The Denver Planning Board unanimously approved the Loretto Heights Small Area Plan at a well-attended public hearing on Wednesday, August 7, passing the ninety-page vision document to city council for its next stage of approval. Even though some community members voiced opposition or serious concerns with the plan to redevelop the historic campus, several boardmembers applauded it as a model for area planning.
Seventeen people — including residents of southwest Denver neighborhoods adjacent to the 76-acre property, several graduates of the former Loretto Heights College, a principal with development company Westside Investment Partners, and Councilman Kevin Flynn, whose district includes the historic campus — made comments at the hearing, most in favor of the plan. Westside chose to go through with the area planning process after it bought the property last August.
Almost no one took issue with the many goals that the plan outlines, including the preservation of several historic buildings, affordable housing, traffic improvements, maintenance of mountain and city views, and equitable growth that creates a "mixed use, mixed income and multi-generation" neighborhood, as Westside principal Mark Witkiewicz put it. But dissenters did raise questions about whether the plan specifies the path to accomplishing all these goals at once in enough detail, and whether the city and the developer will actually be held to it.
Denver Planning Board member Erin Clark said that the plan gives the city more guidance than usual about what the community wants to see. “Often we look at plans that have been approved and we’re trying to guess at what people were looking for,” she said. The Loretto Heights Small Area Plan, she pointed out, includes specific language to flag community concerns. For example, it points out that community members do not want Dartmouth Avenue to be a thoroughfare through the campus, a major concern several residents raised at the hearing. “This is as clear as I’ve ever seen it put into a plan,” Clark told the room.
Planning board chair Joel Noble also applauded the plan, one of the first to be approved since the updated version of Blueprint Denver passed in April, as “a model for how the city can quickly re-prioritize its efforts. There’s the opportunity for change; let’s make sure that change is consistent with our values.”
Jim Gibson, who served on the Community Planning and Development steering committee that helped draft the plan, objected to the city's assertion that the details of how this redevelopment will occur have to come later. Gibson was one of two members of the steering committee to oppose the plan. There are “no specifics of number and type of structures on the site, no answers about the impacts of increased auto traffic, no solid details of how much open space the site's beautiful topography will be [left], very little information about what type and how much affordable housing will be built on the site, considerable uncertainties about whether the historic value and other character...will still be with us when all this is said and done,” he said at the hearing.
To that point, Gibson explained that during the area planning process, he and other members were repeatedly told it was too early to know details about things like density, the location of buildings and the number of units. But in the metropolitan district proposal, a request for public infrastructure financing, Westside estimated that there would be 2,500 residents.
That number was a guess that Westside had to make to submit the metropolitan district proposal, Witkiewicz said after the planning board asked him to clarify. Ideally, he said, they would have approved the area plan before ever bringing up the funding proposal — but the latter must be approved by election, which can only take place either this November or May of next year. So in an unconventional twist, city council members will begin deliberating on the proposal to fund the plan on August 26, before they decide on the plan itself.
"I'm at a loss as to why that wasn't shared with the community while the community process was still going on," Gibson says.
Others voiced concerns about the amount of open space to be preserved on the campus, the timing and implementation of historic preservation methods, the possibility of increased traffic, and gentrification.
"The site itself is 72 acres of green space, which we don’t have in Denver anymore, and it’s a sad situation that we don’t. ... I’m concerned about the density that’s proposed," said one resident, who added that her grandson attended the onetime school.
The hilltop Loretto Heights campus was constructed in the early 1880s, at the behest of Mother Pancratia Bonfils, a member of the Kentucky-based Sisters of Loretto. The Catholic school changed with the times: During WWI, it was a military training ground; in 1926, it gained college accreditation; and after WWII ended, it started a top-notch nursing program. In 1989, Teikyo Loretto Heights University, an international education institution that offered business degree programs and English as a Second Language courses, opened on the campus. The school was rebranded as Colorado Heights University in 2009, but closed in 2016 after it lost accreditation and experienced declining enrollment.
Clare Harris, who lives in neighboring College View, said she thought that preserving and opening up even a portion of green space to the public in the currently closed-off campus would be "an asset" to her neighborhood, which does not currently have much green space.
Residents were also worried about the proposed density and maximum building height, which the plan says will not exceed five stories except in a concentrated area. "The higher you go, the higher the penthouse goes, and the higher the price. And the higher the price, the more you push us black, brown and indigenous people out. And there's very few of us Latinos left," said Xochitl Gaytan, president of the President of the Harvey Park Community Organization.
"Imagine anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 new trips in front of your house. It's a huge safety concern for us," one Dartmouth Heights resident said.
Still, many said they were impressed by the thoroughness of the community planning process, and generally happy with the vision for the property. Planning board member Don Elliot assured those who were still worried about details like building height and open space, "When we try to answer those questions [at this point], we get it wrong every time, and we end up fixing that," he said. "There is a sequence in which the details come into focus. And we actually have a pretty good system for that, and there's public engagement in almost all of those steps."
Denver City Council will hear the full plan on September 16.
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