November 11, 2022 | NEWS | By Will Sylvain

This week at City Hall, community members are considering a proposal to annex nearly 3,200 acres to the city of Colorado Springs. The proposal arises as a bold solution to a rapidly emerging housing problem in the Springs but is also generating some controversy among residents.

Colorado Springs has been steadily expanding for over a decade, which has been good for the economy, but difficult to keep up with for the city’s infrastructure. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the housing market: in the last five years, the median home price in Colorado Springs has nearly doubled. According to the Housing Opportunity Index, a measurement compiled by the UCCS Economic Forum, Colorado Springs has become strikingly more expensive in recent years.

The Housing Opportunity Index (HOI) is a statistic that indicates what percentage of homes in a given area could be afforded by a family earning the median income. In 2019, the HOI estimated that 71.4% of homes in the city met the mark, a portion much larger than the national average. As of September, of this year, the number had plummeted to 22.7%. At the same time of measurement, Boulder’s was 23.6%.

So, if Colorado Springs has become less affordable than Boulder, the Mecca of overpriced everything, what do we do? Enter La Plata Inc.

La Plata is an independent corporation that generates “master plan communities” for cities, including developments that incorporate all types of land usage, and amenities that complement every aspect of residential life. Best known for their work on Briargate, a 10,000-acre project near the Air Force Academy, La Plata has been a valuable urban development partner of the city for decades. Now, they hope to meet Colorado Springs’ urgent housing demand with a new proposal: The Amara development.

Amara is another master plan community that would be comprehensive enough to essentially be its own town. The focus of the Amara development, according to Doug Quimby, the corporation’s president and CEO, would be “attainable housing.” While technically different from “affordable housing,” which implies the presence of a government subsidy, attainable housing serves virtually the same purpose: residential development that regular people can afford. The hope, then, is that Amara would seriously help to ameliorate the city’s growing housing crisis.

The proposed land for the development lies South of Colorado Springs near Fountain and does not actually border any portion of the existing city limits, so it would be annexed through what is called a flagpole annexation. This means including narrow strips of land between the city limits and the new property to the annexation request in order to connect the new Amara community to the Springs’ existing land.

While doing so poses unique challenges and raises questions about providing services to the area, proponents of this project are focused on the big picture: “The main goal is to provide a great community for people to live and work and play in,” said Quimby. A long-time real estate developer in the Springs and point-man for La Plata, Quimby hopes his company may be able to provide the sanctuary that many newcomers have been unable to afford. “We have almost no supply of new housing now,” he said, “and [La Plata] is highly motivated to meet some of that demand.”

The development is considered a large one, aiming for 9,500 residential units of all types, from apartment rentals to townhomes, as well as commercial, industrial, and recreational development. But, while new homes, jobs and amenities are an appealing and timely proposal, some residents remain skeptical of La Plata’s vision.

At a recent town hall meeting, Springs residents raised a concern that every urban planner in Colorado has come to expect: what about the water? Amid expanding drought conditions and deepening concerns about the Colorado River basin drying up, water is a hot commodity. Colorado Springs relies on the Colorado River for 70% of its water supply, and the river’s two main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are at 27% capacity, down from 95% in 2000. The river’s flow rate has decreased by 20% in the same period, while the Spring’s population only continues to expand.

So, if we’re already running the Springs dry, which do we pick? Ample water or affordable housing? Luckily, we might not have to choose. The city’s current water capacity rests at 95,000 acre-feet per year, while we only consume about 73,000 of it, meaning there is a cushion of about 22,000 acre-feet per year. Amara, at full development, will only require 3,500 acre-feet per year, so as long as the river doesn’t dry up between now and 2050, the estimated completion date of the Amara development, it seems we may be able to have our cake and eat it, too.

While there is no guarantee that the cushion will last until 2050, La Plata argues that we don’t have time to wait and see: we need housing now.

The proposal is currently being considered by the Colorado Springs planning commission, who will then a recommendation to the City Council. Upon consideration from the Council, the proposal may be denied, approved, or postponed. If the proposal gets approved later this month, the first units in Amara could potentially be built and occupied as soon as 2025. So, as long as the Colorado River isn’t dry by then, CC’s sophomore class could be Amara’s first residents.

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