Darsey Nicklasson is a relative newcomer to the highly competitive world of real estate development in Colorado Springs. She doesn't have a big name and doesn't boast a big company.
Her apartment projects, however, are having a big impact.
Nicklasson's 33-unit Blue Dot Place, which she co-developed five years ago on South Nevada Avenue and recently sold, was the forerunner of a wave of more than 1,400 apartments now open, under construction or planned in downtown Colorado Springs.
Blue Dot proved there was a demand among renters who wanted to walk and bike to their downtown jobs or the area's coffee shops, restaurants and other amenities.
She followed Blue Dot with the 27-unit Casa Mundi apartments, which opened in March a block away on South Tejon Street. All but two of its apartments are currently leased in a year in which the COVID-19 pandemic has caused some renters to rethink their plans.
Now, Nicklasson is embarking on a much different approach with her newest Springs projects. Instead of downtown urban living, she's proposed a pair of what she calls family-oriented apartments on the city's southeast side, an area of lower household incomes and higher unemployment rates.
Mosaica, 223 units planned east of Circle Drive and Hancock Expressway, and the 150-unit Kaleidos, northwest of Murray Boulevard and Pulsar Drive, will have buildings with front porches and other amenities designed to make tenants feel as if they live in a neighborhood, not a suburban monolith.
Whether it's Blue Dot and Casa Mundi's single buildings, or the larger Mosaica and Kaleidos projects, Nicklasson embraces the idea of living spaces that will encourage renters to get to know each other — kind of like the small towns where she grew up in Montana and Colorado.
Her goal, she said, isn't to just offer a place to live; she's determined that her projects will provide a sense of community, too.
"The more we actually look at each other and we get to know each other and we talk to each other, that's what creates community," said the 44-year-old Nicklasson, owner of DHN Planning & Development and Places Management in the Springs. "That's what creates understanding. That's where you start to realize we're really not that different from each other. And we all really want the same things in life."
Learning life lessons
Born in Montana, Nicklasson (pronounced Nick-lawson) was 2 in 1978 when her parents, Tom and Trudy Horan, moved to Hugo, a town of less than 1,000 on Colorado's eastern plains and where her mom's family lived.
Her father was an entrepreneurial jack-of-all-trades, she said. At different times, he farmed, owned a construction company and even launched a novelty business that manufactured items such as pen and note pad holders out of — yes — cow pies.
In 1989, Nicklasson's parents decided to move on after a bank called their business loan. They sold almost everything they had, bought a used, sliding camper that went on the bed of a pickup truck and set off in a vehicle that would serve as their home for roughly the next six months, Nicklasson said.
"We headed down the road," she said. "We came to Fargo's in Colorado Springs. We got to eat pizza out. That was a really big deal for us."
Her family headed to Montana, then to Seattle and back to Montana. Her dad became an insurance salesman at one point before he returned to Seattle where he trimmed trees. Her mom took a job at a garden center.
By 1990, and with her dad back in Montana, the family moved to Harlowton, a small town in the center of the state. By this time, Nicklasson's dad resumed the novelty cow pie business, but kept watching for opportunities.
He had seen a 24-by-12-inch steel cooking griddle being made by the Hutterites, a religious colony in the northwest United States, Nicklasson said. He acquired the rights from the group to manufacture the griddles and launched a business to make and sell them wholesale to restaurants and restaurant suppliers.
The business, called Rocky Mountain Cookware, was successful. He built it up over almost 20 years and eventually employed about a half-dozen workers before he sold it in 2013, she said.
"He is so my hero," Nicklasson said of her father.
The family's challenges provided lessons for Nicklasson and her younger brother, Joe, as they grew up, she said.
"Don't be scared of the world," Nicklasson said her parents taught them. "And if you fail, you get back up and you try again. The worst thing to do is to not try."
Nicklasson graduated from high school in Harlowton and received a bachelor's degree in business and economics from Carroll College in Helena in 1998. Though not Catholic, she attended the private Catholic school ("everyone was going to Montana State, and I wanted to go somewhere different") on a Charles M. Bair scholarship, provided by the estate of a wealthy ranching family.
She worked in the corporate office of financial services firm D.A. Davidson in Great Falls. Nicklasson met her future husband, Rob, originally from Longmont and an officer at nearby Malmstrom Air Force Base. By then, Nicklasson said she was ready to leave Montana and Rob was ready to leave the Air Force when they moved to Washington, D.C.
"We didn't know anybody in D.C.," she said. "We just chose it. He wanted to try international relations. I just wanted to go to the East Coast to be somewhere different. I just loved cities."
She took a job providing marketing services for small technology companies, but it wasn't very satisfying, she said. Always intrigued by cities, she enrolled in graduate school at the University of Maryland and received a master's degree in urban planning.
"I love construction, I love how things are built," she said. "Architecture is beautiful, but I'm more fascinated on how people interact with the built environment and how it causes us to interact or not interact."
In 2005, she and Rob moved to Colorado Springs when he accepted a job with a defense contractor. At the same time, the move allowed them to be closer to family members in the West.
Once in the Springs, Nicklasson was hired in 2006 by the local office of national homebuilder Pulte Homes to handle entitlements and other work. Her first son, Bryce, was born the next year and is now 13. She returned to work for Pulte as a part-time consultant until her daughter, Adaleigh, was born in 2010 .
After being a full-time mom, Nicklasson said Rob suggested — tongue in cheek — that she could "go back to work if you need more to do." But on the heels of the Great Recession, real estate companies and developers weren't hiring in 2011, she said.
At the time, she and Rob lived two blocks north of Palmer High School in downtown. She had attended meetings of the Downtown Partnership advocacy group and knew of the desire by downtown advocates for more housing to help transform the area into a live-work-play environment.
"It was my neighborhood," Nicklasson said. "I wanted to be part of it, making something happen."
She remembers standing at Wahsatch and Willamette avenues, calling her former boss at Pulte and telling him she had an idea to bring residential development to downtown Colorado Springs.
"I think there's a demand for it," Nicklasson told him. "And there's no reason that it wouldn't happen in downtown Colorado Springs when it's happening across the entire nation."
His reply: "You're right, but you’re going to have to prove ... there is a market for it. And that’s your biggest hurdle."
Nicklasson set out to do just that. She conducted her own research — launching an online survey in 2011 to gauge interest in downtown living. She received 300 responses, while a story in The Gazette helped spotlight her interest in downtown housing.
She talked with real estate industry veterans to solicit feedback about her idea
. Finally, at a meeting of a women's networking group, Nicklasson introduced herself and announced, "I'm interested in building downtown residential."
Her comment caught the attention of businesswoman and philanthropist Kathy Loo, one of the networking group's founders.
"That's interesting," Nicklasson recalls Loo saying of her idea. When the meeting ended, Loo handed Nicklasson her card.
"We should talk," Loo said.
Nicklasson went home and Googled Loo's name to learn more about her background.
"Oh," Nicklasson said.
Kathy Loo's in-laws, Orin and Miriam Loo, had started a small mail-order company in the late 1940s that grew into Current Inc., the multimillion-dollar greeting card powerhouse that the Loo family sold in 1986 for $114 million, according to Gazette archives. Later that day, Nicklasson took her kids to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo — and saw Kathy Loo's name as a longtime zoo donor and supporter, among her other community contributions.
"It took me three weeks to call her back because I was so intimidated by this very impressive woman," Nicklasson said. "But I did. And we kept talking."
Their discussions led to a partnership and the development of Blue Dot Place, a four-story apartment building at 412 S. Nevada Ave.
Loo bought the land, invested in the project and worked with lenders. Nicklasson — a one-woman company for the most part — oversaw Blue Dot's development, relying on what is now a tight-knit team of local professionals that includes architects HB&A and general contractor Gordon Construction.
"Everybody told me, 'I don't think you can do this on Nevada Avenue'," Nicklasson said, referring to doubters in the community. "'You can’t build high-end apartments on Nevada Avenue. That's never going to work'."
Looking beyond downtown
Blue Dot opened in January 2016 as a high-end apartment building. With its one- and two-bedroom units, contemporary stylings, bike storage, dog run and other amenities, apartments filled up quickly and demonstrated that renters were willing to pay top dollar — an incentive for other developers to build downtown.
"At the time, I was asking $1,100 for a one-bedroom apartment," Nicklasson said. "I was charging $1,100 and I was the highest rent in town."
Since then, two downtown apartment projects opened by Nor'wood Development Group and Griffis/Blessing of the Springs have rents approaching or topping $3,000 a month for their priciest units.
Nicklasson's work didn't stop when Blue Dot opened. She became the project's property manager, which gave her insights into renters' needs and problems.
The work paid off in regional and national recognition. Blue Dot was nominated as a finalist for Best Infill Project by the Colorado chapter of the Urban Land Institute planning group in 2016; the national Urban Land Institute featured Blue Dot in a case study on how to develop projects that connect with transportation modes.
"She wants to create that sense of belonging," Susan Edmondson, president and CEO of the Downtown Partnership, said of Nicklasson. "It's not just a roof over your head. It's a place where you're going to connect to opportunities and meet friends and love being urban."
Last month, Nicklasson and Loo sold Blue Dot to a local, family owned real estate investment company for $13 million or $393,393 per unit — a record-high per unit price in the Springs.
Loo, who's formed a strong bond with Nicklasson, said the two make a good team and share common interests. They're both from Montana and have a keen interest in urban planning. They were confident Blue Dot could succeed; after all, Loo and Nicklasson said, they only needed to find 33 renters to make the project go.
"It never seemed to me that it would be a failure," Loo said. "People wanted to live downtown. It made perfect sense to us."
Blue Dot's success came, in part, because of Nicklasson's commitment to all aspects of the project, Loo said.
"One of the things I admired about her most is her dedication to doing things herself," Loo said of Nicklasson. "Every facet of the work that has to be done. So much detail. And all kinds of things to be signed. Instead of hiring somebody to be a property manager, she said, 'I have to be the property manager'."
It was during Blue Dot's development, however, that Nicklasson suffered a parent's worst nightmare. In February 2014, as the project was underway, Nicklasson gave birth to her third child, Jackson. He died nine days later from an unknown heart condition.
"A parent never stops grieving for their child," Nicklasson said. "You never stop reliving the moment. I cry every time I talk about it. I have met amazing women that have lost their child 20 years ago, and they still cry, too. It just doesn’t go away. I know other people feel really uncomfortable about it. Very few people know about it. But it’s part of the story of Jackson. It’s part of the story of Blue Dot."
When Blue Dot's building foundation was laid, Nicklasson said she wrote the names of her three children in concrete — Bryce, Adaleigh and Jackson.
"Like every parent that has unfortunately gone through that, you don’t get a choice," Nicklasson said. "You have to continue on. I had two kids to take care of. My top priority."
Nicklasson became pregnant again during Blue Dot's construction and gave birth to a son, Henry, in July 2015.
As Blue Dot took shape, Nicklasson continued to look for other projects.
When she spied a vacant parcel on South Tejon, Nicklasson said she walked into the office of commercial brokerage CameronButcher, the owners of the property, and pitched the idea of turning the space into an apartment building.
The two sides formed a partnership; CameronButcher contributed the land and Nicklasson — on her own and without Loo as a co-developer — spearheaded a project that became Casa Mundi. In addition to its 27 units, Casa Mundi has ground floor commercial space that Nicklasson is leasing; last week, she inked a restaurant that will open next summer.
While Blue Dot's sale last month fetched $13 million and a record-high, per-unit price, Nicklasson said she'll take most of her share of the proceeds and reinvest them into her Mosaica and Kaleidos projects on the southeast side.
"Developers are criticized for making money," said Nicklasson. "What a lot of people don’t realize is that when we step out there to do these things, my house is on the line. If I mess up, my house is on the line, my name is on the line. Everything I own is on the line. That’s true risk."
If her downtown projects have worked well, why turn to apartments on the southeast side?
For one, Nicklasson said, downtown land prices are rising and there aren't as many parcels available.
But she's also heard Mayor John Suthers and other community leaders talk about the need for more affordable housing projects.
"Downtown's taken off. It's done great," Nicklasson said. "I've done my job. I was part of getting it going. Now my community's saying there's another problem and that's affordable and attainable housing, So, OK, I’m in housing. I’m going to go be part of that solution."
Nicklasson and a group of local investors have purchased the nearly 20-acre Mosaica site. Most of its 48 buildings will have no more than five apartments, which include a mix of studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom units. A handful of buildings will have four bedroom-units to allow multi-generational families to live together.
The buildings' front porches will encourage renters to look out at neighbors passing by. Backyard-like common areas will provide a place for kids to play instead of in a parking lot. Mosaica also will have a neighborhood community center and a playground.
Kaleidos, on about 9.5 acres being purchased from Atlas Preparatory School, will have 30, five-unit buildings, some also with four bedrooms. Buildings also would have front porches, while open space, play areas, a soccer field and a community center will be some of its amenities. The site is near trails, bike and bus routes, which would allow renters to reach nearby jobs.
Nicklasson hopes to start construction of Mosaica and Kaleidos next year.
They're intended as affordable housing units, though she prefers the word attainable. She's using conventional financing to build the projects and not low-income housing tax credits; as a result, rents won't be tied to household incomes.
Still, Nicklasson says she'll seek to hold rents as low as possible and has pledged to retain ownership of the projects for 10 years to control prices. She's aiming to keep average rents at a level that would accommodate families earning the median household income in El Paso County and would boost rents only to cover operating cost increases, she said.
"If I can provide a place for other families to land, where you get to know your neighbor and you care about each other and you create those relationships, that’s the kind of place I want to create," she said.
"People pick me up when I fall down. I want to find a way to do that for others. To give them a chance."