The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum and the Park Union pedestrian bridge that connects the museum to America the Beautiful Park are the beginning of a grand vision that will transform southwest Downtown into a vital commercial and residential center.
Vermijo Avenue, the city’s newest signature street, culminates at the Olympic Museum Plaza and is fulfilling its purpose as a place where events can be held. The street now sports a widened pedestrian walkway, landscaping and innovations like electrical outlets on light poles for vendors who need power.
The Vermijo improvements “have given us a highlighted street corridor for event organizers to potentially use as an option,” says Blake Zink, senior program administrator for special events with the city of Colorado Springs.
It’s been used for events like the city’s 150th anniversary festival on July 31, 2021; Fiestas Patrias, a celebration of Latino heritage and culture, in September 2022; and several events activated by the Olympic & Paralympic Museum.
Vermijo abuts Park Union, an 82-acre parcel at the heart of efforts to revitalize the area between the museum and Weidner Field and from America the Beautiful Park to Cascade Avenue.
Norwood Development Group, the principal landowner in Park Union, is excited about the long-term possibilities for the area, including a passenger rail station south of the museum and a proposed plan for Fountain Creek that could “turn it into a beautiful, shining asset,” Norwood Senior Vice President Jeff Finn says.
But outside of the museum and bridge, major development has yet to rise from the empty lots and dilapidated structures that previously characterized the area.
Three major projects Norwood has planned — a hotel adjacent to the museum, a 184,000-square-foot office building and an apartment/condo development — are still in the planning stages, Finn says.
“We are still trying to work through the economic challenges on these projects, but we will get there,” he says.
In the meantime, work is going on in the background — and underground.
“There are unsexy infrastructure projects that continue to be worked on, completed and maintained,” Finn says.
Infrastructure work and streetscape improvements also have been done along South Sierra Madre between the museum and West Cimarron Street.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there were potentially more streetscape improvements on Sierra Madre, especially going north,” says Bob Cope, the city’s economic development manager. “I would expect that to coincide with future development.”
Cope says he fully expects Norwood’s projects to move forward as current
economic constraints like higher interest rates and construction costs lessen.
“I am seeing that any project that is being built, to lease or sell, and you don’t have your pricing already locked in, is going to be on a temporary hold,” he says, “and this doesn’t relate only to Park Union. They’re using this period to get ahead in some of their planning and design.”
Projects that were able to lock in costs before the worst of the construction cost inflation hit are the ones that are being built.
One of those is the first of four mixed-use apartment buildings under construction by Weid-ner Apartment Homes adjacent to Weidner Field, just outside the Park Union district.
The seven-story Experience at Epicenter will provide 408 market-rate dwelling units, with commercial space on the ground floor. Completion and opening are planned for the spring of 2024.
“We’re about a year out,” says Greg Cerbana, vice president – public relations and government affairs for Weid-ner Property Management.
Norwood is working with the city on a project south of Vermijo that will create a regional Downtown stormwater treatment facility to assure clean water discharges into Fountain Creek.
“It’s not a sexy project,” Finn says, “but it is absolutely critical and necessary for development to occur. It’s significant because, when I started this, there was not an ounce of stormwater infrastructure in this area.”
Norwood is finalizing the design of the Residences at Park Union, a 12-story community with 213 residential units including 76 condos that will be built north of the pedestrian bridge landing.
“We are actively working to bring that project to fruition,” Finn says. “What I can’t tell you is when we will break ground exactly, because it is one of the most dense, complicated urban residential buildings in Downtown.”
With hundreds of apartment units planned or underway Downtown, “we’re working to position and deliver that at the right moment,” Finn says.
Norwood is seeing a lot of interest in the Class A+ office building at 435 S. Sahwatch St., he says.
“We have not had any significant new office product delivered in Downtown … since the late 1990s, early 2000s, so this is certainly pioneering for us,” he says.
“We are still trying to work through the economic challenges on these projects.”
— Jeff Finn
Plans for the hotel on the northeast corner of Sierra Madre and Vermijo were put on hold when the pandemic hit, Finn told Sixty35’s predecessor, the Colorado Springs Business Journal, in March 2021.
The hotel is envisioned as “upper upscale,” a hospitality term that indicates a tier just below luxury hotels such as the Ritz Carlton and St. Regis. It will have 250 rooms and “a significant amount of ballroom and meeting space,” he says.
“We’ve always said that our Phase One was a million square feet,” Finn says. “These three properties would be just about a million square feet. The total buildout of Park Union is about 5 million square feet.
“We’re not yet ready to offer any names like flagship this or brand that, but we’re moving toward some public submittals,” he says.
Norwood is closely watching and supporting the passenger rail and Fountain Creek projects, Finn says.
Front Range Passenger Rail, authorized by the Legislature in 2021, which would provide service from Pueblo to Fort Collins, is building momentum, he says.
Each community along the proposed rail corridor was asked to designate a location for a station, which would also serve Amtrak when it extends to Colorado Springs within the next five years.
A study of 11 possible sites by Mountain Metropolitan Transit and consultant HDR Inc. issued in December recommends a location along the rail line on a 4.2-acre site just south of the museum.
“The station will take up about 30 to 40 percent of that site,” Finn says. “We have ideas — not plans yet, but ideas where that would be part of the mixed-use urban area.”
Finn says he views passenger rail service and the station as a huge opportunity to attract businesses and residences to southwest Downtown.
“Our neighborhood can go from a great urban neighborhood for Colorado Springs to really one of the great urban neighborhoods that Colorado has to offer,” he says.
Norwood is part of a stakeholder group that is proposing improvements to Fountain and Monument creeks, Finn says.
The COS Creek Plan, issued in May 2022, was formulated by Denver’s Greenway Foundation and NES Inc. and funded by a grant from Lyda Hill Philanthropies.
It envisions a continuous greenway with expanded recreational opportunities along the creeks from Monument Valley Park to the confluence of Fountain Creek and Shook’s Run, and the area where the two creeks converge in America the Beautiful Park would be a signature pilot project, Finn says. That project could include a beach and terraces to create access for water sports, new pedestrian bridges and festival and event spaces.
“That’s a long-range vision, but there’s work being prepared to begin that process,” he says.
Cerbana says Weidner decided during the middle of the pandemic to continue construction on Experience at Epicenter at 655 S. Sierra Madre St.
“We knew that this type of project is needed in the Springs,” he says. “We’re funded and we’re moving forward.”
Among the project’s residential spaces will be about a dozen micro units of about 330 square feet, plus studios and 1- and 2-bedroom apartments.
“We’re going to test the concept of micro units to see whether or not that resonates with the residents here in the Springs,” Cerbana says.
The project also features a rooftop amenity space overlooking Weidner Field and a public plaza on West Moreno Avenue, which was vacated by the city for that use.
The project will include 12,500 square feet of space on the ground floor that will house three or four commercial spaces and the building’s clubhouse.
“We would love to see a mix of commercial tenants that will cater to the residents,” Cerbana says.
Preleasing of the apartments likely will begin in mid- to late summer.