2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Disaster strikes Chestnut Street Bypass as Colorado Springs women predicted

Published: June 13, 2014, 8:00 am, by Bill Vogrin

A car careened around curve on the new Chestnut Street bypass, jumped the sidewalk and crashed into the concrete wall that separates Parker Street from the bypass. Residents at the end of Parker predicted such disasters when the bypass was proposed. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

A car careened around curve on the new Chestnut Street bypass, jumped the sidewalk and crashed into the concrete wall that separates Parker Street from the bypass. Residents at the end of Parker predicted such disasters when the bypass was proposed. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

Next-door neighbors Ruth Wagner and Phyllis Smith predicted this would happen.

They warned Colorado Springs officials the Chestnut Street bypass would be a disaster.

Now, just six months or so after the new bypass opened with its stamped concrete privacy wall, an out-of-control motorist has struck the wall.

Careened over the sidewalk and crashed into the corner post right in front of the Wagner home, leaving a trail of skid marks on the sidewalk, car parts in the gravel and cracked concrete and a wobbly post in its wake.

The midnight Sunday wreck is the fulfillment of everything Ruth and Phyllis knew would happen. And, they believe, it’s a precursor of things to come. Perhaps next time the driver won’t walk away and the car won’t be stopped by the wall.

Ruth Wagner describes how  cars roar around the new Chestnut Street bypass. Her home is directly behind it. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

Ruth Wagner describes how cars roar around the new Chestnut Street bypass. Her home is directly behind it. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

“This is the first time and it won’t be the last,” Ruth said as she picked a wheel cover out of the gravel next to the smashed post.

“They use this bypass as a racetrack out here,” she said as, on queue, a stream of cars loudly accelerated around the curve. “This is just what we said was going to happen.”

The bypass was the city’s solution to a troublesome intersection a block east of where Chestnut Street, Fillmore Street and Interstate 25 exit/entrance ramps all converged.

But rather than route Chestnut in a tunnel under Fillmore to simplify the intersection, as engineers preferred, the city chose the cheapest solution of rerouting it west, to where Parker Street met Fillmore. In the process, Parker was turned into a long dead-end street.

Motorists ignore the signs and speed up Parker Street only to confront the wall separating the Chestnut Street bypass. Most cars whip U turns and race back down, creating a dangerous situation, neighbors say. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

Motorists ignore the signs and speed up Parker Street only to confront the wall separating the Chestnut Street bypass. Most cars whip U turns and race back down, creating a dangerous situation, neighbors say. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

Two gas stations and several homes on Chestnut were bought and razed along with a handful of homes on the east side of Parker Street, leaving those on the west side isolated behind an ugly wall.

The final product, Ruth and Phyllis agree, is worse than they ever imagined.

Instead of a quiet street where they socialized with neighbors all around, today Ruth and Phyllis sit at the end of a dead end road which, despite obvious signs, attracts a steady stream of oblivious drivers who speed up Parker until they slam on their brakes when confronted with the wall and whip U turns.

No longer do Ruth and Phyllis look at trees and homes across the street. Today, they look at the wall and cars on Fillmore and at the new gas station across the street and on the interstate beyond.

Rather than having a peaceful place to raise kids, they have a dangerous racetrack where cars roar around the curve. Or the cars sit and idle, producing clouds of exhaust and an obnoxious mix of engine noise and pounding bass from ridiculously loud car stereos.

Parker Street Bypass Z“It’s horrible,” Phyllis said, waving her arm at the cars lined up 10 deep waiting for the light to change.

“This is why I wanted the city to buy me out, too,” said Phyllis, who is 83 and lived in her home 55 years.

Both women wanted the city to take their homes when they bought out neighbors’ homes as part of the $7 million bypass project.

I wrote about them several times over the years and their pleas to be spared from the bypass.

I never understood why the city thought it was OK to block their access to their homes, take away their street parking and replace it with a wall.

I wrote that the city would never dream of building such a monstrosity in a more affluent neighborhood where homeowners with political clout and money would make their lives miserable.

It seemed obvious to me the city should have ponied up the extra bucks to remove them from a nasty situation the city was creating.

Actually, Ruth and Phyllis began begging the city and the Colorado Department of Transportation to buy them out beginning in 2002, when plans first surfaced to rebuild the entire Fillmore/I-25 interchange.

Even then they sensed trouble. They knew the only way to make room for a massive new $50 million interchange would mean removing lots of homes and businesses in the modest, 1950s-era Mesa Springs neighborhood.

It was obvious the gas stations and small houses on Chestnut were goners. But it wasn’t clear if Parker Street, the next block west, would be affected.

Then the interchange project was put on indefinite hold. So the city decided in 2010 it could wait no longer to fix the troublesome Chestnut intersection. That’s when the bypass was proposed.

But the city said there wasn’t enough money to buy the homes of Ruth and Phyllis. They’d have to live behind the ugly wall and deal with the inconvenience of lost access and parking.

This is how Parker Street appeared in 2011, looking north.

This is how Parker Street appeared in 2011, looking north.

Construction lasted much of 2013 and it took just six months after the bypassed opened in December for the first motorist to plow into it late Sunday night.

Both homeowners would love to sell and get out.

This is how Parker Street appears now with the wall.

This is how Parker Street appears now with the wall.

But they believe no one will buy their homes now for what they were worth before the bypass.

“I really want to move,” Phyllis said. “But after what they did to us, my real estate agent says I’ve lost $30,000 from the value of my home.”

And Ruth believes her family will be stuck in its home for eternity.

“Who in their right mind would buy our home?” she said. “We’ll never be able to sell.”

I think it would be fair for the city to pay them the difference between what their houses were worth before the wall and what they can get for them today.

But in the absence of such an offer, both Ruth and Phyllis sit and stew.

They are waiting for the contractor to come repair the concrete and steel-reinforced wall, as city engineer Aaron Egbert promised will be done in a couple weeks.

And they are hoping to get the weeds cut and trash collected from behind the wall, which Egbert also promises will happen. And they hope to get some new landscaping to replace the bushes that have died already.

Otherwise, Ruth and Phyllis sit, with windows closed, even on hot days, to avoid the noise and fumes.

And they worry about the next car to miss the curve.

And they curse the city that would leave them in such a shameful mess.

Ruth Wagner and Phyllis Smith want weeds cut in the lot behind the Chestnut Street bypass. They also say trash like liquor bottles and drug paraphernalia collect behind the wall. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

Ruth Wagner and Phyllis Smith want weeds cut in the lot behind the Chestnut Street bypass. They also say trash like liquor bottles and drug paraphernalia collect behind the wall. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette