Moving On Up
On a warm spring afternoon, Alexandros Economou stands in the parking lot of Baby Doe's Matchless Mine, the restaurant that's been perched on this bluff overlooking Interstate 25 since 1978. Broken bottles crunch underfoot and police tape flaps in the wind; Baby Doe's and the adjoining Chili Pepper restaurant closed down several years ago, leaving gaping wounds at the front facade of this northwest Denver area.
Economou thinks he can repair the damage. He gazes across the highway at the Central Platte Valley below, admiring one of the best views of the city: the looping coaster tracks and fantasyland architecture of Six Flags Elitch Gardens and, behind that, the downtown skyline. He sees potential, and so does A.G. Spanos Companies, a billion-dollar real-estate corporation started by his grandfather. The 6.5-acre site, which they put under contract two years ago, seemed perfect for one of the company's signature high-end apartment developments. So perfect, in fact, that the company didn't spend much time considering what lay to the west: the small, 2,200-resident neighborhood called Jefferson Park.
A.G. Spanos is far from the first developer to overlook Jefferson Park, the hilltop neighborhood ringed by Speer to the north and Invesco to the south, Federal to the west and the South Platte River to the east. While neighboring Highland was sprouting stately Victorians in the late nineteenth century, Jefferson Park was mostly shantytowns. And when real-estate players began feverishly refurbishing those Victorians and throwing up swanky condos in the Central Platte Valley in the 1990s, they left the vacant parking lots and crumbling mid-century homes of Jefferson Park largely untouched. These days, that's changing. Many developers are taking a second look at the working-class and mostly Latino neighborhood, noticing its proximity to downtown, the attractive views, the largely favorable zoning and still-reasonable land prices. They're calling it the next Highland or Cherry Creek North.
"Developers are searching out areas that were passed over in the last development boom, such as Jefferson Park," says Ken Schroeppel, urban planner with Matrix Design Group and creator of www.denverinfill.com. You could say Jefferson Park has been discovered."
The neighborhood, represented by Jefferson Park United Neighbors, is ready for its coming-out party. A few years ago, meetings consisted of a half-dozen residents discussing the latest local drug busts or prostitute stings. Now these gatherings draw more than ten times that number and cover updates on area fix-and-flips, police reports on plunging crime rates, and plans for the next neighborhood happy hour. JPUN spent five years working with the city on a neighborhood plan, one of only a handful of neighborhoods to complete one. The lengthy document delineates residents' ideal redevelopment for their environs: respectful, moderately-sized mixed-use projects that respect the neighborhood's diversity, sense of community and stellar views while also encouraging a walkable urban environment featuring a variety of housing styles and price ranges.
"Jefferson Park is, as I like to term it, the non-NIMBY neighborhood," says David Zucker, who's currently building his second condo project in the area. "They aren't turned off by the grit of the urban landscape. And they don't want to gentrify for the sake of gentrifying. They are working to make an ethnically diverse neighborhood."
Using the neighborhood plan as a guide, the members of JPUN hadn't opposed any of the dozen or so infill developments proposed for their neighborhood in the past few years. That is, until A.G. Spanos came along.
At a recent general meeting, JPUN members voted 70-3 against changing the zoning to allow Spanos to move forward with its redevelopment of the Baby Doe's and Chili Pepper site. The final application is likely to go before the Denver City Council on March 27, but this is the group's third overwhelming no-confidence vote for the project in the past two years.
The proposed development, called Pinnacle Station, would involve 350 all-rental units, increasing the neighborhood's rental rate to about 95 percent, not an encouraging number for those hoping for more community-minded homeowners. The project's five closely spaced four- to six-story buildings take up most of the T-shaped site and would, according to JPUN, tower over single-family homes and duplexes next door, not to mention block views of downtown. While the apartments would be high-end units, many worry that Spanos would use bland and flimsy materials, eventually turning the buildings into eyesores. And residents fear the havoc that hundreds of new cars would wreak on adjoining residential streets.
Others in Jefferson Park are concerned that such an upscale project could set off more gentrification in the area. "Our plea to Spanos is to make some accommodations for poor people," says Jack LaPietra, pastor of New Life in Christ Church at West 25th Avenue and Clay Street, who's asking his congregation to pray that the development does not move forward without some affordable units.
Pinnacle Station is the exact opposite of what residents have planned for the neighborhood, says Kym Foster, who lives next to the proposed development. "This is the introduction to our neighborhood. And what could be better than to put in beautiful development that fits the neighborhood, that complements the neighborhood?"
Last year, JPUN presented Spanos with a counterproposal for the location based on its neighborhood plan that featured a comparable number of housing units, a more urban-looking project involving for-sale units, rental apartments, retail space and a 120-foot high-rise, with most of the density located away from the residential streets bordering the site. The developer rejected this alternative, however, sticking with an all-apartment, low-retail and fairly homogenous plan that some say is too suburban for a neighborhood so close to downtown. "It's the same project they build in Miami and Atlanta and any number of other cities," says Glen Wood of CanWest Ventures, who's developing a townhome project nearby. "They want to plunk it down in this urban neighborhood in Denver without any consideration of the scale or architecture of the neighborhood."
Economou says Spanos has done everything in its power to meet the neighbors' concerns. Company representatives have met with residents nearly three dozen times, resulting in numerous project alterations ranging from additional view corridors between buildings to architectural elements more in line with the neighborhood. "We have worked diligently for months and months with the neighborhood, and I would call the plan significantly changed," he says. "This project brings a product that is not yet seen here in the neighborhood. These are luxury units, and the site will be maintained in a first-class manner."
Denver officials seem to agree. Concluding that Pinnacle Station largely complies with the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Plan, Denver's Community Planning and Development Department recommended that A.G. Spanos's rezoning application be approved -- and the Denver Planning Board unanimously agreed.
The problem, says Denver Manager of Plan Implementation Tyler Gibbs, is that many of the issues Jefferson Park residents have highlighted in their neighborhood plan, such as specific architectural styles and number of for-sale units in a development, aren't covered under zoning. "There are issues that have been raised by the neighborhood that we don't feel are appropriately addressed in zoning," he says.
"I think neighborhood plans and the city's other plans have as much power as those who are interpreting them are willing to give them," says city councilman Rick Garcia, who represents Jefferson Park but says he will not comment on Pinnacle Station until it's considered by city council. "These plans are certainly not considered legally binding documents, but they certainly are supposed to give direction to the planning professionals."
JPUN attempted to negotiate a development agreement with Spanos to address concerns not considered in the rezoning application, but talks fell through when residents felt they had no way to enforce the agreement.
It makes some Jefferson Park residents wonder if their work preparing for Jefferson Park to become the next Highland is for naught. "We are definitely getting squeezed," says resident Brad Evans, who chairs JPUN's land-use committee. "A lot of people just feel so powerless. Who are we? What opportunity do we have?"
But this is one battle Schroeppel says they shouldn't back down from: "I believe as a city we should have a higher standard, particularity in the downtown area where the sites are more prominent. As infill continues to occur, there's a finite amount of developable area, and so we need to treat each site with great care and respect, because whatever we do is going to be there for several generations or longer, and we need to make sure it's good." Jefferson Park is being touted as the next Highland, and developers are taking notice -- but not all of the attention is appreciated.
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