Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

DPS sells Contemporary Learning Academy for $12 million

For over a decade, I've enjoyed sharing my neighborhood on the edge of LoHi with the students of the Contemporary Learning Academy, a DPS high school for kids whose needs and/or schedules just don't fit with the system's more traditional high schools. When DPS first bought the building overlooking I-25, this wasn't a hot area, and not only was the property a real deal for DPS, it also had a central location that worked well for students coming from all over town.

I've chatted with them as they walked up my block to school each morning, and had some invigorating sessions speaking to CLA classes.

But the building itself was never a great fit for a school. The former headquarters of the Farm Bureau (and USA Today after that), it was renovated into a maze of classrooms and other meeting areas; these students deserve better. And now they'll get it as part of a very complicated deal -- originally called "Project Lincoln" and now known as "Operation Unite" -- that involves moving DPS headquarters, the new Downtown Denver Expeditionary School and much of Emily Griffith into a fifty-year-old building currently being renovated at 1860 Lincoln Street. DPS bought that building in the fall of 2012; it put the CLA property on the market last summer.

And the sale of that property to Richman Ascension Development just closed on January 16 -- for a hefty $12,030,000. Cash.

That should buy a lot of books for DPS. And it will also result in a lot of new residential units in LoHi.

"It's about the quickest I've ever closed on a piece of land," says J. Scott Rodgers, the Dallas-based Richman developer who handled the deal. "We stepped up more than I've seen my company step up in a while."

But once Rodgers, a former architect, took a look at the property, he knew Richman had to have it. "We have projects all over, and this is our first foray into Denver," he says. "I couldn't be more pleased about developing something in that neighborhood. I think it's one of the coolest places."

Continue for more on future plans for the CLA property. Students are slated to continue at CLA through June; if all goes as planned, they'll move to a new DPS facility at 780 Grant Street for the start of the 2014 school year. DPS is slated to turn over the building by October 31, 2014 -- but will receive incentive payment of up to $500,000 if it moves out of the property earlier. According to the terms of the sale for 2211 West 27th Avenue, the buyer maintains full responsibility in regard to any rezoning required on the property.

Zoning is a hot topic in LoHi, where developers cramming huge structures on small lots that used to hold bungalows or tiny clapboard houses. But Richman isn't going for any zoning changes, Rodgers says: "We plan very specifically to ask for no variances."

Rodgers flew up from Dallas to meet with the architect, just hired last week, over the next two days to talk about the possibilities. "We get to start from scratch," he says. "I don't think it's a retail location. What we know is multi-family," he says of the Connecticut-based, family-owned Richman, which has 100,000 units across the country. And since the property, including not just the school but two parking lots, is technically three separate parcels, he's looking at three residential buildings.

"The bigger one that the school currently sits on is allowed to be five stories; then, as it transitions to the neighborhood, each of those can be three stories," Rodgers says. Altogether, he's looking at 270 units.

But Rodgers recognizes this site is unique, in a prominent spot on the bluffs in full view of those heading up Speer or along I-25, and just down the block from Stoneman's Row, which is on both state and national historic registers. "The design needs to be something complementary to the neighborhood and pay homage to some degree," he says. The school itself does not qualify as historic; in fact, before the deal closed, Richman required all parties to agree on that.

And for this historic neighborhood's very modern problem -- parking, which is at a premium with all the restaurants and bars going up in the area, plus no alleys and few driveways -- Richman plans to outdo what Denver requires. While some of the new projects going up in LoHi have less than a parking place per unit, "My rule of thumb is one per bedroom," Rodgers says. "That is my goal." And while most of those spots will be underground, he says he'll try to save as much on-street parking as he can.

"I've never had anybody unhappy with what I've done," Rodgers says.

Good to know. Still, can he save one of those parking spots for me?

More from our Calhoun: Wake-Up Call archive: "Contemporary Learning Academy officially for sale."

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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