Steamboat looks to Fort Collins for ideas to re-envision downtown alleys
November 23, 2018
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Development experts helping Fort Collins transform its downtown gave a presentation Friday to show Steamboat Springs what it can do with its unattractive alleyways.
Todd Dangerfield and Matt Robenalt, of Fort Collins Downtown Development Authority, showed photos of how they transformed the college town’s ugly alleys, filled with trash and cooking oil containers, into pedestrian and business-friendly places with lighting, plants, art and new pavement.
Dangerfield said some Steamboat restaurants are already putting second entrances in their alleys, and downtown condos have built attractive alley entrances for their residences. But he said Steamboat's alleys are still just a way to get to the next destination.
"Instead of dodging the usual dumpsters, how can you make it (an alley) a primary path and not just a way to avoid streets?" asked Dangerfield.
The Downtown Development Authority representatives from Fort Collins were brought in by Steamboat Springs developer Jim Cook, who has long been determined to shape downtown Steamboat into a thriving community. He sees the alleyways as a way for current building owners to expand their reach and make their buildings more profitable.
"Businesses like the Smokehouse, on their own initiative, use their alley for seating," Cook said.
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He also said the city is entering a "retail apocalypse," and the space of downtown buildings can be enlarged with new residences or businesses built or located at the back of the buildings, using improved alleys to make them viable.
"If we are to expand those buildings, we can create storefronts on the back and front side," Cook said .
Most audience members at Friday’s alley presentation loved the idea of transforming Steamboat's alleys, but funding was seen as a hurdle.
"We're the only ski town that depends entirely on sales tax for our revenue," Cook said. "We have to continually massage ways we can grow that end of our market, because we all depend on that revenue to sustain our infrastructure."
That's why Cook stressed the Fort Collins’ alley presentation was part of a private initiative launched by people who want to transform the alleys. The Fort Collins Downtown Development Authority has millions of dollars to work with because it uses tax increment financing — TIF — to encourage investment in redevelopment.
In other words, as property values go up in their business district, the additional taxes collected go toward the Development Authority to maintain and develop infrastructure for downtown projects like alley improvements.
Fort Collins also gives out TIF grants to businesses for improvements, like changing the façade of a business to make it more attractive. The city also passed a mill levy to help run the Development Authority.
Currently, downtown Steamboat does not have a TIF in place, the visitors from Fort Collins emphasized that alley improvements can be done by making one small change at a time.
"You need a strong partnership with the city who owns the right of ways," Dangerfield said. "You need a small pilot project that will generate excitement and public support for a larger initiative."
Cook said the alley behind the Tap House, between Seventh and Eighth streets, would be the spot he'd like to concentrate on first.
Robenalt said it can be as easy as using art to mask the ugly.
"Create a cool factor — embrace the funky side,” Robenalt said. “… if you have conduit piping running along the walls, you can use it and enhance it with art — make it into ant tunnels."
Robenalt pointed to Louisville, Kentucky, which is transforming their alleys by using the back doors of businesses as art palettes.
Robenalt and Dangerfield said the first step is coming up with a design, and the second step is doing a demonstration project on one small alley to create excitement. Then there's the funding.
Cook said for now he's looking to private businesses to start working on the alleys, but in the long run, a TIF, either on the property value or sales tax, could eventually be discussed.
Cook is also trying to come up with creative ways to get grant funding. He sees the cooking oil containers in the alleyways behind restaurants as a possible hazard to the Yampa River and plans on looking at water-related grants to help clean up alleys.
Luckily for Steamboat, cities like Fort Collins have spent a decade already making mistakes and perfecting the transition of their alleys into friendly public places.
When asked about the biggest costs behind alley revitalization, Robenalt listed "pavers, electrical fixtures and utility improvements" as the top three costs.
Audience member and Steamboat architect Katie Kiefer, who also manages a building with a prominent alley off of Ninth Street, said they have been looking for ways to add on residences to a building there, but she called Steamboat's above-ground utilities, "a rat's nest."
"This is great stuff, and I'm supportive but above-ground utilities make it hard," Kiefer said.
Unfortunately, City Council member Lisel Petis doesn't see it getting any easier for now.
"We're in a funding crisis now," Petis said. "You kind of hope there's some nonprofits that can step up and that citizens are interested in the project."
Frances Hohl is a contributing writer for the Steamboat Pilot & Today.