High-rise anxiety at the St. Anthony redevelopment site
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.
St. Anthony redevelopment
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."
Supporters of the current plan say that a certain degree of density is necessary if the infill project is going to become an economic engine for the long-awaited revival of the struggling West Colfax corridor. Thanks to its proximity to downtown and red-hot Highland, as well as its ready access to I-25 and light rail and bike routes, the area is already seeing a building boomlet, including new townhomes and apartments and a new library under construction. But many locals are hopeful that the St. Anthony redevelopment will rev things up much further, and they're betting that the high-rises won't be quite as terrible as the detractors fear.
"It's very difficult to address concerns about things that haven't happened yet," says Ben Stetler, the outgoing president of the West Colfax Association of Neighbors (WeCAN), which has enthusiastically endorsed EFG's plan. "What is too much density? If the goal is to transform West Colfax into an economically vibrant community, a key component to a successful transition is density. This will be an anchor for the community and a source of attraction for people in the greater Denver area."
Cameron Bertron, a senior vice-president of EFG and project manager for the redevelopment, says the market — and the city's decisions on the rezoning that would be required — will dictate just how high the buildings on the remaining three blocks will go. He doubts they would be as monolithic and oppressive as the slabs depicted in an illustration accompanying an online petition protesting the GDP.
"If someone showed me that picture, I would sign the petition," Bertron quips. "The fact is, tall buildings can be done well across the street from the park, if you set them back. I really trust this neighborhood and the city to make the right decision."
But many of the protesters are as unhappy with the process by which the general development plan was approved as with what it contains. Although Bertron estimates that he's been involved in more than fifty public meetings about the project over the past year or so, answering questions and listening to public comment, Ambrose and other critics say the project has been steamrolling to a foregone conclusion, one that's quite different from what the task force envisioned eight years ago. Even significant public opposition hasn't altered EFG's plan, they point out, claiming the city's current planning-review processes and zoning requirements tend to favor developers over ordinary citizens.
"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."
The petition, which urged Mayor Michael Hancock and his planning officials to reject the GDP, drew close to 700 signatures in six days. But Benedix couldn't get an appointment with Hancock to formally present the results.
"We have an administration that has chosen to ignore the neighbors who have to live with this," she says. "The mayor refused to see us."
The recommendations compiled in 2006 by the St. Anthony redevelopment task force represented a joint effort by city officials, hospital executives, and dozens of local residents and business leaders. The document begins with a letter from the year 2021, explaining how the community's extensive wish list for the site had been transformed into something special, thanks to the group's "compelling vision," careful planning and extraordinary effort to blend the old with the new.
At the core of the site, the correspondent from the future announced, would be a community center housing a health clinic and a "legacy library," celebrating the rich cultural and religious heritage of Denver's west side. The center would also be available for community meetings and adult education, as well as providing after-school activities for children.
There would be a mix of housing for different income levels, including "quality affordable housing." A meditation garden outside the chapel would become "a gathering place for people from all faiths." The street grid would be reintroduced to some extent, but limited; a grand pedestrian promenade would be created on Perry Street, from the light-rail station at 13th Avenue to the park at 17th Avenue.
In 2011, Centura Health, the hospital's parent company, entered into negotiations with EnviroFinance Group over the sale of the property. EFG is a horizontal developer, meaning that the company prepares land for future use — doing demolition and brownfield remediation, upgrading infrastructure and so on — before selling it to other developers who build on it. (One of the company's current projects involves pouring a molasses mixture over contaminated Asarco property in Globeville to stabilize the heavy metals in the soil.) EFG held numerous community meetings about the redevelopment before completing the purchase and unveiling its general development plan last year.
The plan did incorporate several concepts from the 2006 task force report; for example, the chapel will be preserved, and project manager Bertron describes the chapel's plaza as a suitable site "for farmers' markets and music festivals and art fairs."
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But there's no community center along the lines of what the task force described. The Denver Public Library decided to build its new neighborhood branch, to be named after Chicano activist Corky Gonzales, on the other side of Colfax. As yet, there's no definite plan for a health clinic, and no quality affordable housing, although Bertron expects the latter to be a component of the next phase of development. (In fact, at present there are no for-sale properties on the site; the residences are all apartments.) And while the plan includes streetscape improvements and bike routes to go with the reimposed street grid, there's no grand promenade, either.
Some of the divergences aren't all that surprising; what the task force offered was a pile of well-deliberated suggestions, not a rigid master plan. Supporters of the project say the GDP captures the spirit, if not the letter, of the task force's vision. Yet EFG's plan is a startling departure from what the task force had in mind in one particularly contentious area: how high the buildings should be and where they should go.
The illustrations in the task force's report don't feature anything higher than six stories. The text, while not stating any preference for maximum limits, urges lower heights and densities on the perimeter of the site, with higher densities in the center: "There is a great opportunity to take advantage of some of the best views in Denver. Site design should maximize views to the mountains, toward downtown Denver and to Sloan's Lake from the new development and should seek to protect and improve views from the existing neighborhoods."
Bertron says the proposed twelve- and twenty-story buildings are situated on the north side of the project, close to the park, because to put them farther south would cast greater shadows on the surrounding neighborhood. He notes that the GDP requires a setback of at least 55 feet for the high-rises, if they ever get built at all. "The idea that there's this enormous building that's going to lurch out over 17th Avenue is not true," he says. "We have tried to respond with factual and clear explanations as to why this concern has been addressed."
In meetings, Bertron has cited the task force report's passing reference to developing "an urban edge, complementary to the neighborhood, along 17th Avenue to help define the park." But Ambrose, who recalls the task force kicking around the "urban edge" phrase, says it was a vague concept at best, a piece of "Peter Park-ese," name-checking the city planning director at the time.
"He put it in the plan, and nobody knew what it meant," Ambrose says. "The project was supposed to be more like a pyramid or a wedding cake, with no placement of tall buildings on the edges."
Ambrose has consulted architects about the shadows cast by a twenty-story building and insists that the setbacks Bertron describes are inadequate. Depending on the season and time of day, the shadows to the north could stretch longer than a thousand feet. During the depths of winter, they would still be long enough to leave sidewalks on the southern edge of the park in an icy noon eclipse.
Bertron says it will take time for the market to "absorb" the new apartments now being constructed in the first phase. It may be years, if ever, before someone seeks a zoning change to build the higher structures by the park. "What we set out to do is not seek out builders of a tall building, but to recognize that this is an attractive site for that," he says. "To approve a GDP and not contemplate that someone might propose a tall building some day seemed shortsighted. We wanted to have that conversation early."
There's already one seventeen-story building south of Sloan's Lake, adjacent to the St. Anthony site, and no lack of precedent for high-rises on the edge of parks elsewhere in the city; just ask the residents of the luxury condos hugging Cheesman or Commons parks. But Ambrose scoffs at the idea that the threat of high-rises at Sloan's far in excess of the area's current zoning is a hypothetical one.
"They keep saying they're only shooting for 1,200 units," he says. "Then why ask for 1,745? You don't write it into the plan if you don't need it. That's the problem: This is a kind of backdoor zoning. The zoning follows the general development plan, not the other way around."
The formal review of EFG's plan has moved forward with remarkable speed and efficiency. It's been too fast to suit some critics, who believe the presence on the company's team of several savvy players fresh from the revolving door of government has strongly aided its cause. Project manager Bertron used to work for the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, where he reviewed infill projects not unlike this one, including the Asarco project and the redevelopment of the Dahlia Square shopping center by Brownfield Partners, a company since acquired by EFG. Laura Aldrete, a former DURA assistant director and co-chair of the redevelopment task force, is now a project manager with Parsons Brinckerhoff, a construction consulting firm involved in the St. Anthony project. And former Denver Planning Board chairman Brad Buchanan has also been involved in St. Anthony, as a principal in the architecture firm RNL.
Buchanan was still on the planning board last summer when he joined in a community presentation about the redevelopment plan; that prompted former city councilwoman Cathy Donohue to file an ethics complaint, charging that he'd violated the city's conflict-of-interest policies. The planning board didn't consider any actions involving St. Anthony while Buchanan was there, and Donohue's complaint was dismissed.
But in Buchanan's case, the revolving door has come full circle. Two weeks ago, after Rocky Piro abruptly resigned as Denver's planning director — for reasons city officials decline to discuss — Buchanan was named as his successor. Bertron stresses that Buchanan "was not the lead for RNL" on the St. Anthony redevelopment, but his selection as Hancock's planning czar is raising hackles not only among Sloan's Lake neighbors, but farther north, where RNL has been the architecture firm for the much-contested RedPeak development at 32nd Avenue and Lowell Boulevard.
Ambrose suggests the efforts of so many well-connected backers helped to expedite the city's review of the St. Anthony redevelopment — and made the public-comment process a mere formality.
"They already had all the pieces in place," he says. "They didn't have to listen to us."
Buchanan says he's severed all his ties to RNL and, in accordance with city rules, won't be part of any planning decisions concerning the firm's projects for at least six months. Having been intimately involved in deliberations over growth and development in the city as a member of the planning board, the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission and the task force that tackled the zoning overhaul, as well as a past chair of the Downtown Denver Partnership, he has nothing but praise for the agency he's taking over and its commitment to citizen participation.
"Denver does public outreach better than any other jurisdiction I've ever worked with," he says. "It's authentic. It's outreach knowing that more input is better."
Dan Shah predicts that the former St. Anthony site will be a busy place in a few years, abuzz with something you don't often see these days on this stretch of West Colfax: pedestrians. He expects the development to become a multimodal generator of fun and revenue, a confluence of commuters and out-on-the-towners and park users, just a couple of light-rail stops from downtown.
No longer will hipsters have to head to the suburbs for an Alamo Drafthouse flick and a beer. Best of all, locals won't have to get into their cars at all to take advantage of the neighborhood's new, yet-to-be-determined retail shops and restaurants.
"Nothing is a done deal, but I'm certainly excited about the theater," says Shah, director of the West Colfax Business Improvement District. "What's been missing from the area is neighborhood-serving retail. Parking is limited, so if it's walkable or bikeable, that adds much more vitality to this development."
Shah sees many positives to the high density of the development and considers the fears about traffic impacts to be overblown. In its heyday, the hospital drew plenty of traffic on its own, he points out — not to mention ambulances and helicopters. "I don't believe parking and congestion are going to become issues," he says. "There's going to be more traffic, but the setup for this development is geared to people who want to walk to the park and a host of retail, and not mess with parking downtown. You could easily commute downtown from here without getting into your car."
WeCAN's Stetler also sees the tradeoffs involved in the development as more than worth it. "This has the potential of being the greatest economic catalyst this neighborhood has ever seen," he says. "It's an opportunity to reinvent the neighborhood and make it vibrant again."
Yet Ambrose and other leaders of some neighborhood groups say the project raises larger questions about the city's approach to open space and the GDP process itself. The concerns start with all those additional park users. Sloan's Lake is the city's second-largest park, but it's also mostly water. The expected infusion of new visitors will put new demands on its modest paths and playgrounds. The Hancock administration has already antagonized park activists with a controversial sale of open-space land in southeast Denver and a much-savaged proposal to install a "regional attraction" called City Loop in venerable City Park ("Parks and Wreck," December 19, 2013). And Ambrose contends that, in exchange for letting the developers use Sloan's Lake as a selling point, the citizenry isn't getting much new publicly accessible open space out of EFG's project.
City planners require that a mixed-use development devote at least 10 percent of the property to open space. But even though the total size of the St. Anthony site is more than 25 acres, the calculation of open space is based on 14 acres, the amount of developable land that's left after deducting streets and rights-of-way. Because so much of the site is being devoted, at the city's insistence, to restoring the street grid, that means the required amount of open space works out to slightly more than 5 percent of the gross area.
Ambrose claims that this represents a departure from Denver's historic approach to open-space requirements and actually rewards developers for putting in more streets — hardly the sort of thing one associates with green, pedestrian-friendly, new-urbanism infill projects. "The more streets you have, the less open space you need," he says.
Andrea Burns, communication director for Denver's Department of Community Planning and Development, says the open-space requirements for GDPs have not changed — though developers seem to be confused about what's expected, in part because the current zoning code specifies that a "minimum of 10 percent of the total GDP area" should be open space. Of seventeen general development plans submitted since 2002, ten have used the net amount of developable land as a basis for figuring open space, while two have provided 10 percent of the total area; the other five either didn't aggregate open space or had other agreements regarding the amount they would provide.
"It hasn't been applied consistently," Burns agrees. "But returning the street grid to the [St. Anthony] site is something the city was trying to achieve. That was, to us, part of making that development successful."
Denver City Council was expected to approve a package of amendments to the zoning code this month, including a rewriting of the open-space provision that would have "clarified" the matter. But recently, Burns's agency decided to take the open-space amendments out of the package in order "to dedicate more time for community outreach, and in some cases clear up confusion and misinformation" about the issue.
Those who take exception to the density, height or open-space provisions of the South Sloan's Lake development plan have found they have no real means of appealing the decisions of the planning board. The general-development-plan process is strictly an executive-branch affair, with no review by city council. That's in sharp contrast to the way master-planned, mixed-use developments have been done in the past under planned-unit-development (PUD) requirements. The city first began allowing the more streamlined GDP process twenty years ago — for new developments on the prairie generated by the construction of Denver International Airport — but in recent years it's become more frequently used for infill projects.
"I never heard the term 'GDP' prior to this particular development," says former city councilwoman Donohue. "It used to be that we gave full public hearings, and they were all under PUDs, if they were mixed-use like this one is."
Donohue has been a vocal critic of the Hancock administration's planning policies and of the 2010 overhaul of the zoning code, which severely restricted the kind of oversight the city council has over decisions involving parks, open space and new developments. "The voting public no longer has someone they elected to represent them on the subject of land use in Denver," she says. "That is drastic. I want it in the public, in front of God and everybody. These are big land-use decisions, a complete change for that neighborhood."
The city council will have a say if a developer seeks a zoning change at South Sloan's Lake to make way for a twenty-story building. But Ambrose says it's "reckless public policy" for the city to approve a development plan that includes buildings that, in height and density, are far in excess of what the area currently allows, setting the stage for zoning battles in years to come. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the property is being parceled out to so many different developers.
Benedix, a member of the West Highland Neighborhood Association, says neighborhood groups have asked EFG to consider cutting back on the density and adding a little more open space, to no avail: "It's curious to me that at no time has the developer come to us and offered any kind of compromise. Not, 'Oh, I hear the concerns of many neighbors — how about an extra half-acre and max twelve stories?' Nothing whatsoever. Did they know they didn't have to? That the city was going to give them whatever they wanted, voters' opinions and democratically adopted zoning be damned?"
Opponents of the high-rises aren't simply fighting change, she insists; they want to see a first-class redevelopment of the site. "My concern is that this is not going to be a successful development," she says. "There's not a single developer who takes responsibility for things working out."
But project manager Bertron says his company will be intimately involved in each phase of the development, much as Forest City has been as the master developer of Stapleton. "The role EFG is playing here is one that's done well by Denver in other large-ish projects," he says. "We will construct all the new infrastructure. We will also fund and, in some cases, construct the streetscapes. When we sell the last parcel, the property will be owned by a variety of people. But we will be in the driver's seat, selecting developers. All a developer can do is set the table for the best quality and strongest outcome they can."
He suggests that much of the current opposition to the project is coming from people who didn't bother to attend the numerous neighborhood meetings and presentations that were part of EFG's outreach. "There was never a consensus that there shouldn't be a tall building on this site," he insists. "That conversation happened over the course of fifty community meetings. The people who today are suggesting that there hasn't been a public process, generally speaking, weren't in the room."
Ambrose says he was in the room before EFG ever came along, back when the task force spent months shaping a vision for the redevelopment of St. Anthony that, in his view, bears little resemblance to what might ultimately emerge there.
"To EFG, this is just a land deal," he says. "It's our neighborhood."