After wrapping up a year-long community planning process that achieved widespread participation and — for the most part — enthusiasm, developer Westside Investment Partners and Denver Community Planning and Development are gearing up to take their ambitious vision for the historic Loretto Heights campus in southwest Denver to city council.
The finalized area plan will be discussed at a public hearing on Wednesday. If all goes according to plan, city council will hear a proposal to partially fund the project on August 26 and vote on the area plan on September 16.
Westside, a Glendale-based developer, is the same company that recently bought the Park Hill Golf Course. The two properties share a few key aspects: They each have deep ties to historically important Denver educational institutions, they encompass large swaths of green space, and the surrounding communities have strong affiliations and opinions about their future. The golf course is perhaps a higher-profile controversy because of a fraught history of dealings between the city and former owner Clayton Early Learning, as well as a conservation easement that currently prohibits development on the property. Still, the efforts to push the Loretto Heights plans through in the next few months might offer clues as to what the process of trying to redevelop Park Hill Golf Course could look like.
The hilltop Loretto Heights campus was constructed in the early 1880s, at the behest of the superbly named Mother Pancratia Bonfils, a member of the Kentucky-based Sisters of Loretto. Three sisters had originally come to Colorado in 1864 to teach at a boarding school for young girls in downtown Denver. 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.
Clare Harris, a resident of the nearby College View neighborhood and a member of the steering committee for the planning process, graduated from Loretto Heights College with a bachelor of science degree in nursing in 1978. She says she has always felt spiritually connected to the campus. “The main building — the tile work, the statues, the construction of the exterior — gives you a sense of history, and a very reverent history,” she explains.
There’s the iconic red-sandstone tower of the administrative building and chapel, designed by famed Denver architect Frank Edbrooke. Then there’s Pancratia Hall, the 1,000-seat May Bonfils Stanton Theatre and a cemetery where 62 Sisters of Loretto are buried.
Harris remained connected to the college even after the Sisters of Loretto stopped running it in 1988. The next year, Teikyo Loretto Heights University, an international education institution that offered business degree programs and English as a second language courses, opened on the campus, and Harris fondly remembers hosting students from Japan to stay with her family during vacations. The campus was rebranded as Colorado Heights University in 2009, but closed in 2016 after it lost accreditation and experienced declining enrollment.
Teikyo tried to find another university to take over the 72-acre campus but put it up for sale when it couldn’t find a buyer. Originally, California-based developer Catellus Development Corporation was set to buy the property. After that deal fell through, Westside swept in, purchasing the property for $16.5 million in August 2018.
“I had doubts and worries, especially about what will happen to the historic buildings,” Harris says. But after she learned that Westside chose to go through a city-led area planning process — rather than stick with current zoning that would have allowed 150-foot high-rises or submit its own rezoning plan immediately — her fears were quickly eased.
District 2 Councilman Kevin Flynn selected stakeholder entities that would appoint representatives to the committee — some from adjacent neighborhood associations, others representing the Vietnamese and Hispanic communities, and some even representing the Sisters of Loretto and Loretto Heights alumnae. Flynn, District 7 Councilman Jolon Clark, representatives from the City of Sheridan, Denver Public Schools, Historic Denver, Catholic Charities, and Westside project manager Mark Witkiewicz also joined. Throughout the past year, the committee met ten times and reached 450 community members through four additional public meetings, one conducted in Spanish. Over 750 individuals participated in two online surveys.
“I’m very impressed with Westside, and super-impressed by their willingness [to listen],” Harris, who participated in the steering committee, says.
Witkiewicz says, “We all knew that this is a very special piece of land in Denver and it needs to fall into the right hands. That's the reason that we bought it — because we thought we could do some amazing things.”
Denver City Planner Jason Morrison led the meetings. “The amount of people that have participated in the process providing comments and feedback has been fantastic. We had a very robust attendance record, so folks continued to participate in the process, and it's just been amazing learning from folks in the area,” he says. “No matter who you asked, it is amazing how many lives this campus has touched.”
The ninety-page area plan that was approved almost unanimously by the steering committee on July 23 is the first plan of its kind for southwest Denver, which was annexed into the city in the late ’60s and early ’70s and has been developed thus far without a formal city planning process. Like other area plans, it’s not intended to present an exact outline for the future of the land — it doesn’t say exactly what will go where or what it will look like — but rather offers “guiding recommendations” and a general vision that private and public entities are supposed to hold themselves to when developing.
It discusses the history and the current layout of the property and outlines six vision statements for the future. It also lists some thirty recommendations to guide development on the property. Some are generic architectural statements, like “Promote a variety of building heights and intensities.” Others, like “Minimize involuntary displacement and gentrification,” are social goals.
Buried within the plan are some key community concerns. It emphasizes that locals want a “strong commercial core.” Flynn is especially excited about this: "It has the possibility to be the family room for southwest Denver, the place...where we can gather and see one another. We don't have a Union Station, or a Source Marketplace... . Right now we just wave to each other in the King Soopers checkout line."
The plan also emphasizes mobility, outlining the opportunity to create a “corridor” along perilous Federal Boulevard, with safety improvements and more public transportation options. It recommends mixed-income residential area, with a combination of permanent-occupancy and rental units. Single-family homes, it says, should fall closer to the outskirts, near other single-family neighborhoods, and higher-density, taller buildings should be located toward the center of the campus.
And finally, the plan addresses one of the key concerns of many committee members: historic preservation. It specifies that the administrative building should be designated a Denver landmark, and that the cemetery and Pancratia Hall should be given some sort of long-term protection. The city hired Keen Independent Research to conduct a feasibility study of transforming the theater into an updated performing arts complex — feasible, but not easy, it concluded. Throughout the past year, Flynn has pushed for cultural events, such as free concerts and chapel services, to be held in the historic buildings so that residents could get a glimpse of what using them would be like. (For the most part, the campus has been gated off to the surrounding communities in the past few decades, except for special events.)
If accomplishing all of these various goals seems like a lofty aspiration in itself, the plan also wants it to be done while preserving as much of the view of downtown Denver and the Front Range as possible, harmonizing all new infrastructure with the complex topography of the area, and maintaining and complementing the current character of the campus and surrounding neighborhoods.
The project is not going to be cheap — especially since many of the buildings to be preserved have not been updated in years and are, according to Witkiewicz, “riddled with asbestos.” That’s why the city has proposed funding the project by creating six “metropolitan districts,” small governing bodies that can impose a mill-levy tax on the future residents of Loretto Heights to fund infrastructure improvements. If the maximum mills are approved, they would be the highest city council has ever seen, according to Flynn. In a Finance and Governance Committee Hearing on July 30, city council members voiced concerns about how this would impact affordability, but ultimately passed it to the full council for a vote on August 26.
The sometimes-generic nature of the plan has frustrated a small contingent of the steering committee, who don’t trust Westside or the city to carry out the community’s wishes. Jim Gibson, a teacher who briefly taught at Colorado Heights University, lives in neighboring Harvey Park. He took it upon himself to gather a group of citizens to discuss the future of Loretto Heights back in 2017, before it was sold to Westside.
The group still exists — it’s called the Loretto Heights Community Initiative. Gibson, who represented his neighborhood association, Harvey Park Community Organization, and Tony Hernandez, who represented Loretto Heights Community Initiative, were the only dissenters on the steering committee to the area plan. He says they will support it if the city makes certain amendments, such as designating a historic district and specifying the size of view planes and open space. The city has responded to these requests, arguing that most of them are already integrated into the plan in various ways; in the case of a historic district, Morrison wrote that it is too soon to know which preservation tool to use.
Gibson also doesn’t believe that the area planning process reflected a true consensus, and rejects what he sees as a “top-down” approach. “Many of the steering committee members did not understand the short- and long-term ramifications of what was in the plan. It wasn’t something where an issue would be presented and people would wrestle with different perspectives,” Gibson says. “[Denver Community Planning and Development] would come in, present something, and it would be [their] interpretation what the consensus was.”
Loretto Heights Community Initiative has also criticized Flynn in the past because he took $3,000 in campaign contributions from Westside. Flynn says he didn't solicit this donation. "I have voted against campaign contributors' positions for years," Flynn says, pointing to his opposition to the Grandoozy Festival, "because I vote for my community."
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Flynn, who has been meeting with Gibson and Loretto Heights Community Initiative from the beginning, says he shares many of the same priorities as the Community Initiative members, including historic preservation, open space, and responsible development. But they disagree on how to get there. “[Gibson's] recommendation ties the hands of the people who are trying to achieve the same goal we all want, which is the maximum amount of preservation,” Flynn says.
Tara Durham says other members of the steering committee share that view. “The reason why [Loretto Heights Community Initiative] is objecting is they want everything written out in black and white. When, what, where and how, to fine detail, and that’s not what the area plan is supposed to do; it was supposed to do an overall synopsis.”
The next few weeks and months will tell how that synopsis will be received by the public and city council. For Durham, even though it’s broad, it’s inspiring. “I can’t wait to go over” to Loretto Heights, she says. “It’s within walking distance of my house. It’s been a closed campus for so long. Have a bite to eat, a glass of wine, watch the sunset, just have a great time, have some small businesses where people can make a living there. I just can’t wait for the future.”
Update, August 5: This story was edited to provide Clare Harris's correct graduation year from Loretto Heights College, 1978, and to clarify that Jim Gibson represented Harvey Park Community Organization in his service on the Loretto Heights Area Plan steering committee.