"Developer" Can Be a Dirty Word in Denver — Meet Five Exceptions to the Rule
The tidal wave of development that’s washed over Denver following the Great Recession has produced plenty of buildings — and a lot of resentment.
Neighbors are looking around and wondering what happened to their parking and sunlight. Out-of-towners look at Denver and wonder why a city with the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains is home to so many uninspiring new structures that don’t respect their surroundings.
And with Denver one of the hottest markets in the country, the buildings keep coming. As of June 30, $4.4 billion of total investment in development had been recently completed or was under construction in downtown Denver, according to a report by the Downtown Denver Partnership. That’s 3.1 million square feet of office space, 6,447 residential units and 2,457 hotel rooms in 73 projects. And the boom in construction isn’t just downtown; there are projects springing up all over metro Denver.
Many of them have been slapped together out of the cheapest materials possible, with little regard given to context. Some are so ugly that they’ve given development a bad name in this city.
Denver residents are vocal about the quality of the city’s built environment, and the discussion prompted realtor/entrepreneur Brad Evans to start the Denver Fugly Facebook page last year, in hopes of getting a conversation going about the general fugliness of development in the city. “It’s a two-level thing — people demanding it and people providing it,” Evans says. “Designers in Denver have stopped thinking. Denver is lazy. Nobody’s trying to outdo anybody. You go into Chicago and New York history, and the reason those are great architecture towns is because they were competing.”
Brad Buchanan, director of Denver Community Planning and Development, notes that neighborhoods in the city that have a formal design-review committee have more control over what a finished project will look like. Without a design-review committee in place, his department has to approve a project if it meets the zoning code and makes it through the site-plan review process — regardless of what it looks like.
“The intent of the zoning code is to capture the things that the community has said are most important,” Buchanan says. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; however, the projects that for me personally are most successful are projects that are understanding the bigger picture about the role they play in building our city.”
Though many Denverites are critical of the quality of development occurring today, the city does have a handful of developers who make a point of talking to neighbors and ensuring that their projects fill a need in the community. Evans counts Zocalo Community Development, Zeppelin Development, East West Partners, RedPeak and Continuum Partners among the group that’s helping improve Denver’s cityscape. Others frequently mentioned include Bill Mosher of Trammell Crow, George Thorn of Mile High Development, Randy Nichols of Nichols Partnership and Joe Vostrejs of City Street Partners and Larimer Associates. And then, of course, there’s preservationist Dana Crawford, the woman who saved Larimer Square, redeveloped the Oxford Hotel and blocked countless downtown buildings from the wrecking ball.
Here are five of the best developers in Denver, people truly building for this city’s future.
David Zucker at Coda in Cherry Creek.
Zocalo Community Development
Even the good guys run into problems. Zocalo, which is headed by David Zucker, nearly had its building permit pulled on The Grove, a 160-unit residential and retail project in Littleton’s historic downtown — after it had already started construction. This was the first time Zucker hadn’t met with residents near the proposed project, he admits, but that’s because he already knew there was a group that opposed redeveloping the site after another developer was unable to get it rezoned to allow for a larger apartment building.
“Zocalo has never shied away from working closely with our neighbors,” Zucker says. “One learns to compromise in this business. Unfortunately, Littleton is a unique case where it became clear early on that a neighbor and a few local activists were not willing to have meaningful discussions. Unlike our Coda project in Cherry Creek, where neighbors fought for good development, our Littleton neighbor has consistently fought for no development.”
So Zocalo didn’t seek a zoning change; instead, it examined the city’s existing code and determined that as long as less than half of the project was residential and a parking structure open to the public was considered a commercial use, the property could be developed with apartments.
The city’s staff approved the project, and Zocalo started construction in May. But Littleton City Councilman Doug Clark, responding to a small group of residents who oppose growth, was determined to halt construction of the project and brought a motion before the full council to revoke Zocalo’s building permit. That move ultimately failed, but Littleton City Council members soon fired City Manager Michael Penny, a move many believe was the result of Penny and his staff approving plans for The Grove.
Zocalo still faces a lawsuit brought last year by resident Leah Burkett that will determine whether a neighboring property owner has a right to appeal approval of The Grove’s site-development plan to the Board of Adjustment. A trial in that case is set for September 1.
According to city code, though, a site-development plan falls under the purview of the city’s staff, and the only entity that has the right to appeal the staff’s decision is the developer — and then only if the plan is rejected. “The project was subject to a rigorous development review by numerous staff, including engineering, zoning, fire, the building division and others,” Kelli Narde, director of communications for the city, wrote for Littleton’s website. “With consideration of private-property rights and within the parameters of the code, it was found to be a lawful use that meets all requirements of numerous documents and regulations.”
“It isn’t about whether we like that project or not — that’s not what the discussion should be,” says Littleton councilwoman Debbie Brinkman, who supports The Grove. “The question is, did staff follow the law? Did they follow our code? Did they follow what is on the books as acceptable development? The answer is yes, yes and yes.”
Brinkman describes Zucker as “intentional” about where he chooses to develop, because he knows what he wants to build. “This isn’t about some yahoo from Texas who just flew up here and wants to build something awful,” she explains. “We have an old code that needs to be updated. For years, staff and council have been inactive regarding taking our 1970s code and bringing it into the new century.”
While the city council considers updating that code, it has put a moratorium on new land-use applications within the B-2 Community Business Zone District, which includes the Grove site. In the meantime, Zucker is continuing work on his project.
The Littleton controversy was a rare setback for Zucker, a native of Philadelphia who arrived in Denver in 1990 after receiving his MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He immediately focused on downtown redevelopment, and his first project was the lofts over the Wynkoop Brewing Company — the city’s first brewpub, co-founded by now-governor John Hickenlooper. He was one of the first to develop and sell deed-restricted, for-sale units under Denver’s Inclusionary Housing Ordinance — an early, and much-avoided, attempt by the city to have developers include affordable housing — and has developed more IHO projects than any developer in downtown Denver. He’s served as chair of the board of directors of community jazz station KUVO and co-chair of the Downtown Denver Partnership’s Housing Council. He also co-founded the University of Denver’s Affordable Housing Conference. He serves on the Colorado State Housing Board, a seven-member group created in 1970 to advise Colorado’s governor and General Assembly on housing needs in the state.
Although Zucker has run into opposition before, he’s found that if he works with people in the neighborhood, he can address concerns so that everyone is satisfied. Although he initially faced opposition on the 186-unit Coda Cherry Creek project, Zucker says he now has a great relationship with the neighborhood. “Their arguments were logical, their goals were clear and definable,” he says. “In Littleton, they just don’t want anything built.”
While Fugly’s Evans is critical of almost all of the development under way in Jefferson Park, he’s quick to point out that Zucker’s projects there — Zocalo Condominiums and RiverClay Condominiums — are examples of how a thoughtful developer can improve a neighborhood.
Zucker describes the Zocalo project — the first LEED-certified multi-family project in the Rocky Mountain West — as a three-way partnership between his company, the city and a neighborhood that wanted more home ownership and less rental property. “We built affordably priced condos that created an uplift in a community that didn’t want displacement in this predominantly Latino neighborhood,” explains Zucker. “Over a third of our buyers were Latino, which never happens. It was such a great set of wins for the community, the neighborhood and for our owners.”
Sustainability is a key component of every Zocalo development. While saving energy is important, Zucker says, the company’s philosophy is much broader. “It’s about the impact on the residents’ health and well-being,” he says. “We’re certainly still focused on energy, but now sustainability has a much broader definition and set of goals. What we’re focused on is clean water and buildings that create a choice for walking instead of taking elevators, biking instead of driving a car. We provide opportunities for better food and opportunities for greater social interaction, which creates better mental-health outcomes.”
Paul Tamburello at Hostel Fish, above Ophelia’s.
Generator Real Estate and Development
Without Paul Tamburello, it’s unlikely that Denver’s LoHi neighborhood would look anything like it does today. In fact, it wouldn’t even have that nickname, which Tamburello gave to the area on the lower edge of Highland more than a decade ago. Tamburello is responsible for the development of a number of properties scattered throughout the neighborhood, including the old gas station at the corner of West 33rd Avenue and Osage Street that now houses Root Down, and Highland Lofts, a condo project on West 32nd Avenue between Tejon and Shoshone streets.
A Denver native, Tamburello studied theology, focusing on adolescent spiritual development. In 1994, he earned the Rookie of the Year award for his first twelve months in real estate, and by 1999 he was in the top 1 percent of all residential real-estate brokers in metro Denver. In 1996, he renovated and flipped his first house, and then in 2001, he developed Highland Lofts. But the realtor really made his mark in Highland with the redevelopment of the old Olinger Mortuary complex, now home to popular restaurants Linger and Lola, as well as the whimsical Little Man Ice Cream structure that’s now the heart of the neighborhood. The Olinger property was a project many had looked at but no one seemed to want until Tamburello and his then-partner, Stephanie Garcia, came along.
“You fall in love with a project and you make it work,” Tamburello says.
Like Zucker in Littleton, Tamburello faced opposition from longtime Highland residents, who viewed his projects as the gentrification of one of the city’s last bastions of cultural diversity. During the construction of a residential building at West 34th Avenue and Tejon Street, where Tamburello was selling condos, someone who didn’t like the direction in which the neighborhood was headed graffitied a man with a suit on one of the garage doors. There was a dollar symbol on the figure’s tie and a bullet hole with blood dripping out of it in his head.
After completing the renovation of the former Diamond Lil’s in the Ballpark neighborhood into Ophelia’s and Hostel Fish, Tamburello recently turned his attention to Sunnyside, where he and partner Jack Pottle are working on several developments that preserve the character of the area by being selective about their tenants. There’s Cobbler’s Corner at 2450 West 44th Avenue, home to a florist, cheese shop, boutique and restaurant. The partners are also redeveloping the southeast and southwest corners of West 41st Avenue and Tejon Street; the three historic buildings will have restaurants and retail tenants in the street-level spaces and office space on the upper floors.
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Tamburello always looks for ways to give back to the community — not just where he’s doing his developments, but across the city and even around the world. One year he donated all of his real-estate listing commissions to charity. He bought an old 20,000-square-foot greenhouse and developed it into the GrowHaus, a nonprofit indoor farm, marketplace and educational center in Denver’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhood.
For every scoop of ice cream sold at Little Man, Tamburello donates a scoop of rice, beans or other essentials. So far, Little Man has donated food to communities in nine countries across four continents, feeding tens of thousands of malnourished people. For one of his latest ventures — Sweet Cooie’s ice cream in Congress Park — Tamburello plans to align the store with organizations that empower women, like Girl Rising, Girls Inc. and Excelsior. He also just acquired Adrift, Denver’s only tiki bar, at 218 South Broadway; when he reopens the place in a few weeks, he hopes to use funds generated by the restaurant to pay for his medical-relief missions leading doctors’ groups and building houses in such countries as Guatemala and Cambodia.
“You see how the other 90 percent of the world lives, and you want to help,” he says simply.
Susan Powers at Steam on the Platte.
Susan Powers, president of Urban Ventures, focuses on redeveloping urban properties into communities that make a positive contribution to their neighborhoods. Whether it’s new construction or adaptive reuse of an old building, Powers and partner Jerry Glick look for projects in areas that most developers have overlooked.
Their Aria Denver project is on the site of the former Marycrest convent at West 52nd Avenue and Federal Boulevard. When it’s complete, the 17.5-acre master-planned community will offer co-housing and apartments; the townhomes are already sold out. “It’s a working-class neighborhood that’s stable, and the houses are still affordable,” Powers says. “It’s a neat little neighborhood that’s not on the radar yet. That was just such an unusual place to find in the city of Denver.”
Developed in conjunction with Perry Rose, a company headed by New York developer Jonathan Rose and Denverite Chuck Perry, Aria sticks to Urban Ventures’ mission of focusing on redevelopments that make a positive contribution to their neighborhoods by promoting healthy living, with community gardens, production gardens, pocket parks and pathways integrated into the sites.
Powers’s latest pioneering project is Steam on the Platte, the redevelopment of the largest remaining undeveloped exposed-brick-and-timber warehouse in the city, one that’s been neglected for several decades. The renovation will transform the three-story, 65,000-square-foot warehouse in the Sun Valley neighborhood into creative office space with NIMBL, an SAP [Systems, Applications and Products] technology-consulting firm, as the anchor tenant. A restaurant, to be located in a 6,000-square-foot building with a bow-string roof, will face the river and include a deck; pathways will lead to benches and water features on the river. Future phases of the project will include additional office and residential space.
“We’ve always been interested in going on the edges and into neighborhoods that have not been discovered yet, that are a little more pioneering,” Powers says. Glick has followed that pattern since the 1980s, when he was active in lower downtown and the River North area before others recognized their potential, she notes. For example, Glick developed Silver Square at 33rd and Blake streets long before the area became known as RiNo, in three factory buildings dating back to the early 1900s. Denver’s first live/work artist community, Silver Square features New York-style industrial lofts with huge windows, exposed ductwork, open floor plans and gourmet kitchens.
Powers has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a Master of Science degree in urban planning from the University of Arizona. Before she formed Urban Ventures with Glick in 1998, she’d been the executive director of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority for eleven years. But the new venture got off to a fast start.
In 1999, Urban Ventures bought property in Highland, well before the neighborhood became the trendy spot it is today, where it developed the 56-unit Highland Terrace Lofts. It also ventured into RiNo with Fire Clay Lofts, a move prompted by the rising demand for affordable workforce housing. And it continued growing from there.
“We want to see what the future is and be part of it,” Powers says.
Charlie Woolley at the Lowenstein.
St. Charles Town Company
When Charlie Woolley bought the old Lowenstein Theater in 2005, other developers thought he was crazy to take on a project along the city’s blighted East Colfax Avenue. Though dissenters wanted the Lowenstein to return to its roots as a theater, others in the neighborhood welcomed the redevelopment of the building, which had stood vacant for twenty years.
Today the $16 million project serves as an anchor for the long-awaited redevelopment of East Colfax. It houses some of Denver’s best-known independent retailers, including the Tattered Cover Book Store and the Sie FilmCenter. Twist & Shout Records, which has been there from the beginning, owns its own building in the complex; so does the Denver Film Society, which runs the Sie. “It was neighborhood revitalization, it was historic preservation, and it supported locally based businesses that were under assault by chain-store competition,” Woolley says. “That’s all changed. The chain stores are gone, and the independents are still standing.”
Woolley says that his biggest challenge is determining what type of tenants will be the best fit for a project. They must blend into the neighborhood, and developers must be careful not to default to the easiest solution. In the case of Woolley’s redevelopment of the Hardware Block in LoDo, that would have been a restaurant. But he was determined to find a clothing store to occupy the three old warehouses at 15th and Wazee streets, and ultimately landed Player’s for the retail space. The development also includes 50,000 square feet of office space and 25 for-sale lofts, thirteen of which were scheduled to close on 9/11 in 2001.
Woolley earned a bachelor’s degree in city planning from the University of Massachusetts and an MBA from the University of Denver. He started his real-estate career in 1985 after serving as the director of a history museum for eight years. He founded St. Charles Town Company in 1993 to focus on urban real-estate development, investment and management. Since then, the company has completed development projects valued at more than $300 million. He is a trustee for the Denver Botanic Gardens and History Colorado.
Other Woolley projects include the Equitable Building, the Wazee Supper Club, 1800 Glenarm and the former Benjamin Moore Paint Company warehouse and manufacturing buildings.
In the past few years, Woolley has acquired a stretch of 16th Street in LoHi, where he’s planning to develop a 164-room boutique hotel that will be affiliated with Starwood’s Tribute Portfolio, a collection of high-end independent hotels that use Starwood’s distribution, loyalty and sales platforms. Planning the five-story project, which will include a pool deck, restaurant and bar, has not been without its struggles, he says. “Everyone’s nervous that we’re at the end of a cycle, and financing is more difficult to find,” he explains. “Our plans have been logged into the building department. We’re pushing forward. It’s just a very slow and tough project — but they always are.”
The property is zoned for commercial mixed use and structures up to five stories, so Woolley could have developed an apartment building or office building for the site. But a hotel that targets both business travelers and vacationers will fill a need in the neighborhood and solidify 16th and Boulder streets as the core of the community.
“If you pick something that engages the neighborhood and is a good fit for the neighborhood, you rarely have problems,” Woolley says. “Generally, if you’re trying to do the right thing, it is both profitable and is supported by the community.”
Rob Hahn at Avanti Food & Beverage.
Avanti Food & Beverage
Rob Hahn and Patrick O’Neill opened Avanti Food & Beverage at 3200 Pecos Street just over a year ago. Inspired by European markets — Hahn lived in Spain for a while — they redeveloped the old Avanti Print and Graphics building into a restaurant incubator for chefs wanting to test new concepts without the high cost of building out a restaurant.
While Hahn likes saving old buildings, he’s not opposed to razing others if there is a higher and better use for the lots that they sit on. At the time he was building out Avanti, he demolished the crack house behind it to build Avanti Plaza, which includes eight apartments and two office spaces. It’s the only project to take advantage of a city code that allows developers to build on small lots — 6,250 square feet or less — near neighborhood urban centers without providing off-street parking. That made it possible for Hahn to offer the one-bedroom apartments at below-market (for LoHi) rents of $1,350 to $1,450 a month.
The project is next to a bus stop and the largest B-cycle station in the city. “The idea was to find eight people like me who don’t want a car,” says Hahn, who doesn’t own one.
The city has since implemented a moratorium that halts the parking exemption while it tightens the rule that limits how big new buildings can be without providing parking. Hahn worries that the change could be detrimental to neighborhoods. “I was going to do two other projects like this, but I can’t do them with the moratorium,” he says. “If you put in a parking requirement, these places will remain crack houses. It’s a challenge to create an affordable project in an urban setting.”
Still, Hahn says he’s committed to building housing that is affordable in a neighborhood where many people have been priced out. His Eliot Flats project, at 3233 Eliot Street, offers studio and one-bedroom units starting at $1,044. He also redeveloped the Northside Colonial building on West 32nd Avenue into two- and three-bedroom apartments that start at $1,550 a month. Hahn likes to own several properties in various pockets of the neighborhood. He also owns the white house next door to Northside Colonial and the building that houses Occidental Bar.
“If you’re in control of the property, you can make an impact,” he says. “I’m an infill guy — I’m looking to fill a need. I need to build a project that people want.”
That’s a strategy he hopes to employ for his next project. Although he won’t reveal where that might be, he says he’s working on acquiring several properties in the same block for a concept new to Denver.
He also wants to create something interesting at that white house on West 32nd — and although he hasn’t figured out quite what, he knows he doesn’t want to tear it down. “I want to save buildings,” Hahn says. “To me, that is interesting.”
Real estate was initially a hobby for Hahn, who moved from New Jersey to Aspen to be a ski bum after graduating from college. At the time, he owned Alpine Party Rentals and did business in Aspen and the Vail Valley. “I would come down to Denver,” he recalls, “and in 1995, I bought my first property in lower Highland, but I had no idea what I was doing. I just started buying real estate.”
Eventually he sold the party-rental business, met his wife and moved to Spain. When he returned a decade ago, he settled in LoHi and decided to make real estate his full-time job.
“It’s a tough game, and you never know when you’ll get tripped up,” he says. “Every time I want to make money, I’ve got to risk money. You’re just putting your neck on the line every time.”
As Denver’s population grows, adding to the built environment is a necessity — but it’s critical that development improves the city’s public realm rather than detracts from it. Developers looking to make a quick buck rarely deliver quality projects that improve the city.
“Largely, these are suburban developers who have found higher revenues in downtown,” Zucker says. “In some ways, they are real-estate development parasites. They are making themselves better by sucking out the higher revenue that downtowns provide, but they’re not giving anything back.”
As developers move through the approval process for their projects, it’s the city’s responsibility to ensure that they create pedestrian-oriented places that meet high design standards, Buchanan says. That means designing projects from the outside in rather than the inside out, so that they blend into the fabric of a neighborhood.
“A developer should make choices that aren’t solely guided by the one-time greatest profit potential for that project,” Buchanan adds. “Over the last ten years, our city has raised the bar in terms of expectations. We need to constantly use that momentum to improve, and heighten the regulatory bar and support that priority so that we are a better city today than we were ten years ago and a better city ten years from now than we are today. The results on every level will be worth it.
“Different developers and designers have different levels of sensitivities to their role in the public realm. That’s what we’re constantly working to improve, and the folks who really get that are supporters of greater process and regulation to ensure that outcome because they’re already doing it.”