I can't get over the new elevators. Even coated with layers of drywall dust and construction plastic, they're an improvement -- make that a miraculous improvement -- over the last elevators here. They're lit, for one thing. No Nazi swastikas are carved into the walls, for another. And there's no meth freak named Lee guiding the ride with a mixture of faith and a pen jammed into the control buttons.
No, the final remnants of the Regency Hotel's steep downward spiral from Elvis's crash pad to a layover for junkies and street creatures are long gone. The reign of Art Cormier is over. The former owner of Smiley's Laundromat and Los Caporales nightclub took his fiberglass bronco statues and ran, selling the dying property he'd bought in 1999 for a reported $4.6 million to Robert Salazar for $6.4 million in October 2004. Now the local real estate investor is converting the hotel that once served lobster and champagne to such luminaries as President Gerald Ford and Jesse Owens into a dorm-style residence hall serving a variety of world cuisines to students enrolled in one of the three colleges at Auraria. And so one of the city's most notorious landmarks has turned into the Regency: Auraria's Student Housing Community.
"Because of the nature of our building, being an old hotel, it made more sense for us to turn it into more dorm-style living, since there weren't kitchens in the units," explains Michael Francone, who's in charge of Salazar's project. "This place is going to be so unbelievably beautiful inside, and we truly believe kids are going to flock to it. I'm a little jealous. I went to Metro about ten years ago, and I'm jealous that it wasn't around when I went there."
I went to Metro, too, at about the same time. When I was a student there, a group of us suggested that the administration build housing across West Colfax Avenue. We were told that was impossible, since by charter Auraria is a non-traditional commuter campus. The average age of Metro students then was 27, and they didn't need housing, administrators said.
But in the spring of 2004, the Auraria Higher Education Center, which manages the campus for its three tenants -- Metropolitan State College of Denver, the University of Colorado at Denver and the Community College of Denver -- conducted a survey and found that not only was there a demand for housing, but approximately 2,400 students were looking for a place closer to their school. So AHEC head Dean Wolf and the Auraria board of directors let the market know. And the market responded.
Salazar bought the Regency, and the Auraria Foundation announced it was buying the top thirteen floors of the Executive Tower Inn at 14th and Curtis streets, where it will spend $16 million renovating the space into student housing. And the $50 million, 685-unit Campus Village Apartments are popping up on Auraria's western edge. None of these violate the campus charter, however, because they are in the hands of private companies. "The campus is not doing the student housing," Wolf says. "The Regency, as well as the other two projects, are all unrelated to the campus. From Auraria's point of view, it's not on-campus housing, and it's not owned and operated by the campus. The Regency is using the name, but that can be done because Auraria is not trademarked. And the Auraria Foundation is a private 501(c)(3), which established an LLC to deal with the Executive Tower Inn. So it's not only a step removed from the foundation, but also a step from Auraria."
The new housing is coming just in time, since next fall UCD plans to mandate that incoming freshmen whose homes are more than fifty miles away and international students live in these private dorms for at least their first semester. And the age of Auraria students is dropping, which will only increase demand for college-style living. "We're seeing at both Metro and UCD more of the more traditional student," Wolf says. "There seems to be a trend in that direction."
While the other two projects won't open until 2006, the Regency is throwing open its doors for students to move in -- and the public to inspect the makeover -- on September 1. Besides the elevators, the biggest shock may be the sticker price, as rooms are priced significantly higher than they were two years ago. When Cormier owned the building, revelers from Los Caporales, the nightclub housed in the hotel's former Grand Ballroom, could head up the tower and get a room for a mere $35 a night or $100 a week. Now those same rooms go for between $915 (for a single) to $465 (per person, for a four-person share) a month -- but they also include such modern amenities as basic cable, high-speed Internet, phone service and air conditioning, when in the past they weren't certain to even feature a working sink. And while the hefty student rent does not cover the meal plan, it does include lovely views of the Valley Highway, with downtown (or I-70) in the foreground and mountains in the background.
Half of the 300 beds in the first phase -- which includes the tower, but not the north wing -- are already booked.
"There are a few reasons why -- one of them being we're somewhere in between what a true apartment would be and a real residence hall," Francone says. "We're not as lax as an apartment, but not as stringent as a residence hall. A lot of our residents are freshmen and sophomores, so a lot of times it's parents who feel more comfortable putting them in our building. As far as price, they're getting the Internet, the cable, the phone, the outdoor swimming pool, weight room, computer room. They don't get all that in an apartment on Capitol Hill. We've also got free parking with a shuttle to campus, and parking costs $3 to $5 a day on campus. Even if they're paying $100 less in that traditional apartment, all the amenities they're getting is quite a deal."
Walking through the construction rubble in mid-August, those amenities weren't readily apparent. Two weeks before the grand opening, crews were still scrambling to get the walls up, the kitchens in, the carpet down. The one area of calm amid the chaos was the new basketball court, which occupies the space that had been the Grand Ballroom. Twelve years ago I stood in that room for my senior homecoming dance; I went with the captain of the high school football team. At the Regency, I felt cool for a night.
As did the 4,000 to 7,000 people who packed the same space on weekends during Los Caporales's heyday. Representatives of the Denver Police Department, the city zoning department and the building department were also frequent visitors, stopping by in response to neighborhood complaints about stabbings, shootings, drug dealing, fire hazards and numerous other issues surrounding the club. Then-Denver City Council representative Debbie Ortega took hundreds of complaint calls but couldn't stop the party.
Times change, though; boyfriends move on to best friends, and clubs finally close.
"When we took over, it was pretty run down, dark and dingy, a lot of the power didn't work," Francone says. "It had been vandalized, and people had stolen the copper out of the building."
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The golden dome over part of the old Los Caporales space was still standing until a fire ravaged it last month. Now that area will become an outdoor patio covered by DIA-style tents. The indoor swimming pool is also history; what had been a gaping hole surrounded by chain-link fencing is turning into a media center, where students will gather to watch games on the big-screen TV (remote located at, and controlled by, the front desk). There are also gym facilities, computer labs, meeting rooms, a convenience store, a mail room and a dining hall in the works.
But the best piece of real estate in town -- the round penthouse at the top of the tower -- is still up for grabs. The former lair of Elvis (and Cormier) is reserved for the new resident director, when one is hired.
It's a good thing those elevators are working.