If you're a neighborhood group in northwest Denver that wants to control redevelopment of church properties, you may not have a prayer.
Last July, St. Dominic's Catholic Parish in the West Highland neighborhood sold two of its parcels to local developer and brokerage company Ecospace for $1.36 million, according to city records. Although the parish had originally intended to build housing for its friars on the lots, which currently hold a dilapidated medical facility and a small house built in 1948, it changed course after neighbors thought they had an agreement.
Back in 2015, St. Dominic's spent more than six months hashing out details of the plan with the West Highland Neighborhood Association and the Sloan's Lake Citizens' Group, including height restrictions and a good-neighbor agreement. After that, the lots at 3120 West 29th Avenue and 2890 Hazel Court were rezoned as CMP-E12, or a campus lot, a change that paved the way for the proposed friary. "Everybody agreed that it would be a good fit," recalls Ray Defa, WHNA's zoning chair. "They weren't overbuilding or oversizing."
At the same time that St. Dominic's was talking with neighbors, nearby Emmaus Lutheran Church, now Renewal Church, was working on its own redevelopment project. The church at 3120 Irving Street had proposed rezoning part of its property in order to build a two-story medical facility facing West 32nd Avenue, in hopes that the facility would fund the church, which had seen declines in membership and revenue.
Emmaus's plans were met with intense criticism, however, and the neighborhood became divided over the project. Things got so heated that Emmaus's pastor at the time called the police to report being harassed by neighbors.
In January 2016, Denver City Council voted 8-4 to approve Emmaus's rezoning application. Neighbors subsequently submitted a petition demanding that the vote go to a supermajority. In a letter to council, Defa urged members to kill Emmaus's application, citing St. Dominic's as an example of how a church should work with neighborhood groups. "As noted, this process was successful as WHNA and SLCG supported the rezoning application put forward by St. Dominic's before the City Council," Defa wrote, claiming that Emmaus did just the opposite.
But Defa stopped praising St. Dominic's after he learned that the church had sold the rezoned property rather than build a friary.
As St. Dominic's got further into planning for the project, officials "soon decided it would be beyond their means," explains Father David Wright, superior of the Dominican Community. Instead, the church decided to rehab another church property across Grove Street, where it has a small building for novice friars and meeting space beside a small house. "We want to bring the community under one roof," says Wright, noting that the project will allow the move of senior staff from another building at West 29th and Federal Boulevard.
According to Wright, the plan for renovating the current building, adding a wing and demolishing the house will run about $5.5 to $6 million; the church is still taking donations for the project. But it got a major infusion of cash when it sold the lots where the original friary was going to be built to White Fence Properties LLC, a division of Ecospace.
Defa learned of the sale in late 2017; he doesn't remember how. Soon after, he talked with the developer to discuss the scope of the project. While he'd prefer single-family housing on the lots, the plans could be worse, he says, adding that even so, "we should have asked them to rezone the south side back to residential."
Initially, Ecospace wanted to build offices on top of the existing medical facility, but the building wouldn't support that. Instead, the developer will level that structure and a small house on the corner to make way for eighteen three-story townhomes. Under current zoning, CEO Jason Lewis notes, Ecospace could have built twice as many townhomes and gone as high as 75 feet. "We ultimately care," he says. "We want this to be a legacy project for the community."
The homes facing West 29th Avenue will have a walk-up front yard to "blend in with the neighborhood," as well as rooftop patios. The houses facing the alley will have a second-floor deck over the garage, also designed to adhere to the neighborhood's aesthetics, Lewis says. The units, which will also be unusually pet-friendly, will be priced in the upper $400,000s.
"No one wants anything other than 100-plus-year-old homes with historical relevance. Everyone wants that. But when we can't provide that, we're going to do our best to do the second option," Lewis adds.
According to the city, Ecospace's plan is currently under review. Lewis says he's been working with councilmember Rafael Espinoza, who represents the area, because "we know that there were emotions involved, history involved. We worked with his team, but we're more than open to talking."
"It is sadly ironic that neighbors believed Emmaus would ruin the neighborhood, when the church instead gave away their property to another church to maintain neighborhood stability," says Dan Griebenaw, a member of the now-defunct Emmaus. "And St. Dominic's sold out to a developer within a few years of convincing neighbors to allow them to rezone."
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