Will Opportunity Knock for Developers at Ex-Emily Griffith Opportunity School?

A century ago, there were no free schools for would-be students over the age of eighteen. Emily Griffith changed that. The longtime Denver Public Schools teacher and two-time deputy state superintendent of schools had a dream of starting a school that was open to everyone, regardless of age, income or previous education level. On September 9, 1916, that dream became a reality when Griffith opened the Opportunity School in an abandoned DPS building in downtown Denver. From the start. the school lived up to its motto: “Public Opportunity — For All Who Wish to Learn.”

And now the school that took on the name of its founder after Griffith retired in 1934 is about to give all of Denver an extra-credit lesson in the importance of civic engagement.

Operating as a free school within the Denver public-school system, the Opportunity School attracted so many students that by the mid-’20s it had moved into a brand-new building at 1250 Welton Street, where the word “Opportunity” was inscribed above the door. Over the years, it outgrew that space, too, and other buildings were added on the block to meet the growing needs of the community, as the school itself added classes in new fields and expanded its English as a Second Language program to help immigrants and refugees from an astounding range of countries. After she retired in 1933, Emily Griffith's name was added to the title of the school she'd founded. (In a still-unsolved crime, Griffith and her sister were found murdered in their mountain cabin in 1947.)

By 2013, more than 1.6 million students had been educated at the Emily Griffith Opportunity School, where the opportunities continue.

So do the lessons. In 2012, the Emily Griffith Opportunity School became part of a complex real-estate deal envisioned by DPS, with an assist from the city. (This is the deal that also involved Denver trading 10.77 acres of open space at Hentzell Park in southeast Denver to DPS for a school — a deal that landed the city in court when the Friends of Denver Parks sued, unsuccessfuly, to stop it.) Under the plan, all of Emily Griffith’s programs would move out of the 1200 block of Welton and the property would be sold; in anticipation of that, DPS applied for a Certificate of Non-Historic Status for the circa 1926 Emily Griffith Opportunity School. If approved by the city, that certificate would have allowed any developer who bought the property — and there were certainly developers looking at it, since it’s a prime piece of real estate right by the Colorado Convention Center, which is considering some expansion of its own — to raze the buildings on it.

But after complaints came in from historians and civic leaders alike, Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced late in 2012 that DPS had withdrawn the application and would participate in a process with preservation and community stakeholders to seek a new purpose for the buildings — an announcement greeted with an enthusiastic “Good news!” from Historic Denver. “Historic Denver remains committed to this process and to finding a viable reuse opportunity for the history site,” the group reported on its website. “Historic Denver is also committed to DPS historic schools policy, which recognizes that our historic school facilities are important public assets and contributors to our city’s character and quality of life.” By the end of 2013, that committee, which included reps of Historic Denver, recommended that DPS move forward with historic designation for the structures located along the western side of the campus on Welton Street — a designation that would protect those structures from being wiped off the map.

In the meantime, DPS had moved forward with its plans to relocate Emily Griffith. This summer, the last programs will be moving out of their creaky, colorful old home. Emily Griffith High School and Emily Griffith Technical College have already finished their first year in a new DPS building, a converted high-rise at 1860 Lincoln Street with state-of-the-art classrooms, where passersby can visit Emily’s Cafe for a snack or get their hair cut in the salon in the school-run spa. The more technical programs — including welding and automotive collision repair — are going to a rehabbed space on Osage Street.

But DPS’s recommendation for the place where Emily Griffith made history with her school still gets an incomplete. Last summer, DPS developed some guiding principles for a potential RFP for the site; a year later, no request for proposals has been issued, because there are still unanswered questions about the property. Questions like this: Is there a use that can accommodate both preservation interests and the possibility of a development that might make the new owner some money? “We’ve been advocating for a preservation solution that is meaningful and authentic, given that the site is not only architecturally significant, but nationally significant for its association with Emily Griffith and the technical-college concept,” says Annie Levinsky, head of Historic Denver, which raised the first alarms. And although none of the current buildings dates further back than the ’20s, they’re on what is “likely the oldest piece of DPS real estate in the city,” she adds.

To help resolve the outstanding issues, Denver Community Planning and Development is now going to plunge into the project and try to come up with a recommendation that will get a passing grade from both preservationists and potential developers. The proposed extension of the lodging tax — most of it earmarked for the National Western Center — would also send more than $100 million to the Colorado Convention Center, which would like to add a ballroom and another nearby hotel...and you don’t get any closer than the old Emily Griffith complex. (Last year, the footprint now occupied by Boettcher Concert Hall was floated as another possibility for a hotel site, prompting the Colorado Symphony Orchestra’s Jerome Kern to come up with an alternative plan for a hotel to replace the old police building at 1245 Champa Street, which just became home to the Denver Partnership’s Commons on Champa, an entrepreneurship incubator.) Given all the entities interested in the future not just of the Emily Griffith site, but also the convention center and the nearby Denver Performing Arts Complex, and the importance of finding a compromise that “preserves the vitality of downtown,” says planning spokeswoman Andrea Burns, planning director Brad Buchanan may get a third party involved in the process — maybe an architectural organization, maybe an educational group.

Why not a class at Emily Griffith Technical College? The College of Business and Technology even has a Real Estate division, and this would be a real opportunity for its students to envision the future while honoring the past...and the lessons of Emily Griffith.