The City of Denver's dream of creating a string of parks along the South Platte River came true last month when it announced the purchase of most of the land for the thirty-acre Commons Park. While Denver will have a new showpiece park right downtown, some key political supporters of the mayor's will have an amenity that greatly increases the value of their property in Denver's Central Platte Valley. But some fear that development planned for the area across the street from the park could jeopardize the tranquillity of what's intended to be an urban refuge.
The city paid as much as $800,000 an acre for the land, now the site of several warehouses. The Platte Valley's biggest property owner, Trillium Corporation, donated 5.3 acres for the park and lobbied hard for its creation. It's not hard to understand Trillium's enthusiasm: The company has ambitious plans to develop its sixty acres of property between the river and Union Station, and having a park at its doorstep--on the east side of the river, between 15th and 20th streets--means the property is now a desirable site for Cheesman Park-style residential high-rises.
Trillium is working with the city on zoning its property. Tentative plans call for 250-foot residential towers along the railroad line that bisects the valley; across the street from Commons Park, heights of up to eighty feet would be allowed. Surprisingly, the proposed twenty-story towers have not proven controversial, since most of those involved in the process believe the high-rises will act as a buffer between the rail line and the park. The scale of development allowed across the street from the park is proving to be more of an issue, with some saying eighty feet is too high in a parklike setting.
"I'd like to see Trillium minimize density along the edge of the park," says Myrna Poticha, who is serving on a city-convened advisory board that has been meeting with Trillium. "I try to imagine the highest-quality experience for the public at large. To me, that means asking developers to tie their development into the park." Poticha fears eighty-foot buildings across the street from Commons Park will be overwhelming to park users.
Trillium is hoping to have a zoning plan--known as a planned unit development, or PUD--ready to submit to the city by the end of the year. At the suggestion of Denver officials, Trillium has been meeting with a task force made up of representatives from neighborhood groups close to the valley, such as those in lower downtown and the Highland district. Poticha serves on the South Platte River Advisory Commission and represents that group on the panel that's been meeting with Trillium.
The company is planning several thousand units of housing in the valley. Eventually, Trillium wants to create a virtual second downtown in the Platte Valley, with plans calling for a new transit center linking bus routes and rail lines, office parks, research centers and retail stores. Because the downtown office market is still soft, it's the residential side that has excited developers. Real estate companies from across the country have been knocking on Trillium's door, putting together plans for new housing projects near Commons Park.
"We're being encouraged strongly by the city to consider housing as a major part of the development," says Larry Grace, a veteran Denver developer who joined Trillium last year with the mission of jump-starting development in the valley. "It's quite likely we'll wind up with several thousand housing units here."
Poticha would like to see two-story townhomes across the street from the park. Don't bet on it. "To put townhouses along the park may be the right thing in a suburb," says Grace, "but not in a city."
Other neighborhood representatives also disagree with Poticha. They believe having higher-density housing across the street will mean more people will use the park and watch over it, making the public feel safer. "When people talk about townhouses on the park, I'm not sure that's realistic," says Tim Boers, who is representing the Highland neighborhood on the task force. "It won't put enough eyes on the park. I think the density ought to be higher than just a few stories."
Much of the discussion revolves around what sort of neighborhood would work best with the new park. The city is eager to turn downtown into a major residential district, and it has decided to develop the park to encourage large-scale new housing. Plans are already in the works to eventually extend 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th streets into the valley, providing Wewatta and Chestnut streets with access off 20th Street and Speer Boulevard. Little Raven Street, which now runs past Elitch's, would be extended northeast to form the boundary of Commons Park.
Trillium will call its development "The Commons," and both Poticha and Grace point to the famous Boston Commons as an example of what Trillium's development could resemble. Boston's 48-acre downtown park--the oldest in the country--is at the heart of a very successful urban area. The surrounding pedestrian-oriented districts include a mix of colonial and modern buildings, with restaurants, shops and cultural attractions nearby. Several people involved in the project traveled to Boston recently to see the Commons area.
Trillium has spent years putting together its plans for the valley, and the Denver project has become an important one for the company. In 1991 the Bellingham, Washington, real estate firm acquired 165 acres of land in the Central Platte Valley as part of a $50 million deal with the Burlington Northern railroad that gave the company thousands of acres in eighteen states. Trillium quickly sold much of that land but held on to the Denver property.
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In 1994 Trillium sold 65 acres to Elitch Gardens for $6 million and sold other parcels to the city for new streets. Its development effort is now focused on the sixty acres that run between Union Station and Commons Park.
Last year Marilee Utter, Trillium's regional vice president, publicly criticized the city for dragging its heels on the Commons Park land acquisition. At the time, Utter said the company would put its development plans on hold until the park went through. "Commons Park is the transformational piece that will change the area," she told the Denver Business Journal. "Now it's an ugly industrial area. People can't conceive of living there."
Utter's displeasure was undoubtedly heard at City Hall. She served as city asset manager for several years under former mayor Federico Pena, and she has extensive political contacts. Trillium donated $1,500 to Mayor Wellington Webb's re-election campaign, and the firm maintains a high profile within the Downtown Denver Partnership and in LoDo neighborhood groups.