Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Selling the Contemporary Learning Academy could mean big opportunities for DPS

Last week's meeting of the Denver Board of Education was a mess of complicated math problems, including:

Question 1) If Denver Public Schools is planning to release 220 teachers, how long will the public-comment period — seven-and-a-half hours, filled with complaints — extend the meeting?

Answer: Until after 3 a.m.

Question 2) If, during a record ten-hour board meeting, a record general budget is approved, that's how many millions per hour?

Answer: $81.1 million, for a total of $811 million.

Question 3) If Denver Public Schools is contemplating a property swap that includes not just the legendary Emily Griffith Opportunity School and DPS headquarters but also a swath of desolate wasteland in southeast Denver, then which will engender the most controversy?

Answer: The proposed use of 11.5 acres near Hentzell Park for a new elementary school, which has already inspired a petition drive by opponents and may even wind up on the November ballot — when boardmembers are up for re-election.

Question 4) Despite all the sound and fury over the Hampden Heights property near Hentzell Park, unloading which facility could be the biggest bonanza for DPS?

Answer: The Contemporary Learning Academy, whose sale could provide a real lesson in the current real estate market.

DPS first floated its complicated consolidation/relocation and disposition plan last fall. The scheme was contingent on purchasing a fifty-year-old building at 1860 Lincoln Street at the edge of downtown, where DPS could create a shared campus that would include students from three schools along with central support staff, consolidating "multiple support facilities to better meet school needs, reduce operating costs and provide a more effective working environment." That purchase was approved in December, and the dominos started falling.

With 1860 Lincoln in the DPS portfolio, some choice real estate can go on the block. The best-known parcel is the circa 1925 (with a 1933 addition) building that now houses both the Emily Griffith high school and technical college, which occupies the entire 1200 block of Welton Street, conveniently close to the Colorado Convention Center — and the Diamond Cabaret. The plan calls for moving most of the adult-education classes from here to 1860 Lincoln, although DPS will have to find another location for the trade programs, including the auto body, auto mechanic and welding programs. The current DPS administrative building at 900 Grant Street will also be sold and the staff relocated to 1860 Lincoln. Joining them there will be staff now housed in a building at 1330 Fox Street, which has already been swapped with the City & County of Denver (which will use it as a facility for domestic-violence victims) in exchange for that parcel of land in southeast Denver at Hampden Heights, where DPS will build a new elementary school.

And then there's the Contemporary Learning Academy, an alternative DPS high school that opened more than a decade ago in the building at 2211 West 27th Avenue that once held the Farm Bureau, then the local office of USA Today; if all goes as planned, at the start of the 2014 school year, CLA students will move to a DPS facility at 780 Grant Street, leaving behind what's always been a messy maze of a school.

A messy maze, but it's now part of a deal that could change the face of Denver — a deal that could live up to the DPS slogan urging you to "Discover a World of Opportunity." Because this property sits not just on the edge of hot-hot LoHi, declared a hipster haven by that notorious hipster publication, Forbes, but at the very edge of the bluffs above the Platte Valley, a location with a stunning view that stretches from Coors Field across downtown to Mile High Stadium and Pikes Peak. (It also includes a bonus, up-close look at traffic on I-25 and Speer Boulevard — but that just means the view will never be blocked, and whoever buys the property can contract to do traffic reports for extra cash.)

According to the Board of Education "property disposition" update released at the May 16 meeting, right now DPS should be sharing plans for the CLA sale with stakeholders — including CLA students and parents, the City of Denver, local businesses and local neighborhood organizations for the areas around both 780 Grant and the CLA, and maybe even actual neighbors — in anticipation of developing a marketing plan and then listing the CLA property in late May 2013.

Which, of course, is right now. But at least developing that marketing plan shouldn't take long. Here it is:

Look out below!

Unlike Emily Griffith — whose long and beloved legacy stretches to its founding in 1916 by Emily Griffith herself, even if the school's current home is creaky and beloved by almost no one who actually uses it — the Contemporary Learning Academy is in no way, shape or form historic. It may be right down the street from the West 28th Avenue Historic District, a block of Queen Anne Victorians and even older sandstone homes known as Stoneman's Row, but the boxy CLA structure has no interesting pedigree, no charming ornamentation, no history or architecture worth fighting for. So there won't be any pesky preservationists demanding that this building be saved, as is likely to happen with Emily Griffith (a survey is now underway), or land-lovers whining about the loss of open space, since the location fronts I-25. (There could, however, be more than a few neighbors panicked about parking, because the historic block next door has no alley and no driveways...and a lot of people coming to eat and drink in this hipster haven.) Parcels not nearly as well situated have inspired mixed-residential use projects that push the zoning envelope across Highland, and the two parking lots that come with this property offer endless possibilities...a world of development opportunity.

Even without a plan for CLA, DPS notes that it has "received interest in the property from multiple parties over the past several months." It anticipates evaluating offers in August 2013, then making a recommendation to the Board of Education this fall, in time to move the students to 780 Grant the following August. For students, the new location should be a wash: The Capitol Hill spot is convenient to bus lines, too, and it has the added bonuses of nearby businesses on Sixth Avenue, rather than just two gas stations down the street and cranky neighbors a block away.

Cranky neighbors who're all crazy for the block — and have even grown fond of the high-schoolers who walk by every morning. After all, they're much more respectful than the hipsters who park here at night.

I fell in love with this block of West 28th Avenue before it became a city landmark in 1979, before it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. I'd detour past the block on my way to the original Muddy's coffeehouse on 15th Street (soon to be the home of the Tavern LoHi) just so I could see the eight ancient houses standing sentinel over the highway. And in the early '90s, when a house finally became available on the block, I jumped at the chance to buy it — leaks, creaks, spiders and all. Not that the area was jumping back then. Muddy's had moved downtown (and then disappeared altogether), the Highland neighborhood had yet to boom, and the Platte Street area just below was known for My Brother's Bar and little else. But that view...

From my back window, I watched the construction of the new Elitch Gardens Amusement Park, watched Coors Field appear on the edge of LoDo, watched the neon glow of Union Station's "Travel by Train" sign return, watched what was then Invesco Field at Mile High go up and the original Mile High Stadium come down. I watched Ocean Journey take hold, then drown in a sea of red ink, washing back up as the Downtown Aquarium. I watched new, always taller loft projects spring up in the Platte Valley and the Millennium Bridge suddenly poke out, like the prow of a ship sailing into the future. I watched the sun come up and glint off the dome of the State Capitol, then illuminate the confluence of two rivers, the spot where gold was found back in 1858. I watched more than 150 years of history spread out before me.

But nothing is set in stone these days, not even on Stoneman's Row. In 2008, DPS floated the idea of selling the property, promising the CLA that it could stay at least another year. The economic crash stretched that to six. But that same year, the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission approved delisting the oldest building in this historic neighborhood, a bungalow built in 1888 that once had dozens of siblings marching down the hill to the Platte River. Today, the corner lot where that home once stood holds a giant contemporary wonder, one that's inspired national attention and lots of neck-craning on I-25.

A block away, the CLA could soon become another contemporary wonder as a savvy developer discovers how very many units it can cram into a single property. It's a world of opportunity....

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun