By Joel Warner
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By Alan Prendergast
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By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
In April, Derek Empey, vice president of development in the San Diego office of the Morgan Group, released an intriguing memo to his co-workers. A sort of Sun Tzu's Art of Warfor hawkish developers, it's titled "How to Play the Game: 10 Lessons Learned From Infill Developments."
Lesson number three, "Keep a Wary Eye on Left Field," goes like this: "Because urban areas tend to be heavily politicized, expect an array of highly charged opponents...likely opposition will include historical societies, sensitive neighbors, churches, local 'muckrakers,' and numerous others with 'perceived rights.'
"Since all will want to tell you how to do your job, get this ball going early through face-to-face public forums. Be prepared to hear wild claims from the 'perceived rights' folks (i.e. car parkers, neighbors and community groups who have walked their dog or played basketball on this land for twenty years and feel they have earned the right to control its destiny). To diffuse them, build your credibility as the problem solver, while painting the opposition as less than credible."
One of the highest-volume builders in the U.S., the Houston-based Morgan Group constructs luxury apartment compounds all over the country, mostly in suburban sprawl zones where opposition from "car parkers," dog walkers and other "sensitive neighbors" is weak to nonexistent.
Locally, the Morgan Group has installed three of its trademark mid-rise, high-end apartment complexes in the last decade. The first, a 291-unit cluster in Englewood dubbed the Greenwood Apartments, opened in 1994. Next came The Landing at Bear Creek, a 224-apartment complex in Lakewood completed in 1996. The Estates at Park Meadows, a 518-unit development in Littleton adjacent to the Park Meadows shopping mall, was finished last year. And two months ago, ground was broken on The Estates at Westminster, a 504-apartment project scheduled for occupation in May 2003.
But now the Morgan Group wants to bring its promise of "City Living With a Country Club Lifestyle" to Denver's urban core. The company is proposing to build The Plaza at Colorado, a four-story development containing 193 apartments that would occupy an entire block on the eastern edge of the city's historic Congress Park neighborhood. And for the first time in the Denver area, the Morgan Group is facing organized opposition.
One might say a force of resistance is massing in "left field."
"We have told them as a neighborhood, time and time again, that we do not want this here," says veteran neighborhood agitator Kathleen Hynes, a thirty-year resident of Congress Park. "The Morgan Group is a one-note developer. All they do is big, boxy, suburban-style apartment complexes. Well, that note may play in the suburbs, but it's not going to play here. We're not in the mood to dance to it."
The perception of the "perceived rights" crowd in Congress Park is that The Plaza at Colorado violates the design standards secured in the Congress Park Neighborhood Plan, which was approved by the Denver City Council in 1995 as an amendment to the Denver Comprehensive Plan. According to a city council proclamation, "The Congress Park Neighborhood Plan is the official guide for the City and County of Denver and private citizens when making decisions affecting the future character of the Congress Park neighborhood." The plan declares that new developments in the neighborhood must "remain consistent and complementary with the existing neighborhood character" and rules that "large scale development that could harm the historic character of the neighborhood shall be discouraged."
Most of the houses in Congress Park, whose boundaries are roughly between and Sixth Avenue and Colfax, York Street and Colorado Boulevard, are early-twentieth-century Craftsman-style bungalows. Characterized by full-width front porches, brick columns, box-bay windows and overhanging gabled roofs with exposed support beams, Craftsman homes are low, compact and quaint.
By comparison, The Plaza at Colorado would be lofty, bulky and generic. But whether it would "harm the historic character" of Congress Park is a matter of opinion, as is whether it would complement the neighborhood. Rent for the one- and two-bedroom apartments in the complex would range from $880 to $1,600 per month. Amenities would include a swimming pool and health spa, concierge service, a movie theater, and an enclosed parking garage that would be invisible from the street, which even critics of the proposal admit is a nice touch.
Also, the site of The Plaza at Colorado -- one square block bordered by Colorado Boulevard, Harrison Street and Ninth and Tenth avenues -- is now an unsightly, 344-space parking lot owned by the University of Colorado. The only structures on the property are three houses that have been converted to medical offices and an undistinguished two-story apartment building, all tucked into the northeastern corner of the lot.
"I'd rather look outside my front window at a classy apartment community than a bunch of asphalt and weeds," says Pam Montgomery, who lives across the street and counts herself among the minority of Congress Park residents who support the Morgan Group's plans. "It's not like they want to build a Kmart or something," she says. "The [Plaza at Colorado] is a lot better than a lot of other things that could go on that land."