Proposed apartment tower reignites debate over building heights in Colorado Springs

The O'Neil Group/VeLa Development Partners

Colorado Springs real estate investment firm The O’Neil Group unveiled Wednesday a proposal for a 27-story, 300-foot tall glass and steel mixed-use apartment tower. It would be the tallest building in the state’s second-largest city, surpassing the Wells Fargo tower — which sits at 16 stories and has held that title since 1990. 

The proposal was presented to the city’s urban renewal authority. It’s also a 100-foot shorter version of the same building the O’Neil Group brought before the same city board last November. This shorter tower — now dubbed ONE VeLa — was revealed just days after a city council work session that grew heated over the issue of tall buildings in the city. 

During that session, which revolved around the original, 400-foot tall proposal, councilmember Dave Donelson pointed to an online petition signed by nearly 5,900 residents asking the city to cap future building height at no taller than the Wells Fargo tower’s 247 feet. That petition was started in April in response to the 400-foot design.

“It will change the character of our city and of our downtown,” Donelson said in an interview with CPR News. “Right now, we're known as ‘the biggest small town in America.’ We have a unique feel to Colorado Springs. We are not Denver. We are not a city with a big city downtown."  

A few dozen residents opposed to the building showed up for the work session, which are open to the public but do not provide opportunity for public comment. Donelson received none of the requisite support from other council members when he pushed to make a height limit an item for a regular city council meeting, where the public could weigh in and where council could potentially vote to create a ballot measure on the issue for November. 

“That’s something of a shock, when you have that much citizen support for something” Donelson said. “I strongly believe there’s more than 50-percent (citizen) support for a height limit. If there isn’t, I would think the other side would want to demonstrate that.”

The O'Neil Group/VeLa Development Partners

The city council removed height limits in a small area of the city’s downtown core in 2009. Since then, a number of proposals for new tallest buildings have come and gone. The O’Neil Group even proposed a different tallest building for the same lot as ONE VeLa in 2021. Each one has encountered public opposition to fundamentally changing the Colorado Springs skyline. 

However, properties in the less than a half square mile zone are some of the most expensive in the city, and developers have argued height is what is needed for them to recoup their investment. 

“So, if you are hoping to develop your property, the economics of property values will tell you you need a relatively high density project,” said Ryan Tefertiller, the city’s urban planning manager. 

Tefertiller said height limits or other more prescriptive zoning regulations on materials or architecture styles can impact a downtown’s character as well.

“You run the risk of creating a very homogenous public realm where every building looks the same because they're all following those same standards,” he said.

The O’Neil Group told the urban renewal authority Wednesday the new shorter version of their apartment tower — a partnership with VeLa Development Planners — was not presented as a response to the citizen petition to limit building heights. Instead, they said they failed to secure financing for the taller version of the building. Donelson said that undercuts the core argument for the necessity of tall buildings. 

Urban renewal authority members approved the new ONE VeLa project on Wednesday. It has not yet been submitted to the city planning department.