Does Durango have blighted neighborhoods in need of help?
For some city officials and business representatives, the answer is yes.
“I do think that there are areas in our community that still have blight, as difficult as that word sounds,” said Mayor Melissa Youssef.
However, the blight in Durango may not be the stereotype of slums the word evokes. Under Colorado law, blight can include deteriorating buildings as one might expect. But it also covers inadequate street layout, insufficient public utilities, environmental contamination and impractical lot design, among other conditions that make development difficult.
To determine if Durango has significant blight, the city has contracted with a consultant company, Short Elliott Hendrickson, to see if four of the 11 conditions defined as blight by state law can be found in Durango’s neighborhoods, said Alex Rugoff, the city business development and redevelopment coordinator. For an area to meet the definition of blighted under state law, it must have at least four of the conditions.
“It’s really data-driven to try and see if these conditions exist,” Rugoff said.
If the conditions are found, Durango City Council may form a new urban renewal authority in March or April that could help finance new construction in blighted areas, with a focus on housing projects, he said.
The city is considering north Main Avenue and Camino del Rio as potential areas that could benefit from an urban renewal authority. Along those corridors, the authority could help finance multi-story buildings that would house retail shops, restaurants and housing – a vision the city developed through an extensive character district planning process, Rugoff said.
The new development could be a long-term benefit to the city and other taxing entities by turning blighted property into businesses that will generate additional sales and property tax revenue, he said.
Youssef said she is interested in an urban renewal authority’s potential to beautify the town, improve infrastructure and ensure the continued redevelopment along north Main Avenue.
However, she would like to potentially re-evaluate height restrictions of buildings along north Main Avenue and Camino del Rio, now that the Holiday Inn Express at 1111 Camino del Rio is taking shape.
“It’s definitely standing out and giving us a reason to pause and potentially reconsider,” she said.
If City Council forms an urban renewal authority, it could help foster redevelopment by providing financing for projects through grants and other programs, Rugoff said.
The authority’s ongoing operating funds could come from the increase in property or sales tax revenue as properties are improved in areas the authority has identified for improvements. The revenue increase would not require a tax increase, Rugoff said.
Durango’s Business Improvement District Executive Director Tim Walsworth said all of the taxing districts that would be affected by the authority – such as Durango School District 9-R, the Durango Fire Protection District and the BID – would have to agree to give up some of their future tax revenue to the authority for the improvements, but that could boost their budgets long-term, he said.
“They are going to be asked to give up a little bit of future growth to get a lot of future growth,” he said.
Durango Chamber of Commerce Director Jack Llewellyn said urban renewal authorities have been successful in other Colorado cities. For example, in Golden, an authority was used to revitalize the downtown, and it helped redevelop an old elementary school into a mixed-use building and an old drug store into smaller retail spaces.
In Durango, an urban renewal authority could help with properties that have been vacant for years, such as the Boker Lumber & Hardware site on College Drive, Llewellyn said. Four redevelopment proposals have come before the city for the Boker site, but none have come to fruition.
An authority could help shape plans for difficult sites, like Boker, and help cover some of the pricey infrastructure costs for developers, he said.
Along north Main Avenue, an authority could also help cover development costs that could be overly burdensome for a developer, such as putting in new sidewalks or tearing down an existing building, Llewellyn said.
Walsworth said north Main can also be difficult to redevelop because it has many small lots. In some areas, a developer would have to purchase multiple lots to build a new, big project. If plans for development are shared with sellers, the price of adjacent smaller lots needed for the project can rise out of the developer’s price range, he said.
An authority could help overcome the small-lot problem, by buying land and banking it until enough of it is available for a larger project that would benefit the city, such as housing, he said.
However, Walsworth said an urban renewal authority would likely start small, and the redevelopment that it would drive would happen over decades.
The authority’s early, smaller projects would provide revenue for the authority to finance larger construction years later, he said.
“It snowballs in a good way,” he said.