The tidal wave of development that’s washed over Denverfollowing the Great Recession has produced plenty of buildings — and a lot of resentment.
Neighbors are looking around and wondering what happened to their parking and sunlight. Out-of-towners look at Denver and wonder why a city with the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains is home to so many uninspiring new structures that don’t respect their surroundings.
And with Denver one of the hottest markets in the country, the buildings keep coming. As of June 30, $4.4 billion of total investment in development had been recently completed or was under construction in downtown Denver, according to a report by the Downtown Denver Partnership. That’s 3.1 million square feet of office space, 6,447 residential units and 2,457 hotel rooms in 73 projects. And the boom in construction isn’t just downtown; there are projects springing up all over metro Denver.
Many of them have been slapped together out of the cheapest materials possible, with little regard given to context. Some are so ugly that they’ve given development a bad name in this city.
Denver residents are vocal about the quality of the city’s built environment, and the discussion prompted realtor/entrepreneur Brad Evans to start the Denver Fugly Facebook page last year, in hopes of getting a conversation going about the general fugliness of development in the city. “It’s a two-level thing — people demanding it and people providing it,” Evans says. “Designers in Denver have stopped thinking. Denver is lazy. Nobody’s trying to outdo anybody. You go into Chicago and New York history, and the reason those are great architecture towns is because they were competing.”
Brad Buchanan, director of Denver Community Planning and Development, notes that neighborhoods in the city that have a formal design-review committee have more control over what a finished project will look like. Without a design-review committee in place, his department has to approve a project if it meets the zoning code and makes it through the site-plan review process — regardless of what it looks like.
“The intent of the zoning code is to capture the things that the community has said are most important,” Buchanan says. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; however, the projects that for me personally are most successful are projects that are understanding the bigger picture about the role they play in building our city.”
Though many Denverites are critical of the quality of development occurring today, the city does have a handful of developers who make a point of talking to neighbors and ensuring that their projects fill a need in the community. Evans counts Zocalo Community Development, Zeppelin Development, East West Partners, RedPeak and Continuum Partners among the group that’s helping improve Denver’s cityscape. Others frequently mentioned include Bill Mosher of Trammell Crow, George Thorn of Mile High Development, Randy Nichols of Nichols Partnership and Joe Vostrejs of City Street Partners and Larimer Associates. And then, of course, there’s preservationist Dana Crawford, the woman who saved Larimer Square, redeveloped the Oxford Hotel and blocked countless downtown buildings from the wrecking ball.
Here are five of the best developers in Denver, people truly building for this city’s future.
St. Charles Town Company
When Charlie Woolley bought the old Lowenstein Theater in 2005, other developers thought he was crazy to take on a project along the city’s blighted East Colfax Avenue. Though dissenters wanted the Lowenstein to return to its roots as a theater, others in the neighborhood welcomed the redevelopment of the building, which had stood vacant for twenty years.
Today the $16 million project serves as an anchor for the long-awaited redevelopment of East Colfax. It houses some of Denver’s best-known independent retailers, including the Tattered Cover Book Store and the Sie FilmCenter. Twist & Shout Records, which has been there from the beginning, owns its own building in the complex; so does the Denver Film Society, which runs the Sie. “It was neighborhood revitalization, it was historic preservation, and it supported locally based businesses that were under assault by chain-store competition,” Woolley says. “That’s all changed. The chain stores are gone, and the independents are still standing.”
Woolley says that his biggest challenge is determining what type of tenants will be the best fit for a project. They must blend into the neighborhood, and developers must be careful not to default to the easiest solution. In the case of Woolley’s redevelopment of the Hardware Block in LoDo, that would have been a restaurant. But he was determined to find a clothing store to occupy the three old warehouses at 15th and Wazee streets, and ultimately landed Player’s for the retail space. The development also includes 50,000 square feet of office space and 25 for-sale lofts, thirteen of which were scheduled to close on 9/11 in 2001.
Woolley earned a bachelor’s degree in city planning from the University of Massachusetts and an MBA from the University of Denver. He started his real-estate career in 1985 after serving as the director of a history museum for eight years. He founded St. Charles Town Company in 1993 to focus on urban real-estate development, investment and management. Since then, the company has completed development projects valued at more than $300 million. He is a trustee for the Denver Botanic Gardens and History Colorado.
Other Woolley projects include the Equitable Building, the Wazee Supper Club, 1800 Glenarm and the former Benjamin Moore Paint Company warehouse and manufacturing buildings.
In the past few years, Woolley has acquired a stretch of 16th Street in LoHi, where he’s planning to develop a 164-room boutique hotel that will be affiliated with Starwood’s Tribute Portfolio, a collection of high-end independent hotels that use Starwood’s distribution, loyalty and sales platforms. Planning the five-story project, which will include a pool deck, restaurant and bar, has not been without its struggles, he says. “Everyone’s nervous that we’re at the end of a cycle, and financing is more difficult to find,” he explains. “Our plans have been logged into the building department. We’re pushing forward. It’s just a very slow and tough project — but they always are.”
The property is zoned for commercial mixed use and structures up to five stories, so Woolley could have developed an apartment building or office building for the site. But a hotel that targets both business travelers and vacationers will fill a need in the neighborhood and solidify 16th and Boulder streets as the core of the community.
“If you pick something that engages the neighborhood and is a good fit for the neighborhood, you rarely have problems,” Woolley says. “Generally, if you’re trying to do the right thing, it is both profitable and is supported by the community.”