One of the nation's largest owners of apartment properties is poised to become one of the biggest players in the makeover of downtown Colorado Springs' southwest side.
Weidner Apartment Homes of suburban Seattle, a partner in the construction of a $35 million multi-use stadium at Cimarron and Sahwatch streets, plans to significantly boost its investment in the area — developing as many as 1,000 apartments in an entertainment district around the stadium at a cost that could reach $250 million.
The company's vision for its corner of southwest downtown marks a major shift in its Colorado Springs strategy.
Weidner owns and operates 18 apartment properties totaling nearly 3,000 units in the Springs' outlying, suburban areas, said Greg Cerbana, a Weidner vice president. The company has purchased most of the properties it owns — starting in 1993 — and developed a handful, El Paso County land records show.
But Weidner now is betting on downtown because of increasing numbers of young people and empty-nesters who want an opportunity to live in an urban setting and walk or bike to a restaurant, store, bar, museum, trail or other amenity that downtown offers.
"We think the market is there, as evidenced by the absorption rates of the other (apartment building) lease-ups that have happened in downtown," Cerbana said.
Weidner might be new to downtown, but it's not new to Colorado Springs.
Founder W. Dean Weidner grew up in the Springs and was a member of Wasson High School's first graduating class in 1960. A 2002 profile in an Alaska business publication said his mother schooled him in the maintenance and management of their family's Colorado Springs apartments when he was 14.
"He did grow up with an appreciation of this industry, the apartment industry, because his family had rentals," Cerbana said. "In order to assist his father and his mother, he did work on those rentals and that's how he learned about apartments and that's how he learned how to maintain them and how to lease them up. It was a good frame of reference as he entered this industry many years later."
In 1977, Weidner — who wasn't available for comment — launched Weidner Property Management, a real estate investment and management company that does business as Weidner Apartment Homes.
The privately held company has grown steadily and was the nation's 15th largest in 2019 with ownership of nearly 53,000 units, according to a National Multifamily Housing Council ranking of the top 50 apartment companies. Weidner owns apartments in 12 states and in Canada.
In 2016, Weidner became a sponsor of the Colorado Springs Switchbacks soccer team, and the following year bought the naming rights for the team's facility on the city's northeast side.
Last year, city officials and civic leaders announced an 8,000-seat, outdoor stadium would be built in southwest downtown as part of the City for Champions projects designed to bring more tourists to Colorado.
The projects were awarded a total of $120.5 million in state sales rebates over 30 years by the Colorado Economic Development Commission.
The stadium is slated to receive about $13 million of the state funds, while Weidner Apartment Homes and the Switchbacks agreed to fund the rest of the facility's cost. Ground was broken Dec. 7 on the stadium, which will open in 2021 and become the Switchbacks' new home as well as a venue for concerts, graduations and other events.
As part of the stadium concept announced last year, Weidner Apartment Homes said it would develop a $40 million, mixed-use project on the facility's south side, which was to include 180 to 200 apartments along with ground-floor commercial and retail space.
Now, Weidner has more ambitious plans. It's spent nearly $13 million to purchase eight properties surrounding the stadium site, El Paso County land records show.
Instead of 180 to 200 apartments, Weinder envisions at least 600 units and possibly as many as 1,000, to be joined by a still-to-be-determined mix of stores, restaurants and entertainment uses that will create a live-work-play area around the stadium, Cerbana said. The price tag of Weidner's investment could be $200 million to $250 million, he said.
The company is bullish on the demand for downtown living based on what it's seen of already successful projects, he said.
Nor'wood Development Group and Griffis/Blessing of Colorado Springs opened the 171-unit 333 ECO apartments at Colorado and Wahsatch avenues in 2018, while the two companies plan to open a 178-unit project on South Cascade Avenue next year. Nor'wood also plans a 154-unit project on South Wahsatch Avenue.
Developer Darsey Nicklasson opened the smaller 33-unit Blue Dot Place on South Nevada Avenue in 2016, and now plans to open the 27-unit Casa Mundi apartments on South Tejon Street in January.
In addition, southwest downtown has other pluses, Cerbana said. The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum will open in 2020 and draw thousands of tourists; the rebuilt Interstate 25 and Cimarron Street interchange serves as an entrance into southwest downtown; and office, hotel, retail and residential projects planned by Nor'wood just north of the stadium site will help propel the area's redevelopment.
At the same time, the city of Colorado Springs is upgrading Vermijo Avenue a few blocks to the north of the stadium site into a pedestrian-friendly corridor, while also improving Sierra Madre Street.
"Everything suggests that this (Weidner's project) is going to be very successful for that part of the city," Cerbana said. "That's based as a result of absorption numbers that we saw or lease-up numbers, the velocity of lease-ups at similar buildings in the area or similar, newer construction in the area, as well as looking ahead at what sort of job creation numbers are being forecast for the area.
"We are confident that the addition of the stadium, the addition of the infrastructure in that area, the redevelopment from Nor'wood will be very synergistic for all of us," he said. "We look for good things in that area and we're going to do our part to add to that."
Now that the stadium has broken ground, Weidner expects to spend next year hammering out designs for its apartments and commercial uses, Cerbana said.
The company probably won't start construction of its first apartment project until after the completion of the stadium in 2021, he said. Apartment and commercial development then would span possibly six to eight years, he said.
One thing the company has decided: Its apartment and commercial projects will have their own parking facilities and won't rely on on-street spaces or city garages, Cerbana said.
"We are looking for an urban experience," Cerbana said. "You won't see parking lots themselves, you won't see open parking lots, surface parking lots. All of them will be hidden within the building, whether they're below ground, below grade or whether they'll be in what's called a podium or a wrap (apartments or commercial space built above parking). So you won't see those from the exterior."
Weidner's property is just east of the Martin Drake Power Plant, which several community leaders have labeled an eyesore because of its belching steam.
Still, the company isn't worried that the plant will discourage renters or commercial users, Cerbana said. At some point, the city will decommission the coal-fired plant, and its redeveloped site will draw even more new uses into the area, he said.
Even if the decommissioning takes several years, Weidner is willing to wait; the company's strategy is to hold its properties on a long-term basis, Cerbana said.
Weidner's southwest downtown projects, to go along with those of Nor'wood Development Group and other companies, will bring a mix of development concepts to downtown, said Susan Edmondson, president and CEO of the Downtown Partnership.
"That means there's a variety of experiences, frankly, even different aesthetics for construction," Edmondson said. "That also allows downtown to grow at a healthy pace because there are multiple entities investing in creating a great downtown."
Apartments planned by Weidner, Nor'wood and others also will serve as an economic development tool, she said. Without downtown housing, young professionals and other workers might look elsewhere if they can't find the urban lifestyle they want in Colorado Springs, Edmondson said.
"As companies are hiring top talent, that talent has choices to make," she said. "They get offers in other cities. ... Some of those folks will say 'I want to live in a vibrant, walkable urban area.' If Colorado Springs doesn't offer that, we can miss out on talent and we can miss out on companies. So providing this type of living is really an economic driver."
The addition of the stadium and Olympic Museum, combined with the Weidner and Nor'wood projects, also will create a redevelopment hub that potentially will have a ripple effect throughout downtown, said Doug Carter, a Springs multifamily commercial broker who's worked with Dean Weidner.
Eventually, 4,000 to 6,000 new apartments, townhomes and condos could be scattered throughout downtown, Carter said.
"It's a bigger impact than what we locals recognize," Carter said of southwest downtown's makeover. "I'm using someone else's term when I say what happens in those four or five blocks, the impact will radiate into other areas."