Hwy 24 west of 31st: Redev option kept open

       A year ago the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) introduced four widening options for Highway 24 west of 31st Street.
       That number was reduced to two - and potentially a third - by consensus at a CDOT meeting with local leaders (called the “ELT/TLT”) May 16.
       At issue for CDOT is how best to cram six lanes (in place of the current four) between Fountain Creek on the north and a steep hill on the south. Two options, titled 1 and 2, present engineering solutions that include overhanging part of the road above the creek, using walls to channel the creek more tightly and/or cutting back the hill (which is actually CDOT-owned land abutting Red Rock Canyon Open Space).
       But CDOT is also open to a third option - if local leaders can pull a plan together - of designing that segment of the highway with a more aesthetically appealing creek basin combining commercial and open space.
       They appear to have plenty of lead time. Mary Jo Vobejda, the lead consultant in CDOT's overall effort to plan a highway expansion between I-25 and Manitou Springs, estimated that because of funding considerations, 15 years could pass before any widening will commence west of 31st Street.
       The third option (see graphic above) would be designed with walled creek banks to allow room for a wider highway, but also with a broader, more natural basin to the north than at present.
       The result would be that parts of the current commercial area west of 31st and north of the creek would become a flood plain “greenway,” allowing a trail and open space but eliminating any buildings (the land would be purchased by the government), while other (unspecified) parts would be opened up for redevelopment, according to ELT/ TLT discussions.
       City Planning Director Bill Healy, with support from Manitou planner Dan Folke, was the chief proponent of this concept at the May 16 meeting. “With the assumption that Safeway can be saved, I look on this as a potential for improvement,” Healy said. He termed that area - where eastbound motorists cruising in from Ute Pass can look down on the creek and shopping area - one of the “entries to the city” and said it has the potentional, with redevelopment, to attract increased sales and to become “a beautiful creek area.”
       His concern about losing Safeway matches comments that CDOT planners said they have heard from numerous citizens, at meetings or in other communications during the now-four-year planning effort. County Commissioner Sallie Clark also noted that it would be “hard for the neighborhood” if the grocery had to move.
       Local leaders did not discuss by name any other businesses in the Red Rock shopping center or elsewhere in that immediate area.
       A Safeway official from Denver, design manager Jeff Fergot, attended the meeting. He reassured the gathering that Safeway wants to stay at Red Rock - “jaws would drop if I said the amount we've invested there” - and could be flexible if a new store footprint was necessary to suit a changed land configuration. “We have 500 prototypes of stores,” he said. “If there's a way to make it work, we're here to work with you guys.”
       One of the investments, he noted, was $1 million to channelize Fountain Creek to allow the current Safeway store alignment next to the creek 15 years ago.
       With the need for government land acquisition in the third option, Vobejda noted that a separate kind of redevelopment authority would probably have to be created to make it become a reality.
       In any event, CDOT engineer Dave Watt, the expansion project leader, said the agency needs to move forward on plans to simply engineer a wider roadway west of 31st, and, when finalized during the coming year, these plans will be part of the Environmental Assessment (EA) submission to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). He asked the local representatives favoring an aesthetic approach not to look on that as “slamming the door in your face.”
       Healy responded: “As long as you recognize that (the aesthetic option) is out there. Just don't close the door.”
       Michael Davies of the FHWA noted for the record that his agency would accept the CDOT proposal as Watt outlined it (assuming all the technical details are in place) but added that “we can do a re-evaluation” at a later date to weave aesthetic elements into the Environmental Assessment for the project.
       The aesthetic/third option was originally presented a year ago as “Option 4” (see map on Page 1). The now-discarded “Option 3” would have been a full creek restoration, turning the entire Red Rock center into a flood plain and affecting Colorado Avenue as well.
       ELT/TLT is an acronym for the Executive and Technical Leadership teams, consisting of about 30 elected officials, staffers or delegated representatives from local government entities that have a stake in the highway expansion. Separately or together, the groups have been meeting intermittently with CDOT engineers since the Highway 24 planning effort started in 2004.

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