Building-compatibility issues spur OWN leader to remind city of 1980 Westside Plan

       A quarter of a century ago, in the midst of Old Colorado City's resurgence, Colorado Springs City Council approved by ordinance a document called the “Westside Plan.”
       The 61-page document examined a broad range of topics - including the economy, public improvements and transportation on this side of town - but near and dear to Westside leaders, to this day, are the plan's calls for preserving the way the area looks. “If there is one single point that is critical in the future evolution of land uses within the study area needing particular scrutiny, it is the question of compatibility,” the plan prophetically states in the introductory portion of its “Land Use” chapter.
       Leading the present-day push for the Westside Plan's compatibility clause is Jim Fenimore, president of the Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN). “Anytime people come in for zoning changes, what they want to build should fit into the neighborhood,” he said. “They shouldn't just be able to stick anything in there.”
       What is happening instead, according to Fenimore, is that the plan is being overlooked by city planning and building officials who, over the years, have come to view it as obsolete. In response, he has started meeting with various city leaders to see what can be done. “If things need to be updated in it, let's work on getting it updated,” he said. “Let's work with Regional Building and City Planning. A lot of people put a lot of time and energy into this plan in the late 1970s.”
       His hope is to meet soon with City Planning Director Bill Healy to see what can be done. Eventually, Fenimore said, he would like to bring the issue formally before City Council.
       Supporting him in this quest is Council member Jerry Heimlicher, whose District 3 includes the older Westside. “I'd like to know why provisions of the Westside Plan are not being enforced as things are being built,” Heimlicher said. “For example, the remodel plan for the KFC (at 31st Street and Colorado Avenue) was done without using the plan. As a stucco structure, it does not meet the style of the old Westside.”
       Another council member, Tom Gallagher, who lives on the Westside, also spoke out for the Westside Plan. “It was adopted by ordinance. It's the law,” he said. “How is adherence to it optional?”
       According to Fenimore, during the neighborhood discussions on KFC, company representatives said City Planning had never told them about the Westside Plan.
       The plan's applicability came up again a few weeks ago at a meeting of OWN, neighbors and city planners regarding a small, informally proposed residential infill project at 1918 Armstrong Avenue.
       James Mayerl, the city's lead planner for the Westside, said one problem in enforcing the plan is that the city lacks design control in development projects involving single-family or duplex homes.
       “The best thing to have is some distinct design requirements for the Westside,” he said. “Right now the regulations we have for the Westside are the same ones we have for Stetson Hills, Briargate etc. To develop those standards or regulations we need to go through a process and have City Council adopt those standards.”
       An historic overlay zone - as OWN has proposed - would provide such powers, Mayerl noted. However, he observed, even then compatibility would not always be automatically discernable. “There are areas of the Westside that have consistent architecture,” he said, “but there are other areas where…I won't say, 'Anything goes,' but it isn't consistent. How do you say what it has to be when the adjacent homes aren't what you want them to be either?”
       Disputing the latter contention, in separate interviews, were Fenimore, Gallagher and Dave Hughes, who led the Old Colorado City redevelopment and was a major participant in writing the Westside Plan. Gallagher conceded that the older Westside does not have covenants and therefore lacks the “uniform style of Briargate.” But at the same time, he went on, “we don't want to see a stainless steel McDonald's (such as went in the 3000 block of Colorado Avenue about five years ago). It's very easy to see that didn't fit.”
       Commented Fenimore, “They ought to be able to figure out a manufactured home doesn't fit with houses 50 years old, or steel with brick and frame. So there is a bit of common sense here.”
       “One of the charms of the Westside is its variety, but there is a dominant historic look,” Hughes said, adding that he favors a balance of development. On the one hand, he does not want slumlords getting away with decrepit buildings; on the other hand, he is opposed to “purist Victorians” that would be “out of style and out of scale” with the Westside.
       Although the Westside plan does not call for a “historic overlay zone” - which OWN is currently advocating to help protect historic structures - the plan's writers did foresee a similar need. They recommended augmenting the ordinance by giving the Westside a “special redevelopment district.” However, no such zone was ever created.
       Regarding KFC, when asked by the Westside Pioneer about compatibility at the time (last March), Mayerl did not bring up the Westside Plan, but suggested that being in a shopping center in a farther-westerly area meant historic compatibility was less crucial than in the older Westside.
       Even if the plan were to be used on the KFC proposal, a conflict would be evident. Its location within the Red Rock shopping center is defined in the plan as part of the “Colorado Avenue Far West area.” This area, according to one page of the plan, should “provide a transitional zone into Old Colorado City and promote compatiblity with the low-density residential uses [including various historic homes] to the north.” However, elsewhere in the plan is a map, identifying the same area as “general commercial” and stating that this permits a “wide range of commercial uses with minimal concern for compatibility…”
       In yet another part of the plan, a vision is brought forward that “the two blocks of Colorado Avenue running by Red Rock shopping center present the best opportunity for a western gateway.” As such, beautification efforts were proposed, including landscaping along the avenue in front of the center and in an avenue median.
       In general, the plan was intended as a guide for the Westside's redevelopment, according to Jim Ringe, now retired, who was the city's community development director at that time. “We had money to make improvements, and we needed a plan to move forward,” he said, crediting Hughes and other Westside leaders for their assistance. “The main objective was to give us a guide for how to spend the money and try to turn the Westside around, which has been accomplished.”
       Making the plan an ordinance “gives it a little more punch,” Ringe said. People are more serious about it.”
       Retaining the construction character of the Westside was key to the plan, Ringe recalled. “We wanted to make sure things were reasonably compatible,” he said. “We didn't want some 20-story hi-rise in the middle of some houses.”
       Hughes, who is currently helping lead OWN's push for a historic overlay, said that with the “eclectic” nature of many of the Westside's buildings, the ideal way to approach any development is in a site-specific manner. “The devil is in the details,” he said. “The city should look at that design on that property in that neighborhood. There has to be judgment exercised.”
       Fenimore's argument to city officials is that a strong, vigorously applied Westside Plan would be good for the city as a whole. “What I've told them all is that we've got an asset over here for the community and the whole region,” he said. “If we keep the turn-of-the-century look, it's good for tourism, and we can promote it nationwide. But if it gets built up like Briargate, there is no draw for tourism.”

Westside Pioneer article