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Our View: What a difference 2 weeks makes

Just two weeks have passed since we editorialized in praise of the Yampa Street lodging tax committee's prioritization of the acquisition of a vacant lot bordering the Yampa River at Seventh and Yampa streets as the first choice for spending $900,000 in lodging tax proceeds.

Although the acquisition of the parcel was not specified in the ballot question approved by voters, we reasoned that, after a long evaluation process in which proponents of Yampa Street often mentioned the park with a sense of urgency, it was what many voters thought they had cast their ballots for. We continue to think that securing more downtown access to the river would provide a significant benefit to tourism.

But now, we are reminded of how much can change in the span of two weeks.

Since March 23, the asking price for the riverfront property has gone up, according to City Council members, from a reported $1.3 million to as much as $1.9 million. One of our first reactions was to question whether an appraisal would support the price, and whether it would provide good value for public funds.

The other piece of information that recently came to light was the news on Monday that Yampa Valley Electric Association is much closer than we realized to selling its historic building on Yampa Street between Ninth and 10th streets. That creates the potential for developing a pocket park on the river at the site where the ambulance barn now sits, opposite YVEA, which suddenly is more appealing.

A park at Seventh and Yampa offers the promise of creating public access in a block where there currently is very little. That site also offers the potential to someday build a new pedestrian bridge linking Yampa Street to Howelsen Hill. However, the prospect of Blue Sage Ventures, the prospective buyer of the YVEA building, redeveloping the property (without demolishing the building) to offer a mix of commercial and residential is one that commands attention.

City Councilman Tony Connell and other council members can be credited for recognizing the implications of this new development.

Credit also is due to YVEA General Manager Diane Johnson and Blue Sage principal Steve Shelesky for sharing their news with the community before the transaction closes.

For being relatively new to the community, Johnson seems to have a firm grasp on the changing dynamic on Yampa Street.

"Yampa Street, even without these latest dreams and visions of the community, has become more of a pedestrian and biking street, and we have garages that back out onto that street," Johnson told Steamboat Today. "Our use is not compatible for what the community wants for this part of downtown."

In addition to being far more cost effective, the ambulance barn option offers the opportunity for the public sector to amplify and make the most of private sector development right across the street. The existing pedestrian bridge already is nearby at Ninth Street, and a small parking lot is in place there. Removing a light industrial building to make way for the kinds of businesses that attract tourists and drive sales tax revenues is one of the primary goals of revitalizing the river district.

Assuming the sale of the YVEA building closes, that transaction also would lend credence to the city's plan to sell its police and fire building to help fund a new police station. That in turn could lead to a new permanent home for the ambulance barn and Routt County Search and Rescue.

YVEA isn't prepared to leave downtown for about two years, which offers time for City Council and the Yampa Street lodging tax committee to revisit the master plan for Yampa Street and build a budget, which, in addition to the new park, could include nearby pedestrian improvements.

The city hired Britina Design for $439,000 to redesign the streetscapes on Oak and Yampa streets as well as Lincoln Avenue. Those plans were incorporated into the design of pedestrian bump-outs at the corners of side streets of Lincoln Avenue in 2010.

The vision for Yampa street was one of a more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly zone that could host festivals.

With the strong potential for the western end of the commercial corridor on Yampa Street to receive a shot of new energy in the not-so-distant future, summer 2014 would be a good time to revisit existing streetscape plans and make the most of our opportunity.