If you ask the developer who owns the property, the city planning teams that drafted the 89-page plan, and many of the community members who gave their feedback, they’ll agree that the striking thing about the Loretto Heights Area Plan is how consistently and passionately people cared about the 72-acre former college campus. After a whopping 44 of those community members spoke at a public hearing on Monday, September 16, Denver City Council passed the area plan.
Now, the question is how that community can see its vision carried out — and whether voices that were left out can be brought into the picture.
Since Teikyo University shut down its college operations on the historic campus in 2016, Loretto Heights has been on the minds of neighbors, nuns and former students to whom the campus is near and dear. Along the way, it has become a prospective development to watch for others outside that community. The Loretto Heights Area Plan is one of the first to go through the community visioning process since the new version of Blueprint Denver (the master plan for the city) was passed, and it will be one of the first to go through the city’s new Large Development Review process. Not to mention, it is owned by Westside Investment Partners, the same developer that purchased Park Hill Golf Course in July amid controversy and public pushback..
As Westside principal Mark Witkiewicz likes to emphasize, Westside chose to go through the area planning process last fall instead of breaking ground immediately on high-density apartments that current zoning allows. “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,” Witkiewicz said at a previous hearing.
That process wrapped up this summer. The resulting area plan, which council passed 11 to 1, outlines a broad vision for the campus in three main areas: “land use and built form” (which has to do with the type and diversity of uses on the site), mobility (which includes public transportation and safety for cyclists and pedestrians), and “quality of life infrastructure” (which encompasses public places and opportunities for community gathering).
Although the majority of steering committee members and speakers at the public hearing favor the plan, it has faced opposition from a contingent of Southwest Denver residents, particularly the Loretto Heights Community Initiative, a grassroots group organized before the formal community planning process started, and the Harvey Park Community Organization. They argue that the plan isn’t specific enough about certain stipulations, including the type of historic designation for the campus, the amount of open space that will be maintained, the number of future residents, the height of buildings, and the density of the planned housing.
Now that the area plan has passed, it’s only a matter of time before many of those hazy promises will become clear. First, developers will have to go through the city’s newly revised Large Development Review process. That will establish a sequence of next steps, which could include rezoning, an infrastructure master plan, and development agreement, according to Alexandra Foster, a spokesperson for Denver Community Planning and Development.
At the hearing, City Planner Jason Morrison said that many specifics would be determined during this process — but it still isn’t clear exactly when. Westside has some plans in place, including building at least sixty units of affordable housing in the former dorm Pancratia Hall (Witkiewicz says the company wants to build more) and preserving the chapel, administrative building and cemetery. It’s required to leave at least 10 percent of the land as open space, and plans are to cap building heights at eight stories in the center of the campus and less at the outskirts.
City council had already approved a metropolitan district service plan for the area on August 26, which establishes a local government that can impose higher property taxes on future residents in order to pay for infrastructure. At that hearing, some raised concerns that these special districts are prone to abuse and can land future residents in a mountain of debt.
“When you vote to approve the service plan, you are creating a brand-new government,” wrote John Henderson, who lives in Solterra, a community with a metropolitan district that he says has gravely overtaxed residents, in a letter to the city. "Except there are no voters. Other than the developer and his employees. Who vote to establish oppressive financial obligations on the future residents. And don’t tell the future residents, who usually don’t figure out until it’s too late."
Some speakers also raised concerns that the planning initiative didn’t do enough to reach out to Latino communities, even though they make up about 60 percent of the surrounding neighborhoods. City planners and Councilman Kevin Flynn insisted they made every effort, including holding a meeting in Spanish (which had relatively low attendance) and distributing 13,000 fliers to nearly every house.
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Xochitl Gaytan, who is the president of the neighboring Harvey Park Community Organization, responded that the methods of outreach are fundamentally flawed. “How many Latinos are on your team?” she said at the hearing. To get engagement, she said, “You don't flier. You go to their communities, you go to their school, you go to their places of worship. And you sit with them.”
That brought up questions of what constitutes an “inclusive” process to create an “equitable” neighborhood, part of the criteria council is supposed to look at to approve plans according to Comprehensive Plan 2040 and Blueprint Denver. “Inclusiveness is an acknowledgement of the injustices that have gotten us to this point, and it's not actually a favor that those of us with privilege do for those who have less privilege. It's a partnership, and intentionality behind what we're doing to make sure that whatever those barriers are, we're not explaining the whole thing later, we're actually addressing them,” Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca told Witkiewicz after a heated questioning.
Other councilmembers echoed CdeBaca’s concerns, seeing that only a handful of Latinos spoke at the hearing. “If [the Latino population] is 60 percent of the neighborhood, it should be 60 percent of the process,” Councilman Chris Hinds said. In the end, though, only CdeBaca opposed the plan.
The large development review process requires a community input meeting, which is scheduled for 6 p.m. on October 1 at 3001 South Federal Boulevard.