The city is passing up on the opportunity to create 200 affordable-housing units within walking distance of Union Station despite an executive order issued by Mayor Michael Hancock in 2016 stating that affordable housing is a priority and that any land the city sells should be considered for that purpose.
The city received eight proposals to develop the plot it has owned at 1701 Platte Street since the 1950s, including a proposal from Zocalo Community Development to build 200 residential units, with 20 percent (forty units) set aside for twenty years for people earning less than 60 percent of the area median income. About 160 units would have been for renters earning 80 percent of AMI.
Instead, it’s going with the Nichols Partnership, which agreed to pay $13.5 million for the parking lot currently leased to the Platte River Rowing Club. The company's $20 million plan calls for retail and restaurant space on the ground floor of a 246,000-square-foot building, with the upper floors devoted to offices. Nichols has also agreed to provide ninety public parking spaces (there are 124 there now). Half of the proceeds from the sale will go to the city's Affordable Housing Fund.
“Given the city’s goals and the intense pressure to find key locations for affordable housing, it would be tragic that land owned by the city a quarter-mile from Union Station is not going to affordable housing,” says David Zucker, principal and chief executive of Zocalo. “The property should be built out as affordable with a long-term lease or deed restriction from the city. The intelligence of the mayor’s executive order is only realized if it’s acted on as policy.”
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Denver City Councilwoman Robin Kniech says that while the city should be looking at excess land for affordable housing, the way the executive order was written only requires the city to evaluate property for development of affordable housing, not follow through on awarding it to a developer who will. Other cities require that such property must be used for affordable housing unless that is proved to be impossible, she notes.
Two factors could have made developing the property with affordable housing challenging: that the city required a designated number of parking spaces be made available to the public; and that the property is too close to Interstate 25.
“What I can’t tell you for sure is whether an affordable developer would have made it all the way to the end of the road,” Kniech says.
The city ultimately selected Nichols because of the price the company offered and its commitment to include public parking, says Courtney Law, communications director for the city’s Department of Finance. The other proposals for the land haven't been disclosed.
“Executive Order 100 references that the sale of city property must be reviewed for potential housing use as part of the sale process,” Law says. “The potential sale of 1701 Platte Street was presented to the Office of Economic Development housing team, and the proximity to the highway in particular made this site undesirable for housing purposes.”
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Law says this is the first time she's aware of that city property has been for sale since Hancock's 2016 order.
The executive order outlines the conditions that would make a parcel suitable for affordable housing, including:
• Conformance with zoning, adopted city plans and identified neighborhood needs
• Ability to leverage other funds for development
• Expected level of subsidy needed to develop affordable housing on the site
• Availability of funds to support the project
• Number and type of units likely to be produced on the site
As part of the executive order, the city must also consider the property's proximity to jobs, high-quality schools, existing affordable properties and transit (it must be a half-mile from light rail and a quarter-mile from a high-frequency bus line). The Platte Street location is a short walk to light rail, commuter rail and bus service at Union Station.