Colorado Springs is a city rising, its economy jet-fueled by one of the hottest housing markets and lowest unemployment rates in the country. Downtown is on the cusp of a residential and commercial renaissance. Cranes dot the skyline, new hotels are going up and ground has broken on the new U.S. Olympic Museum. To the north and east, new houses are sprouting in the expansive Banning Lewis Ranch.
But not all of Colorado Springs is sharing in these good fortunes. There is a corner of the Springs whose prospects have dimmed as the rest of city’s brightens, where the gap between the haves and the have-nots is stretching.
As much of Colorado Springs resurges, large swaths of southeast Colorado Springs remain gripped by poverty, its hold refusing to yield. In many neighborhoods, the unemployment rate has typically been two to three times that of the rest of the city, according to the most recent available data.
It’s home to the city’s highest retail vacancy rate, while median incomes are almost universally less than the city’s average — in one neighborhood, by more than 50 percent. And it’s burdened by disproportionately high rates of violent crime and gang activity.
The area’s 94,000 people comprises 21 percent of the city’s population. Yet, according to U.S. Census, local police and state public health data, the southeast has:
• 42 percent of the city’s impoverished children and 34 percent of its residents living below the federal poverty level;
• 42 percent of Colorado Springs’ gang incidents;
• 31 percent of the city’s violent crimes;
• Higher than state average rates of obesity, diabetes and smoking, and some of the highest rates of self-reported mental distress in the state — problems exacerbated by the fact that an unusually high number of people there can’t afford medical care.
While many pockets of Colorado Springs are visibly robust, issues found elsewhere in the city are exacerbated in the southeast, according to The Gazette’s analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Colorado Springs Police Department, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Colorado Department of Education.
As a result, southeast residents worry no one is looking out for them, or even looking in their direction. The split between southeast and the rest of Colorado Springs is becoming another example of the rising economic inequality seen in big cities across the nation.
“There has been some ignoring — there has been some forgetting that southeast was part of the community,” said Mina Liebert, an El Paso County Public Health planner who is helping lead an effort to revitalize the area.
So what happened? Why did the most racially and culturally diverse, and by many accounts, one of the hardest-working corners of the city get left behind, forgotten and passed over as the city boomed north and east? Why hasn’t southeast shared in Colorado Springs’ progress?
The exact reasons are many, controversial and fodder for endless argument. But some say the southeast has been snakebit since it was built.
Interviews with local historians, community leaders, city planners and scores of residents, along with reviews of archived media reports, decades-old city manager speeches and local, state and federal databases, tell the story of an area that sprouted with promise as Colorado Springs transitioned to a military town — only to be neglected as the city turned its attention to newer, more economically-advantaged developments to the north, east and west.
A culture that encouraged sprawl led developers elsewhere, to open rolling prairies where they built brand new houses and bigger and better stores.
The southeast has struggled with a concentration of urban ills. One issue is weak housing and neighborhood codes, the deterioration of apartment complexes and the decline of many neighborhoods. Police leaders acknowledge the staff at its southeast Sand Creek subdivision is less than desired, amid a department-wide shortage.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Bypass’ creation coincided with the closure of nearby stores, and residents say it disrupted the community’s cohesion. And the relocation of El Paso County’s social services offices to the city’s far northwestern corner left food stamps, health care for pregnant women and other vital programs for impoverished residents an hours-long bus ride away.
The southeast continues to suffer from the Cold War-era infatuation with strip malls that often thrived for only 20 to 25 years. More recently, older suburban neighborhoods have suffered as affluent and middle class residents returned to the inner cities they abandoned in the 1960s and ‘70s.
“It’s a mistake not to see what happens in Colorado Springs as part of national trends,” said Matt Mayberry, director of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum.
To say these ills apply to every southeast neighborhood would also be misleading. Instead, they can vary block by block.
Valley Hi — long the area’s most affluent community, having been built around its namesake golf course — remains a quiet, well-kept enclave despite areas around it having long since succumbed to blight. While neighborhoods closer to Schriever Air Force Base have prospered, the unemployment rate nearly quadruples just a short drive west, along Airport Road, according to the most recently-available data.
Poverty has kept many in this part of town, but many others are loathe to leave it.
It is the most diverse and culturally-rich scene in the Springs, they say, and an area that brims with pride.
“We still take care of each other,” said Terrie Blackwell, 37, a lifelong southeast resident. “Generations of families are still there and still have that connection to the community, and that’s something that I like about it — that no matter where you go, you’ll know someone you grew up with.
“It’s just our home.”
Coming of age
Dottie Keffer, 86, saw it all.
Nearly 60 years ago, she had an almost endless vista from her newly-built house on Yellowstone Drive in the up-and-coming Eastlake subdivision.
To the east, it was rolling prairies and empty fields all the way to the Colorado Springs Airport. Back then, in 1959, she played the role of pioneer along Colorado Springs’ suburban outskirts, which teemed with potential for blue-collar, military and working-class families.
"We thought we were really moving up in the world," Keffer said.
Eastlake — now a nondescript collection of houses just east of Prospect Lake — marked the city’s first move into its current-day southeast side.
It was a small community that fit the mold of other, post-World War II subdivisions. They were often modeled from Levittown, N.Y., and they proliferated as cheap, mass-produced ranch houses became a preferred means for returning service members and the nation’s growing middle class to capture their slice of the American dream.
A few years after Keffer’s arrival, a second subdivision was built halfway to the airport — the high-end golf-course community of Valley Hi.
A Kmart opened just outside Eastlake — forming a community hub perched above Circle Drive and Airport Road that became the store everyone knew and visited. Its developers celebrated it as “another small factor, another small step, another brick in the building of a great metropolis of Colorado... and one day even the world,” The Gazette’s archives show.
From the 1950s through the 1980s, the city’s population expanded nearly five-fold. Its footprint expanded by an order of at least 20.
In the process, Colorado Springs' identity changed forever. A health care-focused hamlet for tuberculosis patients reinvented itself as a bustling military town surrounded by five installations.
All but one of them — the Air Force Academy — took up residence along or near the southeast.
Camp Carson became Fort Carson, leading military personnel stationed here to triple by 1960. At that point, the city’s 13,700 soldiers and airmen outnumbered the populations of two-thirds of Colorado’s counties.
Construction crews drilled into Cheyenne Mountain for the nation’s newest, greatest Cold War bunker, the North American Aerospace Defense Command. Airmen served in Knob Hill’s Chidlaw Building and at Ent Air Force Base, in what is now the U.S. Olympic Training Center.
By the mid-1980s, Falcon Air Force Station - today's Schriever Air Force Base - took root east of the Colorado Springs Airport, housing many of the nation's satellites and space opersations. Almost all the while, Peterson Air Force Base thrived at the airfield, just east of current-day Powers Boulevard.
Ringed by that activity, the southeast became the top option for troops seeking a place to live — setting the stage for a highly-transient and civically disengaged community, historians and community leaders say.
And flush between downtown Colorado Springs and the city’s growing airport, the southeast held big potential for industrial jobs.
An explosion of semiconductor, space technology and research and development office space followed in southeast Colorado Springs — part of the city’s effort to market itself as Silicon Mountain. Defense Department contractors and big spending soldiers drew the city’s population and economic centers southeast — hitting the Printers Parkway area by the 1970s.
“A lot of what drove Colorado Springs in the post-war years was the presence of the military, and how could you leverage that presence to get other businesses here,” Mayberry said.
Developers took note.
Colorado Springs developer Steve Schuck planted a flag in the city’s southeast side, envisioning massive industrial and research and development hubs leading from Printers Parkway to the airport, each catering to the city’s fast-growing aerospace and technology center.
He recalled Fountain Boulevard being built with enough extra space to become an eight-lane thoroughfare — envisioning it as the city’s main connecting line with the airport and its old terminal. He laid the groundwork for a massive office park along that road, called Gateway. And he spearheaded plans to create the Martin Luther King Jr. Bypass, which cut through the southeast on its way to Interstate 25.
Further east, he tried transforming a rolling, uneven plot of land west of Circle Drive and south of the Bypass into the city'd third major shopping mall.
Elsewhere, federal loan programs in the 1980s helped fuel an explosion in apartment complexes in the area. Of the 10,000 building permits issued in 1985, half were for multifamily housing. Many were planned for the South Academy Boulevard area.
And signs of trouble emerged.
New office developments outpaced demand in the mid-1980s. Denver’s city manager warned his southern neighbors how sprawl and low-density developments in Colorado Springs would make operating a mass transportation system here nearly impossible.
The stock market crash of 1987 affected the entire city, making Colorado Springs the foreclosure capital of the U.S., Mayberry said.
“Everything almost came to a stop,” said Pat Hartmann, a former project manager for developer Schuck. “But that was a history of Colorado and Colorado Springs — it was a roller-coaster up and down, up and down, up and down.”
It remains unclear whether the crash specifically pushed the southeast’s decline.But one thing is certain: Development in the southeast failed to regain its momentum.
Already, the city’s attention had turned north and east. And the 1990s recovery only intensified that push.
The Briargate area exploded from zero to 30,000 to 40,000 residents in the 1980s. The next two decades brought the creation of Springs Ranch, Stetson Hills and the northern Powers Boulevard corridor.
In the southeast, the Kmart bordering Eastlake closed. Locals had nicknamed the surrounding neighborhood “K-Land.”
Big-box retailers closed up along the South Academy Boulevard corridor in favor of newer properties along Powers Boulevard, emptying parking lots in the southeast and forcing residents there to travel farther for food and entertainment.
Other developments lost steam, including the site envisioned for that glitzy new shopping center. Called Spring Creek, it now has several small-but-expanding housing developments, retail space plagued by turnover and empty grass fields.
Behind the eight ball
In many ways, southeast Colorado Springs was behind the eight ball from the start, said Tim Scanlon, a member of the Historic Preservation Alliance of Colorado Springs.
The nation’s reliance on automobiles led grid-like neighborhoods near downtown to be replaced by curvilinear streets and cul-de-sacs. In the process, each neighborhood became accessible from — and cocooned by — wide arterial roads.
And as predicted, commuting to and from the southeast for work, food, recreation or entertainment became nearly impossible without a vehicle, due to the city’s anemic transit system.
Often, southeast developers stuck to homogeneous development plans that Scanlon lamented as “boring.” One result, neighborhoods that fell into disrepair set a lasting tone.
“When you end up with a large area requiring physical improvements, and you have scattered ownership, it takes a long time and a concentrated effort for a neighborhood to regain a different reputation,” he said.
“It’s hard to redevelop an area that never really developed in the first place. I would think that speaks to the challenges moving forward for that area.”
One University of Colorado at Colorado Springs professor suggested that the city’s free market-oriented, limited-government political culture added fuel to its push north and east.
“We are defined by sprawl for that reason — we have no restrictions about restraining growth,” said John Harner, who teaches geography, and who is working on a book about Colorado Springs. “So what you get is a pattern of sprawl. And when that happens, you have a lot of self-segregation, where generally growth is driven by the wealthy and affluent who can live in the places they want to be.
“Then the lower income get what’s left over,” he said, “and that’s southeast Colorado Springs.”
While such an argument may be valid, the causes and effects of sprawl — a nationwide phenomenon — are nevertheless myriad and complex, said Richard Peiser, the Michael D. Spear professorship in real estate development at Harvard University.
In addition, the equation for where people end up living isn’t always so cut-and-dry. A host of other factors can play a role, including proximity to employment, nearby schools and the character of the neighborhood. In the southeast, for example, many residents say they chose to live here for its racial diversity and cultural richness. Immigrants communities chose to settle here.
But there is a key trend, Peiser said. When one of these sprawl-fed suburbs begins to age or decline, the relative affluence of its residents can impact what follows.
“Every neighborhood goes through these whole cycles — I mean, they age, they deteriorate. That happens every place,” Peiser said. “But in the wealthier neighborhoods, the reinvestment happens a lot quicker.”
In Colorado Springs, investment has long concentrated elsewhere.
With Pikes Peak to its back, the city continues to grow north, east and vertically in its urban core — every direction, it seems, except southeast.
Following a national trend, Colorado Springs’ once-stagnant downtown is undergoing a budding renaissance amid a reverse migration from suburbs to the inner cities. About $330 million in tax breaks were recently made available for projects along a 10-block stretch on downtown’s southwest side, where Nor’wood Development Group envisions a 19-story hotel and a 17-story residential building flanking its crown jewel, a new U.S. Olympic Museum.
Meanwhile, the city’s march east continues unabated.
City Council is planning a new master plan for 18,000 acres of Banning Lewis Ranch — a plot of land that sat mostly vacant for 30 years. Over the next several decades, an area encompassing one-third of the city’s land mass will have been transformed from rolling prairies to sprawling suburbia.
Mayor John Suthers, who grew up in the Cheyenne Canyon area, hailed the sense of pride among homeowners within the southeast quadrant and said this area’s greatest asset is its affordability.
Families can find houses in the southeast for $200,000, he said.
“That may be their ticket out, if you will, to a considerably better life,” said Suthers. “We don’t want that kind of a city that excludes a broad spectrum of socioeconomic people.”
But he also acknowledged several issues facing the southeast, including a need for improved roads and the burying of eyesore power lines along South Academy Boulevard. Most of all, he said, the southeast needs an infusion of private investment.
A self-proclaimed “limited government guy,” Suthers stressed the city must allow developers, private investors and free-market forces to guide the southeast’s economic future. The city’s lone role in luring that investment, he said, should be in taking a more proactive approach to creating urban renewal areas. There are none in the southeast.
“We can’t force some of these big-box stores down there, because they’re going to go where they see the market more favorable,” Suthers said. “The only thing we can do is incentivize. And here’s where I do think the city has fallen short, historically.”
For now, southeast residents wonder who’s investing in them.
Recently-passed legislation will pump millions of dollars in criminal justice fees into the southeast’s economy, intending to spur small businesses to life. The goal: Improve a community’s underlying economy and cohesion, and watch the crime rate drop.
The El Pomar Foundation also recently committed $350,000 to a seven-year project called RISE — a coalition of dozens of public, private, nonprofit and community agencies seeking to give residents a greater voice while helping further revitalize the area. Its master plan was recently completed, and some of that money was used to hire a full-time community coordinator to lead the effort.
But far more is needed to address the disparities facing the southeast, residents and experts say.
And with business thriving elsewhere, few companies are willing to reinvest in an impoverished part of the city.
“The math still isn’t really working for developers for a number of these things,” said Carl Schueler, the city’s comprehensive planning manager. “It’s not like there aren’t opportunities there. But they’re limited compared to the north — even downtown at this point — because they do their own market studies and they determine whether there’s a market for reinvestment.”
Still, decades-long resident Keffer never considered leaving.
“I guess when you live in a place, you kind of love it,” Keffer said. “And I have never regretted living here, in this area. Wonderful people have lived here. Some have come and gone.”
She isn’t alone.
He watched as the area around him grew in fits and starts, its development first zapped by a natural gas hookup moratorium in the 1970s, later the stock market crash of the late-1980s and finally the Great Recession of 2008.
Still, he stayed. Though he works closer to downtown, supervising Memorial Park’s Spurgeon Field for the city, he calls the southeast home.
“We do have some good people down here,” said Cordova, 69, of the southeast. “It just has a stigma about it. And I wish it didn’t.”
Terrie Blackwell defends it, too.
In grade school, she played and hosted break dancing competitions outside her Pikes Peak Park house until the streetlights came on. Her father was Pepperwood Drive’s barbecue king. Mexican and Samoan families next door and down the block constantly invited her in for meals.
There is a comfort found only by living in a racially-diverse neighborhood, she said, surrounded by other black families and a kaleidescope of other ethnicities.
“My love for culture and food just came from growing up in that Pepperwood area as a child,” Blackwell said. “I’ve worked in different segments of the whole entire city, and there’s nothing like driving home.”
She too acknowledges the southeast’s reputation.
The community’s lack of influence may be compounded by the lack of voter turnout, which is often half that of any other City Council district in Colorado Springs. Then again, city officials seldom resemble the southeast’s residents, Blackwell said.
“Now we’re in a place where the up and coming kids don’t have anyone — no reason to be proud of where they come from and motivation and empowerment in their neighborhood and their schools,” Blackwell said.
“I still have hope and faith that our community’s going to rise up,” she added. “And it takes hope and faith for a community such as ours to get back up on its feet.”
The question is when.
“You wonder what role the city played,” Cordova said. “Because they went whole hog on developing other parts of town, without first maintaining and taking care of what they already had.”
Count southeast developer Schuck among those who have buyer’s remorse.
By the 1990s, he had largely turned his attention elsewhere — to Mountain Shadows, the Denver International Airport and other areas across the American West. Other developers were right to head north sooner than he did, Schuck said.
“I’m fighting headwinds, and these guys all have tailwinds,” he said. “And finally, maybe 20 years later, I said I’m tired of trying to piss against the wind. I’m going with the wind instead of against it.”
Without a thriving airport, he said, the southeast never stood a chance. Gateway’s development slowed when the airport’s terminal moved away from Fountain Boulevard, to current-day Milton E. Proby Parkway. And with Harrison School District 2’s relatively poor performance in previous decades, he added, families had little other incentive to head southeast than the affordability of its houses and apartments.
Unlike some others, he expresses regret at ever setting foot in the southeast.
“The question is,” he added, “If you’re starting at square zero today, would you do it? Oh no. I wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.”
Burt Hubbard contributed to this story.