Fort Collins' Old Town Revival Shows Downtown Authority's Success

Feb 12, 2015

Old Town Square in downtown Fort Collins is getting a major facelift. The $3 million project will add updated amenities to the 30-year-old core of the city. Funding came in part from the city's downtown development authority which committed $1.9 million in bonds and tax increment.

In existence since 1981, the DDA has seen Old Town transformed from a vacant, rundown area to the city's main hot spot.

"People who visit [Old Town] today, if they were not here in the mid 1970s they would not have an understanding of what it was like back then," said Matthew Robenalt, executive director of the Fort Collins Downtown Development Authority. "A lot of the buildings in the downtown at that time were vacant or the upper floors were boarded up with plywood in the windows. It was not like it is today at all."

Robenalt said it took a dedicated group of individuals, including Fort Collins developer Gene Mitchell, to see the importance of preserving downtown and to understand the future possibilities.

"This coalescence that the downtown had slipped so great in decline that something need to be done. And Gene Mitchell came along with his concept and that really spurred the communities desire to put the DDA in place as a tool to help facilitate that," said Robenalt.

While it took a few missteps for Old Town Square to be fully realized, including the failure of Mitchell's earlier version of the project, Robenalt said there were valuable lessons learned.

“It taught the community that what was once old is now new, meaning it taught us a way to actively reuse our old buildings," Robenalt said.

Old Town Fort Collins during construction in the early 1980s.
Credit Fort Collins Old Town Square Restoration / https://www.facebook.com/OldTownSquareRenovation/photos/pb.495305617229827.-2207520000.1423686088./536695436424178/?type=3&theater

There's now a historical sensitivity to filling in vacancies between historical buildings and a drive toward collaboration.

"It taught us that the DDA had to be a partner with the city and vice versa," said Robenalt. "And it began us down the road of understanding that if we were going to make it happen, it's going to take public private partnerships and it's going to take many of those over and over again to truly revitalize downtown."

The current Old Town Square is clearly reaching the end of its usable life. While the place is buzzing with activity, concrete planters are damaged and cracks are appearing on retaining walls and walkways.

"It's an incredibly vibrant active place that gets used hard and things are wearing out. In our effort to refresh that we considered whether or not it was a simple remodel or are we going to do a bigger renovation," he said.

Plans include a larger children's play area, moving an outdoor stage for easier pedestrian flow as well as a second water feature to complement the existing water fountain - which will remain at the request of citizens.

The DDA is hopeful the project will be complete before Bohemian Nights at New West Fest 2015. However, for Robenalt, the process of updating and keeping Old Town Square fresh is something that's never out of sight or mind.

"I think in Fort Collins this area of the community serves as an example for how our public place making and our private development interface together," he said.

Fort Collins' midtown, said Robenalt, is now in a similar state of revitalization. He believes many of the lessons learned in Old Town Square's redevelopment will make that area another urban success story.

"It demonstrates walkability, livability, sustainability; all of those things coming together now in other parts of Fort Collins redevelopment. And [Old Town Square] will continue to serve as the first and the most exciting example of that," he said.

No matter the success of Old Town Square, or any downtown revitalization project across Northern Colorado, once the plateau is reached, work is never done.

"This is great now, but if we stop investing as public and private partners together, history repeats itself, and in the absence of that investment in the private realm and the public realm you'll find decline," Robenalt said. "And I think Fort Collins is well positioned and has been for many years to avoid that from happening."