Emerson apartment complex inches toward approval despite complaints

A lengthy administrative battle over a 42-unit apartment complex, to be built on the corner of a historic block of grand single-family homes on the south end of Capitol Hill, appears to be just about over. But opponents of the 777 Emerson Lofts say the review of the ever-evolving project by the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission failed to address several significant changes to the design before the LPC gave its approval to the proposal last week.

"I left the meeting feeling like I had been slapped in the face by the LPC," one resident wrote in an e-mail to commission chair Dennis Humphries. "My concerns were completely dismissed without any real discussion regarding their merit."

As noted in last year's feature "Meet the Neighbors," the wrangle over the apartment house is one of several ongoing disputes over proposed development and shifting uses of existing homes in the 700 blocks of Clarkson and Emerson streets. The site at the corner of Eighth Avenue and Emerson, which for many years hosted a community garden, has been zoned for a multi-unit dwelling for decades. But several residents have been vocal in their criticism of the blockish, dense and highly un-Victorian complex proposed by developer Chris Fulenwider; one objector complained that an early version of the design looked "like East Germany had landed in Capitol Hill."

Fulenwider held a series of neighborhood meetings and made numerous changes to the design in an effort to address the criticisms. Andrea Burns, spokeswoman for the city's department of community planning and development, notes that the project went through seven LPC reviews, largely in response to revisions in the plans. "That's five more than most infill projects undergo," she says.

Burns describes last week's final vote on the project by the LPC as "one more look to see that nothing dramatic had changed since the last review. The scope of what they were looking at is whether it adheres to the design guidelines." Since there hadn't been any "significant" alterations, the project was approved, she added.

But Sue Thibault, an attorney who lives two doors down from the property, says several key details, such as locations of mechanical units, had changed, while other information -- about exterior light fixtures, locations of meters, elevations and vents -- simply wasn't available to review. The abrupt addition of 782 square feet of gratings to vent the complex garage makes the complex look like "a penal institution," she says.

Although the commission allowed residents to comment on the design, the group offered no response, she says. "We feel they have not adequately done a review," Thibault says. "We chose to be in a historic district to protect ourselves from this kind of stuff. But the LPC claims not to have much say on new construction, despite what's in their guidelines."

She contends that many of the changes made in the design during the review process were minor, while many promised concessions were never actually delivered. "They just rubber-stamped the whole thing," she says of the LPC. "We still have no idea what this thing is really going to look like."

In an interview with Westword last summer, Fulenwider defended his project, which will feature units of about 650 square feet renting for a thousand dollars a month or more, as "very appropriate" for Capitol Hill: "It's good urban development, it's walkable, it's near transit, all those things."

The complex still faces additional review from the city's building authorities before construction begins. In addition, Thibault and her husband are pursuing a lawsuit against the commission, challenging the review process.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "RedPeak: City council's Susan Shepherd won't fight controversial West Highland development."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast