High-rise anxiety at the St. Anthony redevelopment site

High-rise anxiety at the St. Anthony redevelopment site
Brian Stauffer

On a frozen Wednesday evening last month, hundreds of residents of Denver's west side squeezed their way into an open house held at a former yeshiva on Quitman Street, just a short walk from a new light-rail station. Cold cuts and cheese plates were available, but most of the visitors were there for something else entirely: a glimpse of the future.

Hosted by EnviroFinance Group, the company that acquired the shuttered St. Anthony Central hospital site early last year for $9.5 million, the event was EFG's way of announcing the first wave of developers involved in reshaping the property into a mix of condos, apartments and retail.

Many of the design details of the first phase of development have yet to be worked out, but that didn't deter the visitors from crowding around preliminary drawings and models and peppering company reps with questions. There was plenty to ask about; what EFG was showing off was not just a new building here and there, but the creation of a new neighborhood from the ground up.

The first phase of the St. Anthony redevelopment calls for apartments, retail and offices; later stages, allowing possible high-rises across from the park, have raised concerns.
The first phase of the St. Anthony redevelopment calls for apartments, retail and offices; later stages, allowing possible high-rises across from the park, have raised concerns.
The hospital chapel, one of the few buildings to be spared the wrecking ball, will become the focal point of a public plaza.
The hospital chapel, one of the few buildings to be spared the wrecking ball, will become the focal point of a public plaza.

The first phase, encompassing four blocks of the seven-block site, will be parceled out among three developers. One of those blocks, on the north side of West Colfax Avenue, is slated to be the future home of an eight-screen Alamo Drafthouse theater complex, as well as office space, restaurants and other retail. An existing parking garage to the north will remain, abutting a new 372-unit apartment complex stretching over two blocks, dominated by one-bedroom and studio units, with retail on the ground floor. And north of that, on the opposite corner of the site from the theater, an old dormitory for hospital nuns and nurses will be rehabbed into a boutique hotel, with some additional apartments, restaurants and retail.

The drawings, however conceptual at this stage, produced a steady stream of oohs and murmurs of approval. They suggested a bright and shiny Next Big Thing, a land of spotless streetscapes and gracious contemporary urban living, a time warp away from the grit of West Colfax, with its squalid legacy of cheap motels, used-car lots and porn arcades. But what many of the curious seemed to like most about the sketches was what wasn't there.

"How tall is that?" asked one guest, white-bearded and bemused, pointing at the drawing of the apartment complex behind the theater.

"Four stories," the rep from Trammell Crow replied. "Five for this section over here."

The reps fielded lots of questions that night about height and density. The old St. Anthony was five stories at its highest point, and the site is currently zoned for a similar scale. Nothing the phase-one developers are proposing would break that barrier. But it's the second phase of the project, involving parcels not yet sold, that has some neighborhood groups experiencing a touch of acrophobia — and outrage.

The general development plan (GDP) for the site, approved by the Denver Planning Board in December, calls for much greater densities on the remaining three blocks — two of which are located just across 17th Avenue from Sloan's Lake Park. Just how many new living units are built there will depend on several factors, but the South Sloan's Lake GDP envisions two buildings of up to twelve stories each and a possible twenty-story building. At maximum buildout, the project could feature as many as 1,745 residential units crammed into fourteen acres. (The rest of the 25-acre site is claimed by streets and other uses.) That works out to a density of 123 units per acre — more than ten times the current density in the surrounding neighborhood.

The prospect of three new high-rises towering over the park, like spires of Mordor rising above the wretched, has triggered a host of objections from Sloan's Lake neighbors. Their concerns range from impeded views to the shadows that could be cast on the park to the kind of parking and traffic impacts that an influx of up to 3,400 new residents (and a couple thousand cars) could have on current residents of the area, known for its modest bungalows and quiet streets. The puny amount of publicly accessible open space allotted in the GDP — about 1.5 acres, divided among pocket green spaces and a plaza around the old hospital chapel — is another sore point.

"This is out of character with the neighborhood," says Larry Ambrose, a Sloan's Lake resident and president of Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation, an umbrella group of the city's registered neighborhood organizations. Ambrose was a member of the community task force that prepared a detailed plan for the redevelopment of St. Anthony in 2006; while some of the "guiding principles" discussed in that report have found their way into the South Sloan's Lake GDP, he says key recommendations about density and siting have been ignored.

"There was a lot of talk back then about tall buildings," Ambrose remembers. "Everybody knew it was going to be more dense than the surrounding neighborhood. But it was supposed to fit in seamlessly. They didn't go into detail about how tall the buildings would be, but there was a perception they'd be eight stories, maybe ten, and none of them that close to the park."

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13 comments
LDAmbrose
LDAmbrose

First, to my tbergen12 friend to the South at West Colfax, it is easy for those who are less discerning to paint those who are with a broad brush of being against everything and especially any thing new.  Many of us who live in NW Denver have been here for years and were catalysts for the positive changes you see today in the development of Tennyson Street, LoHi and Highland Square.  Those areas did not develop the way they did because we let just anything happen. NW neighborhood organizations and businesses have played an important role in how these business districts developed and bad development actors had to be stopped from time to time.

Regarding your "housing envy" comment regarding the "800k homes across the lake in the Sloan's Lake neighborhood", most of us lived in the neighborhood when the homes were no more valuable that those on West Colfax.  Many of us as individuals poured our own  money, hard earned "the American way" into these homes when people said we were crazy to do so in this neighborhood.  We did not wait for speculators with government sponsored, Tax Increment Financing (TIF) to increase the value of our property.  We pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps and created a better neighborhood.


West Colfax is the last frontier to be developed and it belongs to you, to all the neighborhoods to the south and to the north and, hopefully, to people coming from downtown and all around the City.  If we didn't care about this most beautiful development site and its potential, we wouldn't have poured our hearts into a nearly two year public process that came up with a perfectly  fine and economically viable plan, thank you.


Second, to veteran Westword "commentor", Philo66, me, the "commentee" who you evidently find annoying, wish to categorically disagree with your comment that  "The number of people opposing the development are much smaller than the number who support it." 

Here are the facts:  2/3 of the 67 comments submitted to the Denver Planning Office after the first public GDP meeting on June 26, 2013 were opposed to either the massive density, the location and/or height of the buildings and/or the lack of open space.


It was clear from audience applause and reactions that a majority of the people who attend the second public GDP meeting on December 3, 2013 were opposed to the same problems with the plan even after the developer presented their plans for more than an hour.  A majority of the written comments submitted to the Denver Planning Board prior to their December 18 hearing were opposed to the same issues.  

At the hearing itself, nearly 100 people took badges expressing opposition to the current General Development Plan.  Only a handful, perhaps 7 people, spoke in favor of it, while more than 30 spoke in opposition,  A petition posted online gathered very close to 700 signatures in only 5 days in opposition to the location and height of the tallest buildings and the woeful lack of open space. 


Much to do was made of the West Colfax Association of Neighbors' (WeCAN) support of the plan. City Councilwoman Susan Shepherd, made much of giving more credence to the 550 WeCAN members who live closest to project vs. those far away residents on the Lake and to the north. 


WeCAN has now revealed how its “550” members expressed their “strong” support for the project. Turns out that anyone on the 550 WeCAN email list is considered a member. Ironically, I didn't realize when I received the December email from WeCAN that I was one of those 550 people! And here is how took an official vote....by Survey Monkey. Yes, anyone could have weighed in. Even me had I known it!  Here is the question in the WeCAN email upon which, according to Councilwoman Shepherd, the entire NW Denver public opinion and fate of the GDP hinged.


One Question Survey on St Anthony's Redevelopment

WeCAN wants to know what you think about the proposed General Development Plan for the former St. Anthony's Hospital.

The following is a link to our online poll: Link to Poll

Please respond by Dec 13th.


Here is the question on Survey Monkey:

WeCAN wants to know what you think about the proposed General Development Plan for the former St. Anthony's Hospital. Do you:

Support the plan

Support the plan but have concerns (list below if you'd like)

Do not care one way or another (are neutral)

Oppose the plan

Do not have enough information at this time


Here are the results of the WeCAN “vote”:

Of 40 Respondents (not 550) here are the results:

21 said they supported the plan

7 said they supported the plan but had concerns - most concerns listed dealt with height

0 were neutral or didn't care one way or the other

8 were opposed and

4 didn't have enough information

So there is your maximum number of people supporting the development. Twenty one or perhaps twenty two countable people who expressed their support in some manner. I suspect that some of the comments for the plan here in Westword are coming from a few of these same, small group, who claim to have had their voices silenced.


One more time, none of us who opposed this specific plan, are anti-development nor do we not want West Colfax to revive and go beyond its former glory.  We merely objected to the precedent of allowing this massively dense development to have so little open space and to have such tall buildings built right on the Park.  We wanted to amend the plan, not necessarily stop it. And we thought it lacked the comprehensive vision that was expressed in the St. Anthony's Redevelopment Task Force Plan in which more than 100 business, community and City representatives participated in 2006.   Just because we opposed to these flaws in the plan, we are being painted as villains. DISCERNBY's yes, NIMBYs no.

 

I am sure, that by responding to you, your opinion that I am "vocal and annoying" will be reconfirmed.  I was publicly called a liar by a WeCAN Co-president.  Being annoying is relatively a compliment.

tbergen12
tbergen12

Mr. Ambrose,

This is in the West Colfax neighborhood. You can look at it from the 800k homes across the lake in the Sloan's Lake neighborhood. We in West Colfax want this.

tbergen12
tbergen12

West Colfax Residents,

St. Anthony's is not a:

-Wal Mart

-Walgreens

-fast food restaurant

-porn store

-car lot

-pawn shop

-brownfield


St. Anthony's will be:

-someplace you can walk to, eat at, see a movie, and get a beer on West Colfax

-a light rail destination

-an economic boon



niccolo2
niccolo2

Where will the children play?
SSL GDP St. Anthony’s Hospital Redevelopment
How much is enough open space? Gross area versus net area? The children don’t care where it “came from” they just want a place not too far from their home or apartment, perhaps within view of some apartment in a publicly accessible place. Some of it might be programmed, other areas simple softer green-scape, and yet other areas hard-scaped with places for parents and even grandparents to relax.
Other “open-space” must include public plazas with a view of the lake and the mountains. Perhaps a “staging area” or a play-date “base camp” to explore the larger Sloan.s Lake on B-cycle, or by foot.
How much is enough? Since the early part of 20th century the right amount open space for a particular population has depended in part on the context and the expectations of a suburban rather than Urban Market— In large subdivisions and tracts, new towns etc. the reserved amount of parkland could be as much as 30% of the gross total land area being developed for a mix of uses.
The American Planning Association (APA) came up with figure of 10 Acres of open space for every 1,000 people with direct neighborhood access. That’s about 435 square feet per person.
Currently the World Health organization WHO calls for 25 sq. meters per person in urban locations. The City of Denver, the Comprehensive plan aspires to providing 8 to 9 Acres of parkland, open space, playgrounds per 1,000 inhabitants of the city.
The West Colfax Area Plan documents the fact that there is only between 2.6 and 5.4 acres of park and open space available to the neighborhood—much of it compromised by the RTD Westline, and high-voltage lines at the Lakewood dr Gulch.

Any increase in population only reduces the amount of open space for current residents—unless additional open space is provided. It’s true that Sloan’s lake is Denver’s 3rd largest Park—but out of a total of 284 acres, 174 acres—over 50% of that area is water surface . At the St. Anthony’s site the shoreline is relatively narrow at 150 feet at the Perry Street Parking to 300 feet wide where the tennis courts currently exist.
Looking for 10 acres of new open space at Sloans lake to accommodate at least 1,000 new young and active residents is unlikely to be found any time soon. Filling in the lake is unpractical, and walking on water only for Prophets not small children and their grand parents.
The current SSL. GDP is providing a mere 1.41 Acres of open space which translates to 5.6% of the TOTAL GDP Area. by comparison the streets (R.OW.s) both existing and proposed in the GDP equal 44% of the GROSS GDP Area (Over 11 Acres of streets!). Public works has their priorities certainly—but should streets really be occupying almost 7 TIMES the land area as Open space ? Where will the children play? Hopefully the answer is NOT “in the streets” or in front of businesses, bars, and cafes.
We can do better and we have done better. Making urban places family-friendly should be everyone’s highest priority.

While there needs to be some flexibility in planning for a variety of contexts the notion of basing the “minimum open space” required on an undefined “net area” residual — by subtracting R.O.W.s means mathematically speaking that: The more streets built on the Site the less open space is required. This is illogical. So we will use the real estate development industry convention and compare a few recent Denver Projects accordingly and express the Open space provided as a % of total GROSS Site Development land area.
In the Neighborhood:
Highland’s Garden Village (PUD) 11 % of Gross Site Area (Urban context)
Denver Union Station (GDP sub-area) 13.7 % of Gross Site Area (Commercial Context)
Buckley Annex (GDP subdivision) 19 % of Gross Site Area (Urban Edge Context)
Historic Urban Example from NYC:
Rockefeller Center Plaza 15% of Gross Site Area (1930s Mid-town Manhattan)

Why is the proposed St. Anthony’s Redevelopment only 5.6% of Gross Site Area? (Urban Edge Context)
Where will the children play?

YellowJournalism
YellowJournalism

Oh no depending on the time of day the parking lot at Sloans lake across the street on 17th wlll be in the shade...oh the humanity.  I sure hope Frodo comes and destroys these towers of Mordor to save us from these evil people trying to build housing to keep up with the growing demand in Denver.


Thank you Westword for showing the public this Tolkienesque struggle against our evil developer overlords. 

JohnStanton42
JohnStanton42

"The vast majority of people who took the time to participate in the public process had serious concerns about the height and the lack of open space," says Marie Benedix, one of the organizers of the petition drive. "And no one is listening."



Open space? There is a giant park next door.  Sounds to me like Ms. Benedix would be happier living in Highlands Ranch. Sloans Lake is very much in the city of Denver. You should expect density and a variety of living formats in your neighborhood. It's kind of the point.

Philo99
Philo99

The number of people opposing the development are much smaller than the number who support it. The vocal, annoying leaders of the some local groups such as the Sloan's Lake Neighborhood Association have used their leadership positions as bully pulpit to silence anyone that disagreed with them. Everything from excluding members from emails to removing Facebooks posting showing support for the development. 


The NIMBY crowd tries to fight progress every step along the way. You cannot have environmental development without high density housing. It's just not possible.

niccolo2
niccolo2

@YellowJournalism show me your shadow study.  240 foot building 20 feet south of the curb at 17th ave.  March 21st at 3PM

MrDoe
MrDoe

@JohnStanton42 Giant Park?  75% of it is water.  World Class cities promote open space and promote livability, that is why Denver scores below other large cites. Density does not mean lack of open space,  New York places #2 according to the Trust For Public Land http://parkscore.tpl.org/rankings.php

niccolo2
niccolo2

@JohnStanton42 How much park space do 1745 units require?  What is your standard? How many people already use the park?

niccolo2
niccolo2

@Philo99 Many of us are Yimbys who have experienced great urban design i9n other cities.  How many people use the Park?  How much open space is provided at Rockefeller Center---MUCH more.

YellowJournalism
YellowJournalism

@niccolo2 @YellowJournalism I don't study shadows, I fight them as Westword has encouraged us all to do. 

 
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