In the past few years, lower downtown and the adjacent Central Platte Valley have become Denver's most sought-after addresses. An area that was once home to winos and run-down warehouses now boasts some of the most expensive lofts and condos in the city, with more than a few units going for more than $1 million.
On Wewatta Street, just across Speer Boulevard from the Pepsi Center, one of these new residential palaces is rising from the ground. Known as Waterside Lofts for its location next to Cherry Creek, the thirteen-story building will offer 160 units, most of them priced from $280,000 to $1.2 million. Residents will enjoy a "lobby attendant" on duty 24 hours a day; a fully equipped Fitness Center; a Business Center with a fax machine, copier and computer; units that include bamboo hardwood floors, granite kitchen countertops, and bathrooms outfitted with marble and travertine; terraces and balconies reinforced to accommodate hot tubs; and underground parking.
However, there are sixteen condos in the new building that were reserved for people of more modest means. These "affordable housing" units, all of which have been sold, went for the relatively modest asking price of between $124,000 and $146,250; they were offered to buyers earning less than $51,000 a year. And while these owners will enjoy the same amenities as their wealthier neighbors, they'll have less space in which to do it: None of them is larger than 600 square feet.
"We sold them in about four weeks," says Mark Beyerle, a sales manager for Waterside Lofts. "It was mainly younger, single people who bought them. Compared to many of the other units, these are about half the size."
These tiny "lofts" are a part of the mix because the City of Denver has begun demanding that developers who ask for zoning changes to build their new projects in the Central Platte Valley reserve 10 percent of the units as "affordable."
For rental housing, the city has a fixed definition of what makes a unit affordable: It's what a household earning 80 percent of the median area income -- $25,000 for a single person and $37,200 for a family of four -- can afford and still make ends meet. However, for housing that's for sale, there is no set standard.
Instead, city officials negotiate with each developer on a project-by-project basis, depending on how expensive the other units are, says Steve Gordon, a city planner who has worked on the Central Platte Valley. "Most of the [affordable] for-sale units are in the $130,000 to $140,000 range," he says.
But in some of the high-end buildings, what counts as affordable would be regarded as just plain expensive in any other part of Denver. The median condo price in the city right now is $133,500.
In Riverfront Park -- a massive project that will eventually bring 2,000 new housing units to the area between Union Station and the South Platte River -- an elegant thirteen-story high-rise known as Riverfront Tower is now under construction. Six "affordable" lofts there are selling for $189,550 each; for that, the buyers get 863-square-foot apartments. The maximum household income allowed for buyers of those units is $70,000. Regular lofts at Riverfront Tower go for $299,000 to $2.2 million and range in size from 925 square feet to 4,149 square feet for the penthouse. Most of the units have already been sold.
As part of the bargain, however, buyers of these units cannot make a quick profit by reselling them in a year or two: The resale price is allowed to rise by only 4 percent a year for the next twenty years.
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"Some people were not excited about that and didn't reserve because of that," says Waterside's Beyerle. "Others aren't concerned about the investment side so much."
Riverfront Park spokeswoman Leslie Coleman says most of the people buying the "affordable" units are willing to accept the limit on appreciation. "We have a banker, a police officer and a couple of techies. They're people who are happy with getting into downtown. If they sell, they'll make a little bit of money."
And downtown is the place to be, Coleman says, even if you're living in a shoebox. "This will be an actual neighborhood," she promises. "It will be like a midget Central Park. It will be so exciting and so alive."