Dreamin’ Downtown: After a lawsuit blocked a big development project, what’s next for the city’s urban corridor?
October 22, 2017
As the construction fences come down and the dust settles, there's new energy in downtown Steamboat Springs.
Cyclists, trivia whizzes and beer lovers enjoy craft brews at a new brewpub where Yampa Valley Electric trucks used to park on Yampa Street.
Many patrons who order the Current IPA likely don't know that the name of their beer is paying homage to the building's industrial past.
Families can now walk the entire length of the riverside road without having to fight with traffic, and a park now hugs the river where an old house used to be.
And over on Oak Street, there are whole blocks of new sidewalks.
"I think they're magnificent," longtime downtown developer Jim Cook said this week of the millions of dollars worth of downtown public improvements. "As important as Yampa Street was in doing the new lights and the promenade and the walkways, which is all great, I think the Oak Street improvements had had as much if not more impact," Cook said. "They give another pedestrian corridor to the community."
Sales tax numbers in the city also confirm the new energy downtown.
Downtown restaurants generated $2 million in sales tax revenue for the city last year, up from $1.4 million in 2012 and $1.2 million in 2006.
Sales tax reports show a different trend recently at the mountain area, where tax revenue has been flat or even down this summer and Ski Time Square still hasn't been rebuilt after the Great Recession.
Even the downtown corridor's retail sales figures have been steadily increasing despite new competition from Amazon and online retailers.
More downtown growth is on the horizon, too.
The long-awaited RiverView development just got approval from the city to form a metro district that will pay for public infrastructure that will essentially extend Yampa Street to the east.
And developer Steve Shelesky, who is overseeing the redevelopment of the old Yampa Valley Electric building into a multi-use hub, is shopping a concept for a 50-room boutique hotel that would be constructed at the corner of 10th and Yampa streets.
But there's an elephant in the room for downtown developers, and a debate looming about the area's future.
One of the largest development proposals in downtown's recent history was doomed by a lawsuit that claimed the city erred when it handed out variances allowing the building to be taller and more dense than current codes allow.
Opponents of 1125 Lincoln project thought it was too big and too tall for downtown, and an Old Town resident successfully convinced a local judge the city council erred in how it granted variances for the development.
Supporters said it would provide new housing for local teachers and nurses and bring new vitality to the northwestern entrance of downtown.
The legal action has sparked a debate about the character of downtown while also instilling fear in some developers about how it might impact other projects in the future.
A primrose path?
Jim Cook doesn't mince his words about anything downtown.
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When he hears claims from some community members that installing parking meters would cause them to skip visiting downtown, he calls the claims an unprintable word.
Tall three-story buildings?
He likes them and thinks they belong in Colorado mountain towns so long as they are interesting.
He also had strong words for the city's elected officials after they declined to appeal a judge's ruling that has blocked a 60-unit apartment project.
"That's like throwing your hands up and saying no more variances," Cook said. "If I'm a developer and I'm bringing a project to the city, and it has an variances in it, I'm scared to death."
"I don't think we can have the courts running our city government," Cook continued. "To have somebody give a local attorney a $20,000 bill and hold somebody up for almost nine months is unconscionable."
Cook thinks Eric Rogers, the developer of 1125 Lincoln Avenue, was led down a "primrose path" when he was given approval from the project from elected officials only to have it taken away by a judge.
Community members who supported the lawsuit and opposed the building saw it differently.
The number of variances needed to make the project happen concerned them, and they felt the structure would threaten the character of downtown.
“I think that this decision was a huge win for the city of Steamboat in maintaining the character of downtown and what Steamboat is all about,” former city planner John Lanterman said. “I think the project was just so massive, and there were so many variances, it just didn’t belong downtown.”
A chilling effect?
Interviews with two real estate developers whose big projects are likely next in line downtown don't think the lawsuit will spoil their plans.
At RiverView for example, Green Courte Partners' Mark Scully thinks the recent rezoning of the parcel will protect the development plans from needing variances, thereby limiting the possibility of legal challenges.
The project utilized a tool called a planned unit development, or PUD, which essentially creates a custom zoning district.
The new zoning that the city approved will allow for taller buildings and more density at the overall site, so variances to city codes will not be needed.
Steve Shelesky, who is hoping to develop a boutique hotel on Yampa Street, said this week he doesn't plan to request any variances for the project.
"I do agree size and scale is important to the community, so out of principle, I'll try to stay to what's permitted, or as close as I can," he said.
Still, Shelesky has concerns about the implications of the recent lawsuit going unchallenged by the city.
He said the situation might make big lenders less comfortable investing in projects that might see their city approvals challenged in court.
"Eric Rogers proceeded in good faith," Shelesky said. "He risked his capital and his time pursuing an entitlement from an elected body that is in charge of planning and zoning. It wasn't illegal."
Another master plan
As development heats up downtown, the city is about to embark on a yearlong project to create a new master plan for the downtown area that would aim to help guide future development and improvements.
As city officials draft the plan, they will take the community's pulse on such things as building height, parking and the impact of special events.
Community members will also be asked how the character of downtown should evolve in the coming decades.
The new plan will cost between $30,000 to $45,000 to generate.
It will also take a closer look at what the parking demands will be for certain sizes of development.
What else is on the horizon downtown?
Business improvement district attempt No. 3
Will the third time be the charm for the effort to get a business improvement district funded downtown? Main Street Steamboat Springs and downtown stakeholders have taken the first steps toward asking property owners in the district to pitch in for maintenance and upkeep of the corridor. Main Street is currently seeking board members to serve on the group that will plan to put the tax question on the ballot next year.
Mark Scully, of Green Courte Partners, said the first projects expected to be proposed in the RiverView development include riverfront homes. The public should also expect to start seeing public improvements, including sidewalks and a new loop road through the property, start to take shape next year.
Old YVEA parking lot
The public parking lot at the corner of 10th Street and Lincoln Avenue is not owned by the city, and it isn't destined to stay a public parking lot forever. Developer Steve Shelesky, whose company Blue Sage Ventures owns the lot, is hoping the city will be open to a public private partnership that would keep some public parking at the base of a new hotel.
Police and fire station
The city is getting very close to pulling the trigger on a new police station. And next week, the council will discuss what the plan is for fire station. Both facilities are located along Yampa Street. Once these facilities are replaced, Yampa Street will be left with another developable piece of property on the river.