Blight designation in downtown Steamboat Springs may pave way for urban renewal projects | SteamboatToday.com

Blight designation in downtown Steamboat Springs may pave way for urban renewal projects

A sidewalk on Oak Street in downtown Steamboat Springs suddenly ends near the street's intersection with 10th Street.

— Poor pedestrian lighting, missing sidewalks and the presence of a flood zone are some of the things that have helped downtown Steamboat Springs join Colorado’s long and growing list of blighted areas.

Blight is a dirty word that most cities and towns would seem to want to run away from.

But Steamboat and several other places across the state have sought out the designation because of the significant benefits a blight designation brings along with it.

A finding of blight allows a municipality to use a powerful tax tool called tax increment financing, or TIF, to redevelop an area and make it more inviting to pedestrians and private developers.

In downtown Steamboat, the city wants to use TIF specifically to redirect some portion of future sales and property tax revenue from new development toward improvements like better lighting and sidewalks.

So how does a downtown district that graces the front of so many picturesque postcards get associated with a word as unflattering as blight?

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Getting blighted

City officials who ordered the blight study and the consultants who carried it out will be the first to say they think that blight is an unfortunate and, at times, misleading term to be associated with urban renewal projects in the state.

Steamboat Springs Planning Director Tyler Gibbs said Monday that he would rather refer to the downtown blight survey as a downtown conditions survey.

And Mainstreet Steamboat Springs Manager Tracy Barnett also has said she thinks the word blight is a “misnomer” in the urban renewal authority process.

The word blight conjures up images of abandoned buildings and slums like you see in places such as Detroit. But in the context of urban renewal authorities here in Colorado, the word’s meaning is more complex and open to interpretation.

Under the law, blight is anything that “substantially impairs or arrests the sound growth of the municipality.”

A blight designation starts with a lengthy survey.

Consultants visit areas that are proposed for redevelopment and gather a long list of data ranging from the ownership and value of properties to the area’s rate of crime.

Under Colorado urban renewal law, each area is graded on the same scale of 11 factors.

The factors range from the presence of deteriorating structures to unsanitary or unsafe conditions.

Centennial-based consulting firm Ricker-Cunningham found that downtown Steamboat met nine of the 11 factors that together can qualify an area as blighted.

Crime data a factor

Crime and traffic accident data helped Steamboat meet one of the 11 criteria needed to be designated as blighted. Here’s what data from the Steamboat Springs Police Department showed about crime and traffic:

• There were an average of about 218 criminal incidents each year in the downtown corridor from 2008 to 2012. These incidents include assaults, thefts and all other criminal reports.

• There were an average of about 151 traffic accidents each year from 2008 to 2012. A large majority of the accidents occurred in the Lincoln Avenue zone.

Poor pedestrian lighting, poor drainage, unscreened trash and a higher incidence of crime and traffic incidents compared to the rest of the city together led the consultants to conclude downtown hosted “unsanitary or unsafe conditions.”

The consultants checked off the box next to “existence of conditions that endanger life or property by fire or other causes” because of the 100-year flood zone that is created with Soda, Spring and Butcherknife creeks running through downtown into the Yampa River.

Peeling paint, crumbling windows and some crumbling foundations in downtown meant there was a “slum, deteriorated or deteriorating structures” in the downtown area.

And a lack of curbs and gutters and sidewalks contributed to the finding of “defective or inadequate street layout.”

According to Ricker-Cunningham, the checklist they have used when assessing blight conditions has been the basis of 75 surveys they have conducted for more than 25 communities in Colorado and the Southern and Western United Sates.

Open to interpretation

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so is blight.

At least one member of the Steamboat Springs City Council already has indicated that he may not consider the downtown area to be as blighted as the consultants do.

When he did a first glance of the study earlier this month, council member Kenny Reisman said he only could see that downtown Steamboat met three of the 11 factors for blight, with safety being one of them.

“I’d like to have a conversation about how we came up with nine and what those are,” Reisman said, adding that he wanted the study vetted publicly.

The blight study was one of the hangups earlier this month that caused the council to slow down talks of using TIF downtown.

Council members reported they had not received the more-than-40-page study until a few hours before their council meeting, so they did not have time to read it thoroughly and discuss it.

City staff said the document was intended to be included in the council’s agenda packets well before the meeting Aug. 5.

The council is expected to discuss the study in more detail with city staff Sept. 2.

City staff also is preparing its own analysis of the study at the request of the council.

While some council members started to question some aspects of the blight study, other members saw the study as a routine part of the process.

“My familiarity with blight studies on the Front Range is they are done routinely,” council member Tony Connell said. “They’re not challenged that much.”

Growing trend

From the Lionshead area in Vail to an area of graffiti-covered industrial buildings near Interstate 25 in Colorado Springs that reportedly was a sleeping spot for homeless people, more and more places in the state are being designated as blighted for redevelopment purposes.

In some communities though, the designations raise eyebrows.

When Old Town Erie was deemed blighted in part because of its lack of sidewalks and pedestrian lighting, some longtime residents took offense to the label.

“It’s older, but it’s not blighted,” Erie resident Liz Fisher told The Denver Post last year. “I feel they are stretching the intent of the definition of blight.”

A blight study in Littleton also recently irked some property owners.

The Denver Post reported some of the property owners were concerned the blight designation on their property would lead to them being condemned and replaced.

City officials here in Steamboat have said their intentions with a downtown urban renewal authority are not similar or comparable to some other cases around the state that have generated controversy.

City Manager Deb Hinsvark repeatedly has praised the impact of what an urban renewal authority and TIF have been able to accomplish at the base of the ski area, where they helped build a multimillion-dollar promenade.

Gibbs has said the intentions for a blight study and the use of a TIF downtown would be similarly aimed to improve public infrastructure and encourage, not incentivize, private development.

“The key things downtown are things the council has been concerned about and are beginning to address this summer, which are the lack of sidewalks, curb and gutter and lighting,” Gibbs said. “It’s not that they were once there and deteriorated. We’ve just never invested in some of this stuff.”

Gibbs said with the city’s capital improvement budget currently “pretty overextended,” the tax tool could allow improvements to be made sooner rather than later.

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210, email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottFranz10

Crime data a factor

Crime and traffic accident data helped Steamboat meet one of the 11 criteria needed to be designated as blighted. Here’s what data from the Steamboat Springs Police Department showed about crime and traffic:

• There were an average of about 218 criminal incidents each year in the downtown corridor from 2008 to 2012. These incidents include assaults, thefts and all other criminal reports.

• There were an average of about 151 traffic accidents each year from 2008 to 2012. A large majority of the accidents occurred in the Lincoln Avenue zone.

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