Updated: December 15, 2013 at 7:46 am
Michele Berdinis can go to work, lunch, dinner, a movie and her favorite bar, and never have to worry about getting a speeding ticket or a DUI.
Berdinis lives in a loft on North Tejon Street, a purchase she made about four years ago after selling her 3,000-square-foot Mountain Shadows home because she was sick of driving and wanted more social interaction.
"You leave work, you drive home, you pull into the garage, and you close the garage door, and that is it," said Berdinis, a partner in a law firm. "In downtown, I walk to my yoga class or go across the street and sit at The Famous or the Mining Exchange. My backyard is actually several square blocks."
Proponents of downtown revitalization efforts hope more people will move to the heart of the city. Bring in more residents to downtown, urban planning experts say, and they'll fuel retail development and create a more vibrant city core.
"The panel believes that a renaissance for downtown will depend upon additional residential that brings with it daytime and nighttime activity, street animation and vibrancy," concluded the 2012 Joint Urban Land Institute/International Downtown Association Advisory Panel report on revitalizing downtown Colorado Springs.
"Also, residential is the prime ingredient for supporting new retail," the report's authors added.
But you can't have residents without a place for them to live, and that's been a continuing problem for downtown proponents.
The ULI report cited a shortage of downtown housing - particularly affordable, multi-family properties.
Previous efforts to create a vibrant complex of residences, retail and entertainment venues have collapsed, mostly because of the economy and the cost to rehabilitate and remodel older buildings.
Now, however, some developers believe the time is right to try again. Two projects are proposed, which would create about 150 affordable rental and purchase properties in the area. And downtown sources say there is a third in the wings, though they wouldn't elaborate.
A pricier place to live
In general, life in the city core requires residents have a healthy income or a willingness to live small. Most lofts, condominiums and other housing in the area cost between $250,000 and about $1 million.
Berdinis spent $335,000 for her loft, or about $300 a square foot.
"It is expensive," she said.
Rents don't offer much relief, either.
"I have a studio that is 800 square feet for $1,650 a month, and a 2,500-square-foot one for $2,700 a month," said Jannelle Walston, owner of Walston Group Real Estate.
The cost to buy or rent a downtown loft is one reason the city's core has difficulty attracting young professionals, Walston said.
"And we need the young professionals," she said. "They are the ones with new ideas, new vibrancy."
Walston believes there is a huge market for downtown lofts costing $200,000 or less. So do Chuck Murphy of Murphy Constructors of Colorado Springs, Darsey Nicklasson of DHN Planning and Development, and other developers.
Murphy and Nicklasson are working on separate projects that could add about 150 units to downtown's south end.
Murphy is trying to develop about 120 one- and two-bedroom apartments in three buildings that would be constructed between the Colorado Avenue Bridge and the Bijou Street Bridge, just east of Interstate 25. Murphy is unsure of the rental prices, but said they would be "market rate." Murphy and his partner, Steve Mullens, must submit a feasibility study to possible investors, then win city approval.
Murphy hopes to begin construction of the project in 2015.
Nicklasson is working on preliminary financing for a multi-family/commercial real estate project that will be near South Nevada Avenue and East Costilla Street. It would have 33 one- and two-bedroom apartments of 750 to 1,000 square feet. She did not share estimates of rents, but said the cost would be more than $800 a month.
Nicklasson hopes to submit her project's proposal to the city by mid-February.
She and Murphy said recent studies show the city's downtown is ready for additional growth, especially for young professionals.
"There are a lot of young people getting married later and having children later," Murphy said, "and they want to be downtown where the action is."
Nicklasson said downtown is getting more businesses and amenities, such as the Field House Brewery on South Tejon Street.
"We are starting to build this idea that we can really create something here," she said.
Walston said developer Dan Robertson is adding lofts in the Giddings building at 101 N. Tejon St. It has 19 lofts now, and he's adding six. The new lofts will be smaller than the existing units, and cost $205,000 to $275,000, Walston said.
The new lofts had to be smaller to keep the price below $300,000, Walston said.
"You can't deliver a two-bedroom, two-bath loft for less than $300,000," Walston said. "No one can."
Success not guaranteed
As history shows, there is no guarantee the projects will pan out. In the past 10 years, several redevelopment projects that included a residential component were planned - including one by Murphy - but they never materialized, with many falling victim to a bad economy.
If the projects envisioned by Murphy and Nicklasson are realized, they would address some of the recommendations in the 2012 ULI report, which concluded there is "demand for multifamily housing in downtown on the order of perhaps 250 to 300 housing units in a variety of styles and price ranges."
The reports also said the focus should be on the type of housing Murphy and Nicklasson hope to develop: one- and two-bedroom units catering to young professionals and families.
"Affordability, scale and variety are the keys to making this happen," the report's author wrote.
Susan Edmondson, who heads the Downtown Partnership of Colorado Springs, agrees.
"The biggest thing will be price points," she said. "The little bit of new-built residential we have is very pricey, which essentially means few young professionals - and the majority of the population - cannot afford it."
Some argue that there must be more downtown businesses that cater to residents, such as a grocery store and drug store. The ULI report says more retail "must be provided to attract these households," but Tiffany Colvert, a member of the Colorado Springs Urban Renewal Authority, said that it's a chicken-or-the-egg argument of downtown needs.
"If we get the residents," she said, "you get the groceries and other businesses."
For all of downtown to grow, it will take a coordinated effort from everyone involved in investments and property usage, Edmondson said.
"It takes banks that are willing to loan and believe in new ideas, she said.
"It takes existing property owners thinking creatively about new tenants, visionaries who may have their own resources to invest in something, and it takes clearing of hurdles in the city level, and we have accomplished a lot of that."
One hurdle - zoning - has been addressed; new zoning codes make it easier to combine residential and commercial property units, which will help Nicklasson and others create their projects.
The city also has introduced a rapid response team to tackle downtown crime, and installed security cameras along Tejon Street.
But for downtown to really explode, some remaining problems must be resolved.
"The aging infrastructure, parking and those issues make it challenging to pull off a project of a large scale," Edmondson said.
Nicklasson and Matt Craddock, principle with Craddock Commercial Real Estate, echoed the notion that residential construction - especially on the north side of the downtown core - is hampered by limited parking and property size. But they also say homeless and destitute people attracted by the Marian House Soup Kitchen present an obstacle.
"If you were trying to do something next to Marian House, that would be a deterrent," Nicklasson said.
"They do a wonderful job," Craddock said of the Marian House, "but it helped sterilize downtown. It has to be in a different spot."
Officials with Marian House, however, have said they have no intention of moving.
And not everyone agrees with the premise that the Marian House is a roadblock to residential development. Murphy said young professionals will move downtown despite the city's homeless population.
After all, Berdinis made it her home. Panhandlers and homeless people don't bother her, she said.
"They know who I am," she said, "so they don't ask me for money."
Contact Ned Hunter: 636-0275