Pastor Dennis Fitzpatrick Jr. isn’t one to make his problems public — but as attacks on Emmaus Lutheran Church and his family escalated, turning the other cheek was no longer an option. In November, he wrote a letter to the community:
“To say I’m disappointed regarding my 1 year of experience in Denver would be putting it mildly. My wife fears going outside alone, some nearby neighbors have consistently harassed us, and they’ve worked hard to minimize the good Emmaus is trying to do in this neighborhood,” Fitzpatrick wrote in a letter published in the North Denver Tribune.
Fitzpatrick had been the pastor of a Lutheran church in Garden City, Missouri, when he got the call to come to a century-old church in northwest Denver. He and his wife were comfortable where they were and thought long and hard about the move. “When I accepted the opportunity to be their Pastor I was excited, both by the creative thinking of the church in use of their property and the lively and warm community of which they are part,” Fitzpatrick wrote. But that was before neighbors started intimidating and threatening his family — to the point that he felt forced to call the police.
In late 1907, the young congregation of Emmaus Lutheran Church, formed five months earlier, purchased land at West 31st Avenue and Irving Street in Highland, an enclave of immigrants from Germany, Scotland, Ireland and Italy that had just joined the city of Denver a decade before. Members built a church on the property, started the Emmaus Lutheran School there in 1908, and continued serving the community for nearly a hundred years without incident.
But after the church’s congregation reached its peak sometime in the ’50s, membership started a long decline. The school added a preschool and daycare in 1986, but rather than helping to fund the church, they sucked more money from Emmaus, draining its resources. In January 2009, the church made one final attempt to stabilize the school by hurriedly selling two lots that it had purchased in 1970. The new owner rezoned the north-facing lot where Pinche Tacos and Orangetheory Fitness are today; behind that, five row homes were built.
Still, the $1.2 million raised by the sale wasn’t enough to cover a fully staffed K-8 school with teachers on salary receiving full benefits — and handling only 42 students — for long, and in 2012 the church finally closed the school. “It’s a hard thing for a church to give up its school, it really is,” Fitzpatrick says.
Highlands Christian Academy, now Augustine Classical Academy, leased the property while the leaders of Emmaus considered what they could do to prop up their church. Their solution was another land deal, this time for the school building and the property on which it stands, but a deal that will let the church control the site’s future.
In the spring of 2013, the church council — with help from contacts in real estate — put out a request for proposals on the site. They received fifteen, one of which was for a Sprouts. The council mulled over the options and picked three proposals for the congregation to consider: condominiums, mixed use (commercial on the bottom and residential on top) and a medical facility. “As a church, we prayed about it and thought what would be best for our neighbors and community,” remembers Neil Neudorff, Emmaus’s president. The congregation decided that a medical facility best fit the mission of the church: to help people.
The proposal calls for Emmaus Lutheran Church to partner with developer David Hagan on the project. The architecture firm of Anderson Mason Dale, which is located just across Speer Boulevard from the church, will design the building, and Emmaus will hire a management company that specializes in medical facilities to run the place; Lutheran Medical has expressed interest. After covering costs, all proceeds will be split fifty-fifty between an LLC set up by Emmaus and Hagan until the church buys out the developer after ten years. “And we’re not building it and flipping it,” says Neudorff. “We’re building it and we’re fifty-fifty partners, and after a certain number of years, we buy our development partner out and the church owns it exclusively.”
Right now, much of the property is a parking lot, reminiscent of so many awaiting redevelopment in Denver these days. Located next to a car wash, across the street from the Denver Bread Company and a picture-frame store, and surrounded by a chain-link fence, it’s not the most attractive gateway to flourishing Highlands Square. The church thinks the medical facility will be a definite improvement. But first it has to be built — and that requires rezoning.
The lot is currently zoned U-SU-A for single-family housing under Blueprint Denver; Emmaus is requesting that it be changed to one of Denver’s most restrictive commercial zone designations, U-MS-2x.
In order to have a parcel rezoned, an applicant must first reach out to the community, and then usually submits an application to Community Planning and Development. Approval by CPD means that the applicant has met many of the required provisions. The application then moves on to Denver City Council, which considers it in committee and then at a full vote of the council.
But long before they even filed their application, church leaders were starting to hear complaints from neighbors. Building and rezoning are hot topics in Denver today, and so last January, Emmaus hired Sundari Kraft, a familiar name in Denver’s locavore movement and a PR specialist, to do community outreach. She created a website (nmcwh.com) that details the church’s history, describes the development project and its timeline, and offers other details. As she studied the background of Emmaus Lutheran Church, Kraft learned that the school had been an important part of the church’s mission. “And I learned what that means is that it lost money,” says Kraft. “A mission of the church, meaning they propped it up and propped it up and propped it up and it lost money, but it was really important to them to have a school as a way to serve the community.”
Some members of the community don’t appreciate the church much these days. Neighbors Brett Baldschun and Randy Mast feel that their voices have not been heard, like the voices of so many Denver residents watching their neighborhoods undergoing drastic changes these days. “It just doesn’t fit in the neighborhood,” says Baldschun of the proposed medical facility. “It was just poorly executed from day one. Why would they have to hire a PR consultant to get something in the neighborhood where they had a good relationship? In terms of them reaching out to the community, they’ve never reached out; they’ve never done anything in the community.”
Baldschun moved into the house across the alley from the Emmaus parsonage in 2009. At the time, two attorneys were living in the parsonage, one of whom overdosed on cocaine in a car in front of the house. Eventually the parsonage was closed; it was vacant for a year while asbestos was removed from the basement. After that, Neudorff moved in for a time as project plans took off.
In August 2013, Emmaus contacted the West Highland Neighborhood Association to explain the project; church officials would attend a total of nine WHNA meetings as a part of its outreach, according to nmcwh.com. But Mast, who is Baldschun’s neighbor, recalls that the early meetings were very tight-lipped: Emmaus would not discuss the size of the lot, the use of the property, the size of the building going on that property, or any potential zoning changes.
“Those were the four things that they said from the very beginning are non-negotiable, which left those of us in the neighborhood in a position of we’re either for that or we’re against it,” Mast recalls. “They’ve said there are no grounds for any kind
of mediation.... Early on, that was very polarizing.”
According to the project’s website, Emmaus began reaching out to the immediate neighbors in January 2014 and garnered support from more than 50 percent of them. Neudorff and other Emmaus volunteers went door to door to explain the project to the 200-footers — those living within 200 feet of the area proposed for rezoning. That’s one of many steps that Denver’s rezoning guide suggests.
But Baldschun says the church has repeatedly flip-flopped on its plans. “It was pitched [as] they’re either going to put a medical office here or they’re going to tear down the church and put a bazillion condos here, and if we don’t do that, we’re going to sell it to a developer, and they’re going to sell it to a developer, and they’re probably going to put 188 condos in there, or something like that,” he says. “Virtually everyone on 31st is opposed to this development.”
What the people on 31st want, he explains, is single-family housing. That failing, they want to see how Emmaus will deal with the flow of traffic to a medical facility. There is a bus stop on the West 32nd Avenue side of the lot that already sees a lot of local traffic. And Baldschun is not confident that a liberal neighborhood like Highland will accept a Lutheran medical facility. “They don’t have any legitimate plan on how they’re going to do entrances and exits,” he says.
“But even once they answer those," Baldschun continues, "my fear, since I work in health care, is how long is this trend going to last where Lutheran can afford to stay in business and put an extremely religious-based medical office — no birth control, no tubal ligation, no morning-after pill, no women’s-health issues — in a liberal neighborhood like the Highlands. I can’t imagine a lot of people jumping on board with it.” (According to Kraft, the medical center will be able to provide all women's health-care services except abortion, a fact she says she's shared with opponents. )
In early 2014, Mast formed Zone It Right, a neighborhood group that keeps a watchful eye on Highland development. In this case, he stresses that he’s not opposed to the church, but to the project itself, and to a development team that does not recognize that their plan is out of scale with the neighborhood (the medical facility would be the largest building by far in the area).
Mast would like to see the land used for housing; it’s currently zoned for residential. Another option could be a mixed-use building, with residential on the top and commercial on the bottom. But that plan would require a zoning change — and Mast holds the zoning code approved by the city in 2010 in high regard. Under that code, the West 32nd Avenue commercial corridor is considered an area of stability, and Mast says he doesn’t know why the city would want to change that now. And if the zoning is changed and the church decides to share parking with the project, that means the whole lot could be covered by a building as opposed to a building and a parking lot, he says, pointing to a project up the street at 38th and Lowell that is five stories tall, two of them used for parking.
“You can go underground, protrude as long as your first story isn’t above six feet from grade, then you can go two stories on top of that. So you could have a three-story building, in effect, but it’s called a two-story building at that point,” he says. “That’s within the zoning code of what they’re doing.”
Mast’s wife, Cindy Eby, is less concerned with looks than with safety: Her kids walk to school, and her son’s friend recently got hit by a car. The way she sees it, a doctor’s office of that magnitude will have a big impact on traffic. Eby is spending a lot of her time poring over the Denver zoning code, trying to figure out the right language with which to fight the proposal. “You feel a little bit like you’re up against a machine that knows how to play this game and we have no idea,” she says.
“We’ll be holding the bag,” adds Baldschun. “We’ll be dealing with the traffic and all the issues and the safety concerns and everything.”
Neil Neudorff has been a member of Emmaus since 2000; his daughter, now sixteen, went to the church’s preschool. But then Neudorff got involved with drugs, and in 2007 he was sentenced to eight years in prison on drug-related convictions. After two and a half years, he was released on good behavior and lived in a halfway house in Jefferson County for a year, riding his bicycle to Emmaus every Sunday.
Neudorff, who did community service as a condition of his release, wanted to continue serving — and he saw the church as a good way to do it. He started volunteering at Emmaus, and the church offered to let him move into the parsonage in 2011, after he was released from the halfway house. The next year, when Emmaus’s volunteer president at the time left to attend a seminary to become a Lutheran pastor, Neudorff stepped up to volunteer for the job. (He moved out of the parsonage when Fitzpatrick came to Emmaus in 2014.)
As president, Neudorff has made no decisions on the development project, but he does handle the agenda at quarterly meetings of the membership and also presides over monthly council meetings that discuss church business. He’s also taken a lot of the heat from the neighbors.
Neudorff has always been open about his past, and he says he told his neighbors about his drug use and convictions — including endangerment for doing drugs while his daughter was at home. But opponents of the project have spun that charge, making Neudorff out to be a child molester, Kraft says, even though Neudorff’s name does not come up on Colorado’s sex-offender registry. Neudorff has been sober for nine years, completed all the necessary requirements for his probation, and regularly attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings. He works as an aerospace quality inspector and makes artwork out of old license plates, which he sells at a booth at the Highland Street Fair. That hobby has turned into the side business of Junk Love Art, which was housed temporarily in the back wing of the church — another thing that opponents have complained about.
In an effort to appease the neighbors, Emmaus made several changes to its plan. Anderson Mason Dale conducted studies to make sure that a three-story building would not block the sun at its lowest point during the year — and when the architects discovered that it would, Emmaus took the building down to two stories. The planners also shortened the proposed hours of operation for a primary-care center on the first floor from 24 hours a day to twelve, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and promised that it would not receive ambulances. (Lutheran is reportedly interested in the first-floor center; the second floor will have offices for doctors and other medical businesses.) When the neighborhood requested a traffic study — which is only required after a lot is rezoned — Emmaus went ahead and commissioned the study, which found that the project would have minimal impact. Fitzpatrick even reached out to the Highlands Merchant Association and offered church parking to business owners and employees.
Emmaus held a design meeting with the neighborhood and the architects last April. Neighbors in attendance, including Mast, were invited to mark up design plans; the plans were also posted on the project website and e-mailed to the WHNA. Emmaus submitted its initial application to CPD on April 29; it requested that a 39,000-square-foot parcel be rezoned.
In June, Emmaus held another design meeting with the neighborhood. And on July 6, it resubmitted its application, downsizing the project to about 31,000 square feet.
But that didn’t satisfy the opponents. For Jackie Youngblood, president of the WHNA and a longtime Highland resident, the project is just too big for the neighborhood. South of the church is the Allen M. Ghost Historic District, which was designated in 2010; west of that is Wolff Place Historic District, designated in 2006. Youngblood says she doesn’t like the idea of such a major development near those districts; she’d rather see single-family housing or a mixed-use development.
Youngblood presided over a heated WHNA meeting on August 4, when the project was again discussed. Neudorff spoke briefly at the meeting. Fitzpatrick, who had been doing outreach in the neighborhood, became unusually agitated when a neighbor, speaking at the podium, brought up the incident that had forced Fitzpatrick to call the police: The neighbor had cursed him and flipped him off. “I told Dennis to get a set of balls,” the neighbor said to the attendees. (On a separate occasion, another neighbor had banged on the pastor’s door; Fitzpatrick spent 45 minutes calming him down.)
At the meeting, neighborhood members considered four options for how to deal with the project, ranging from doing nothing to being completely involved in every aspect of the process. They voted to fight the entire project.
After that, Emmaus agreed to go into mediation with the project’s opponents. Although details of that process remain confidential, it definitely ended unsuccessfully. Opponents subsequently continued to collect signatures on a petition against the application for rezoning, which CBD had approved in September and sent on to city council.
Meanwhile, the Emmaus development team met and decided to decrease the lot size even further, down to 22,000-plus square feet, then resubmitted the application.
Denver City Council was supposed to vote on the approved application on November 2 — and the vote would have required a supermajority to pass, because the neighbors had collected the required amount of signatures to bump the vote to that level. Instead, councilmembers voted to accept the revised application and delayed the final vote until January 25.
To opponents, it appeared that Emmaus had shrunk the lot size just to postpone the vote, and also to reduce the number of neighbors living within a 200-foot radius, making a successful protest more difficult. Even so, they again began collecting signatures against this new application, in hopes of getting them to council the required week before the vote.
“We didn’t do it to make them get new signatures. We did it because they wanted a smaller building,” counters Neudorff. “As a development team, we said, ‘They’ve obviously flipped some of the people, our friends, who originally supported the project.’” So the team was sent back out to determine what had made those neighbors flip.
According to Kraft, opponents had told neighbors about Neudorff’s past and said he would personally profit from the project. They also warned that the church would use eminent domain to condemn properties, that they were going to build a Walmart, and that the church was going to cash in and leave. “I think it’s a sense of poking on people’s hidden fears about eminent domain — whatever that may mean,” says Kraft. “Or cutting and running.”
But one neighbor says that the team got a list of those who’d signed the petition and then went to their houses, complaining that they were “un-Christian” for not supporting the church.
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Today the Emmaus congregation numbers just a hundred members, with about forty attending each church service. Regular tithes from the members pay the bills and the meager salaries of the church’s staff of three: Fitzpatrick, an accountant and a part-time secretary. Everyone else involved in helping guide the church is a volunteer.
“Every Sunday there might be twelve or fifteen cars in the parking lot,” says Baldschun. “This congregation is done. Everybody’s in their eighties, with walkers; there are more funerals than there are new cars.”
But Fitzpatrick is determined to return Emmaus Lutheran Church to its rightful place in the community. He continues to reach out to neighbors and is strengthening the church’s ties in the area. He’s stepped up involvement with the local food bank, Bienvenidos, for example. And when Fitzpatrick found that only a half-dozen people had signed up to help a member of the congregation who has fed the homeless for the past fifteen years on Christmas Eve, the pastor invited the neighborhood via Nextdoor.com: Over thirty people showed up.
Fitzpatrick’s profile on that app shows a long list of events he’s created and invited neighbors to; it’s a record of the work he’s done for the community he felt moved to join.
The medical facility “is really a solution to help the church stabilize until it can get growing again,” says Fitzpatrick. “I wouldn’t be here if the church didn’t want to stay. The whole reason I took the call was they were trying to be creative in finding ways to stabilize so that they can stay and be a benefit to the community...for another hundred years.”