Hwy 24: Greenway plans could kick-start no man’s land redevelopment

       More than 50 people who trooped to an open house at Bancroft Park June 26 saw concept-plan drawings for a Highway 24/Fountain Creek “greenway” that has been expanded to include Colorado/Manitou Avenue west from 31st Street to the Manitou interchange.
       The four plans range from a relatively low-impact Concept A, which shows some redevelopment mostly south of the creek, to a Concept D that would remove most of the existing homes and businesses and relocate Fountain Creek and Colorado Avenue northward.
       In such scenarios, assuming the changes could be defended as tranportation-related (note that Colorado Avenue is Business 24 west of 31st), the state could take the desired private land by eminent domain, and sell acreage not used for greenway to private developers. These in turn could build small modern shopping centers to meet a perceived “pent-up” retail demand, according to information from a planning team assembled by the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT).
       The added scope is the latest in a CDOT planning effort that started in fall 2004 with the idea of looking for ways to improve traffic flow on Highway 24 between the interstate and Manitou Springs.
       The idea for a greenway from I-25 to 31st Street grew out of the highway's proximity to Fountain Creek. CDOT officials wanted to get a handle on flooding issues - much of the current highway is in the creek's flood plain - as well as related aesthetic possibilities. The west-of-31st segment was added to the scope last month at the request of Manitou Springs officials and a city-county task force that has been studying ways to improve drainage and pedestrian safety in that area (nicknamed “no man's land”).
       Informal interviews with open-house attendees showed no overwhelming tilt toward support or opposition. Some liked the idea of replacing unattractive, aging industrial or motel uses with pedestrian/recreational opportunities and sharp new businesses, while others questioned the project scope and expressed cynicism about the project's affordability.
       Leaders from Manitou, which last year funded a no man's land blight study and established an urban renewal authority to address the avenue within its city limists, were especially interested in the concept plans' west of 31st. Developers get special tax advantages when they do projects within urban renewal zones.
       Elsewhere, around 31st Street and at the intersections of 26th, 21st and 8th streets, proposed highway/greenway areas that could displace homes or businesses also exist. These include all or part of the Red Rock shopping center and the RV park off 31st, businesses north of the highway at 21st (including Naegele Road in its entirety) and the hotel and shopping center south of the 8th Street intersection.
       Vobejda estimated the total of these homes/businesses at 70 (down from the 90 estimated over a year ago). There is no displacement number estimate yet for the no man's land segment.
       The open house was not intended to finalize any highway or greenway plans. A greenway committee, consisting primarily of CDOT representatives, local government staff people and environmental leaders, is to continue meeting and developing ideas. Kevin Shanks, a CDOT consultant who has led the greenway effort, commented during the open house that he did not expect any of Concept Plans A to D to actually be the final recommended version.
       Among the greenway ideas are ampitheaters, creek bridges, hiking/biking trails, historical/educational signage, ponds and walkways into commercial or residential areas.
       Shanks has previously expressed confidence that money can be found for the greenway through grants from various public or even private entities who would be excited by the flood control or park-like aspects.
       There is, however, at this point no money allocated for highway expansion or greenway development, other than private improvements along the creek planned by the Gold Hill Mesa subdivision between about 12th and 20th streets.
       Even the Cimarron/I-25 interchange, which is ranked number three on the area's major-projects priority list, has no funding and will not get any for at least six years, City Transportation Plan-ning Manager Craig Blewitt revealed at the open house. Still, he added, “it's good to have plans on the shelf. We didn't have any money for COSMIX [the current I-25 widening project] six years ago.”
       The Westside Highway 24 planning effort is being funded by $8.5 million of state money, most of it coming from the state gas tax. The highway work has previously been estimated to cost $250 million. No price tag has been put on greenway improvements as yet.
       While the greenway discussions go on, the highway planning aspect has been put on hold, according to Mary Jo Vobejda of CH2M HILL, the principal CDOT consultant .
       However, currently favored highway designs, reflecting public comments and evolving CDOT/consultant engineering ideas, can be seen in conjunction with the greenway maps. These include off/on-ramp tie-ins with Cimarron/I-25, full interchanges at 8th and 21st, a new (partial) interchange at 15th, a no-access overpass at Ridge Road and six lanes of through traffic going west at least to Ridge.
       Recent plan enhancements have been pedestrian overpasses at different locations, including 25th Street (as proposed in a Midland-area petition ) and 31st Street (into Red Rock Canyon Open Space).
       The reason for the highway-study delay, Vobejda said, is that the planning team needs to incorporate traffic projections for the year 2035, and they are not ready yet. The initial planning effort had used projections for the year 2030.
       The accuracy of the draft 2035 projections has become a separate battleground, as Welling Clark, president of the Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN), has charged traffic planners in the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments (PPACG) with miscalculating growth numbers west of I-25 in a way that could make the 2035 traffic numbers support an outsized Westside Highway 24 project.
       The open house had 50 people sign in, although some attendees failed to do so, planning team member Cheryl Everitt said. The turnout was still well below those of a year or so ago - during the months after CDOT unveiled plans for a much bigger expressway footprint. Several of those meetings attracted nearly 250 people each.

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