and deep, Useman said.
The same holds true for developers considering new office or industrial space, Useman said. It's costly to tear down buildings, and commercial developers need large parcels for office and industrial uses, as well as parking, he said.
"You need to provide some incentives to the developers that are the risk takers out there," Carlson added.
"Right now, there aren't a lot of people who want to take the risk developing on south Academy. You're going to be in some of the lowest-rent areas in the city down there. It's tough to make the numbers work in today's market."
Carson influx among reasons for hope
Despite its problems, Academy isn't a lost cause, several people said. Springs-based Craddock Development Co. paid $5 million in 2006 for about two-thirds of the Mission Trace shopping center, southeast of Academy and Hancock Expressway.
The company plans to spend an additional $2 million to $2.5 million on renovations, including fancier building facades, said Vice President Matt Craddock.
Mission Trace has become the poster child of south Academy deterioration.
Nearly 40 percent of Craddock's space is unoccupied, which is a little more than four times the average vacancy rate of shopping centers in the city.
Mission Trace suffered a blow in 2003 when a King Soopers grocery moved from a spot there to one across the street, in Hancock Plaza. But thousands of additional soldiers coming to Fort Carson offer hope for south Academy, Craddock said.
On Dec. 19, the Department of Defense announced nearly 4,900 troops will come to the post by 2013, in addition to 10,000 soldiers the Pentagon had said would arrive by 2010.
The numbers will swell Carson's activeduty population to nearly 30,000. "You're not going to see the Wild Oats and those kinds of businesses down there," Craddock said.
"But it's a small-business haven down there. Mom-and-pops are everywhere. It's driven by population. If you get the right numbers, the retailers will come."
The Food For The Soul restaurant is one such mom-and-pop. Keith Williams, a co-owner, said south Academy has a future if the community is willing to invest in it.
"When you lose the mom-and-pops, you lose the essence of the community," he said. Drennan Road improvements will provide an easier link between Academy and Powers Boulevard.
And a Colorado Springs Airport business park is expected to bring more employers and workers to the southeast side, a few miles from south Academy. King Soopers likes its location in Hancock Plaza, where it has gas pumps to go with its grocery, said spokesman Trail Daugherty.
"We do care about that neighborhood," he said. "We've been in that neighborhood for a long time. We feel from a business perspective and a corporate standpoint, that's where we want to be."
Starbucks Coffee Co. recently went to Hancock Plaza, and it didn't care about lower household incomes, said Phil Smith, a Starbucks regional marketing manager. Starbucks has locations in many urban and inner-city areas, he said.
In Hancock Plaza's case, the location had solid traffic numbers and good access, and the nearest Starbucks was four miles away, he said. More retail isn't necessarily what Academy needs, some experts say.
And it isn't clear how far the city should go in charting its future. Firestine, the former city planner, suggested the City Council consider swapping some retail on central and south Academy for a broader mix of office, industrial and residential uses.
"I don't want to characterize it as a place of no hope," Firestine said.
"I simply think that's not true. I think it needs some attention to reinvent itself and to market itself today."
Mayor Rivera said developers and merchants - not politicians and planners - should determine what's best for Academy.
Private developers have shown their desire to revive older areas, Rivera said. Southgate, on the city's southwest side, was gutted a few years ago and rebuilt as part of the Broadmoor Towne Center.
Its developer received no financial help from the city. "If a developer wants to have a better use and get it rezoned, so be it," Rivera said of central and south Academy.
"I don't think it's going to be driven by the City Council or the Planning Department. Somebody who's willing to put capital at risk has to come to us."
Rivera said the Springs' long-term strategic plan spells out the city's intent to work with developers, builders and retailers to help them on Academy or other parts of the city.
Also, the city's 2008 budget includes money to hire an economic development specialist to work with retailers on Academy and elsewhere, Rivera said.
He added that he plans to ask commercial real estate experts to analyze the corridor's problems and consider possible solutions.
"I think the message should be clear," Rivera said.
"Look at our strategic plan and how important redevelopment is. If you're looking for direction, there it is, it's already laid out. If you have something to meet that direction, there it is and we'll help you."
Before the city would offer incentives, the council would want to know the financial implications, Radford and Rivera said.
"That's the way we operate," Rivera said.
"Whether it's a new retail center or any other employer, if someone asks for incentives, we're going to see what the payback to the community is."
Lowe's didn't receive financial incentives to locate at Citadel Crossing.
Yet Academy's competition will continue to grow; development has barely started on the 21,000-acre Banning Lewis Ranch, east of Marksheffel Road, where more shopping and commercial space is planned.
"My suspicion is that whether it's straightup economic incentives or fast-tracking of plans or whatever," Radford said, "we're going to have to do something to bang the drum and get people to look at Academy again.
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WHAT THEY SAY
About central and south Academy Boulevard
"Yes, it can recover. Southgate (shopping center) languished for years and was renovated. It takes an owner of the property that has some vision and some patience and capital to get things turned around."
- LES GRUEN, FORMER MEMBER OF THE CITY PLANNING COMMISSION AND URBAN RENEWAL AUTHORITY AND OWNER OF THE URBAN STRATEGIES CONSULTING FIRM
"Right now, retailers respond to new rooftops on Powers (Boulevard). Once supply and demand creates an equilibrium, then you will see some redevelopment (on Academy). . . As long as the neighborhoods (along Academy) remain viable, you've got a pretty impressive density along that corridor, and retailers will recognize that."
- COLORADO SPRINGS DEVELOPER KEVIN KRATT, WHO MARKETS PROJECTS ON CENTRAL AND SOUTH ACADEMY
"It looks neglected. . . There are many problems with graffiti. The city needs to address that problem. There are fields and vacant properties full of weeds, the properties have an unkempt, untidy look about them. That sends a bad message about the whole area . . ."
- MARJORIE SMITH, NEIGHBORHOOD ADVOCATE AND FORMER PARK HILL NEIGHBORHOOD ASSOCIATION BOARD MEMBER
"Has anybody done a study to say what can happen, to say how can we help the businesses? . . . It has to be cheaper to invest now in the businesses than to have them go out of business. We spend too much on the back end. When you lose the mom-and-pops, you lose the essence of the community."
- KEITH WILLIAMS, CO-OWNER OF THE FOOD FOR THE SOUL RESTAURANT IN THE MISSION TRACE SHOPPING CENTER
PLANNING REPORT OFFERS COUNCIL A TOOL KIT
A city Planning Department report on Academy Boulevard conditions outlined several planning, regulatory and financial tools the City Council could use to address the corridor's problems.
Among them: - Develop a corridor master plan, perform a market study to determine Academy's role in the economy and evaluate whether there's excess retail.
Such steps would help the council determine what types of land uses are desirable along central and south Academy and whether city officials should seek to bring additional office space, industrial buildings and housing to the corridor.
• Conduct a blight study. An urban renewal designation allows tax revenue from redeveloped areas to be spent on streets, sidewalks, utilities and other public improvements. City officials first would have to conduct a study to determine if portions of central and south Academy qualify as blighted under state law.
• Rezone. If City Council members think central and south Academy have too much retail, they could consider strategically rezoning property for other uses.
• Upgrade Academy's access for vehicles and pedestrians.
• Consider tax-relief proposals, subsidies or tax credits for developers.
• Consider public improvements to encourage redevelopment, such as upgrades to sidewalks, utilities and turn lanes.
• Use federal Community Development Block Grant money for economic development, neighborhood rehabilitation and other improvements along and near Academy.
• Employ tax-increment financing. Urban-renewal designations allow sales tax and property tax revenue from future redevelopment to be spent on roads, sidewalks, utilities and other public improvements. Academy Boulevard Corridor Conditions Assessment, prepared by the Comprehensive Planning Division of the City Planning and Community Development Department, www.springsgov.com/units/planning/AcademyCorridor/AcademyCorridorConditionsAssessment91207.pdf