HEIGHT MAKES RIGHT
A simmering dispute between lower-downtown residents and developers may soon become a full-fledged battle. With LoDo poised for a wave of development not seen since the days steam engines huffed into Union Station, the stakes couldn't be higher for the place where Denver was born.
The controversy is over a proposal to scale down the 130-foot height limit for new buildings in the historic district. A bitter fight last year over a proposed eleven-story high-rise at 15th and Blake streets sparked the effort to come up with new development guidelines. The battle now taking shape pits some of the developers who helped spark the LoDo renaissance against the residents of the very loft projects they created.
People on both sides of the issue say they want more housing built in LoDo. But development veterans like Dana Crawford, who launched Larimer Square, say down-zoning LoDo would discourage new housing. Creating a downtown neighborhood with thousands of residents and round-the-clock activity has been a longtime goal of LoDo developers.
"One of our big concerns is to get housing started down here," says Crawford. "That is happening. I don't see why we need to change the zoning. It's like throwing ice water on [development]."
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It's not hard to see why those who live and work in LoDo are concerned about its future. The opening of Coors Field has prompted a flurry of real estate speculation in the neighborhood. Lower downtown has the largest number of intact nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century commercial buildings in the western United States, and residents want to make sure new construction honors the area's heritage. That means the design of new buildings must mesh with what's already there, or LoDo risks losing its turn-of-the-century flavor.
In the past ten years the neighborhood has been transformed from a tawdry and largely ignored warehouse district into the hippest funplex in the Mountain time zone. With herds of baseball fans grazing on Blake Street, migratory club-hoppers in Doc Martens and brilliantly feathered gallery patrons mingling over merlot, LoDo is now Denver's largest and most colorful zoo.
All this flocking has caught the eye of developers, who are planning everything from $1 million condos to Disney-inspired family restaurants. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger is in on the action, dreaming up a nightclub/shopping center/movie palace on property he owns at 18th and Blake streets, where you'll be able to dine, shake your booty and empty your wallet without stepping outside.
Many LoDo residents look at this new development with alarm. They want to get control of LoDo's future before the historic district loses the low-key charm that attracted them in the first place. But developers claim that it will be impossible to finance new projects unless they can build on a larger scale.
"I don't want a lot of tall buildings," says LoDo resident Barbara Gibson. "We have to balance things in the neighborhood. I can understand how the developers feel. They want the most for their dollars. But at what point does making something economically viable for them turn around and bite us in the heels--and all of a sudden the neighborhood isn't the neighborhood anymore?"
The new zoning guidelines would call for limiting building heights to 55 feet (about four stories). Developers could go as high as 85 feet if they agreed to devote first-floor space to retail and reserved a portion of new housing for moderate-income buyers. The only area where heights of 130 feet would still be allowed is along Market Street north of 18th Street, an area that already has several high-rises.
The proposal has some of Denver's best-known developers grinding their teeth in frustration. They insist that LoDo will never become a true urban hub unless they can build at a greater density. "I think we need more density in LoDo, not less," says veteran LoDo developer Jerry Glick. "Density is what makes LoDo work."
Glick says many LoDo residents say they want more housing in the neighborhood but don't understand the economics behind development. If LoDo dramatically restricts building size, he predicts new housing will drop off. Other issues that trouble Glick include the requirement for street-level retail space and the loosely defined powers of the LoDo Design Review and Demolition Board, which has the final say over new construction in the district.
Although Glick has clout, he's facing off against a neighborhood chock-full of eccentric millionaires who aren't afraid to speak their minds. A series of public meetings on the proposal in coming weeks promises to feature more head-bashing than an elk rut.
"These are difficult issues with strident opinions on both sides," says Carrie Kramlich, incoming president of the Lower Downtown District Inc., which is coordinating the planning effort. "It's going to be quite a process over the next 45 days." Kramlich is bracing for an outbreak of bloody noses, adding, "I'm going to pass out the Q-Tips."
The city ordinance that created the historic district in 1989 was also controversial and sparked a confrontation before the Denver City Council. Kramlich is hoping LoDo can avoid repeating that experience.
"We want to fight this out in the neighborhood," she says. "But I don't know if we'll be able to link arms and walk to city council singing `Kumbaya.'"
Just a few years ago, the "LoDo pioneers"--those who started renovating historic buildings in the district--could have fit into one room. No one would have challenged their right to speak for LoDo. But now there are hundreds of people who call LoDo home, and they think the neighborhood belongs to them.
"There's this whole new group of people that have been in the neighborhood a year or two and are becoming activists," Kramlich says.
The LoDo community agreed to undertake a new plan after a fracas over a 130-foot building at 15th and Blake split the neighborhood last year. Developer Ray Suppa's proposed Palace Lofts infuriated many residents, who saw the project as wildly out of scale with other buildings in the area. After several angry confrontations at neighborhood meetings, Suppa agreed to reduce the height to 100 feet. But many residents believe the project will still tower over the two- and three-story buildings nearby.
"I'll always think it's too tall for that spot," says Gibson.
Crawford, who sparked LoDo's rebirth with her transformation of one block of skid row into Larimer Square, insists that the way buildings relate to pedestrians is more important than the height. She thinks that by using setbacks at upper levels, 130-foot-high buildings can work in LoDo. "There are a good many buildings in the district that are already that high," she says.
The official boundaries of the historic district are from 20th Street to Speer Boulevard and from Larimer to Wynkoop streets. While historic buildings in the 25-square-block district are protected from demolition, there are huge parts of LoDo that could accommodate new construction. Counting parking lots and modern buildings not covered by historic designation, as much as 50 percent of the area could be redeveloped in coming years.
Just outside the official boundaries of the historic district, however, major new projects could have a dramatic impact on LoDo. The Pepsi Center arena could be located on 20th Street just behind the Ice House or next to Elitch Gardens on the other side of Speer Boulevard.
Other potential controversies are looming over LoDo. During the early-1980s oil boom, high-rises shot up all over downtown, and Denver City Council panicked over a threat to tear down Union Station to make way for an office building. To thwart that idea, the council gave Union Station's owners zoning approval for the construction of twin twenty-story towers on each side of the station. The collapse of the downtown office market killed those plans, but many fear the idea of towers right next to the venerable station may resurface.
"That the city council did that was just outrageous," says Denver City Council member Dennis Gallagher.
Union Station has become a symbol of LoDo, but it's actually just outside the boundary of the historic district, making it more vulnerable to development schemes.
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