29 October 2005

Downtown Denver Is Changing.

The downtown Denver skyline saw a rash of new buildings in 1982, just before the oil shale crash hit Colorado. Slowly, but surely, it is changing again in the 21st century.

Along Civic Center, which runs from the City and County of Denver's court house, to the state house, a new office building for the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News is under construction, a move insiders at the papers are ambivalent about at best, largely as a result of the joint operating agreement that has merged the business operations of the two papers while maintaining a Chinese wall of seperation between the news departments. It was preceeded by the adjacent and nearly identical Webb Building, which consolidated city office space from a variety of leased locations. Both are middle height curved fronted glass and steel monuments facing Civic Center park.

Newspaper and city workers looking out those windows will see the new Art Musuem addition flanked by a new garage and condominiums. As they turn to their right, they will see a new jail and court house where the Rocky Mountain News has its offices now. High profile architects from around the world are putting in their bids now. Down the road is the new Convention Center and the city's newly renovated opera house, the Ellie.

Another $1.2 billion of major new downtown projects are on the drawing boards, and most seek to have more people putting their heads to rest downtown in the evenings.

There are six major hotels in the world for downtown Denver: the 12 story Hilton Garden Inn at 14th and Welton with 220 rooms, the 14 story Residence Inn by Mariott with 228 suites at 18th and Champa, the 22 story Inn at the DAC at 13th and Welton with 138 rooms, the Denver Athletic Club and 14 luxury condos, the Hyatt Regency Denver at 14th and California at 37 stories with 1100 rooms, and the 50 story Four Seasons at 14th and Arapahoe with 230 hotel rooms and 140 condos. This appears to bue driven mostly by "the building that ate downtown", also known as the Convention Center. All of the new hotels will be within three blocks of the Convention Center.

Many of the remaining new projects are condominium projects. The museum residences near the new Denver Art Museum addition will have 56 units in an eight story project. Glass House, in the South Platte part of downtown, is a 23 story project on 18th Street which will have more than 100 new units. The St. Charles Building Town Co. building, at 1420 Stout, across from the Convention Center, will be a 30 story senior citizens condominium or apartment building. One Lincoln Park, at 20th and Broadway, will be a 31 story residential building with 184 condominium units. And, the Spire at 14th and Champa, also across from the convention center, will be a 41 story condominium building.

While prices will vary, it is fair to assume that the hotels will not be competing with the Motel 6s of the world and that people with median Denver incomes need not consider these downtown condominium uniots which collectively, will bring close to a thousand new permanent residents downtown, in addition to the roughly 2,000 new hotel rooms that will be added to downtown's capacity (the new jail will also bring about a thousand additional beds to downtown, but it is fair to anticipate that they won't be doing a lot of downtown shopping). An additional 3,000 people milling around downtown will, inevitably, of course, also drive demand for restaurants and downtown shopping, although hotel guests tend to be more of the T-shirts and souvenir variety when it comes to shopping. It will also help Denver make the leap from being a downtown which is deserted in the evenings, to long sought after twenty-four hour status. This also doesn't include significant residential development the Golden Triangle (bounded by 13th, Speer and Broadway), Uptown (from downtown East to City Park formerly known as North Capital Hill), the "Coors Field Neighborhood" (a remarketed part of the Five Points neighborhood), and Highland (across I-25 from downtown) all of which have gentrified and are themselves boosted as downtown Denver grows.

Two major non-residential developments are also in the works for downtown. A regional headquarters for the Environmental Protection Agency is under construction and will replace the ugly (now largely demolished) old Post Office in LoDo, and a relatively small, Museum of Contemporary Art at 15th and Delgany, a couple of blocks to the South of the new EPA building, will be a new LoDo destination.

One of the best parts of this new development is that impact that it will have on Denver's transportation networks. A very large percentage of the people who buy downtown condominiums do so to reduce their commutes and work downtown, so almost every new unit of downtown housing takes another car or two off the streets at rush hour. And, the two thousand new hotel rooms are expected to be largely filled by convention goers who might otherwise have rented a car, but now, will take a shuttle to their hotel from the airport and then spend the rest of their trip (and their money) in downtown Denver. This influx of carless visitors may also breathe new life into the Cultural Connection trolley and a contemplated Colfax trolley.

The downside of this development is that there is only one meaningful new office project on the drawing board for downtown. While Denver proper is doing an excellent job of landing infill projects for new residential development, it is doing less of a good job of attracting permanent jobs. Losing Children's and University Hospitals (after already weathering the merger of Presybterian and St. Luke's Hospitals) haven't resulted in the real estate holes that most cities would experience. All have been or will be promptly replaced with nice mixed use developments with an urban residential character, but losing hundreds of medical professional jobs to the suburbs still hurts. Likewise, while office space development has stalled a bit in the wake of the tech boom, when many buildings in suburban office parks were see through, office parks like the Denver Tech Center in Greenwood Village, and Inverness, in Broomfield, have absorbed most of the growth in the metropolitian areas demand for office space in the last couple of decades.

But, while downtown isn't generating a lot of new office jobs, the hotels, the restaurants to feed the growing downtown population, the Convention Center, and the larger jail will bring a lot of permanent low to middle income jobs downtown as well. Many of these workers may find housing in troubled neighborhoods like Lincoln Park and Five Points, which are poor (and hence low rent) but close to downtown attractive, which could transform these neighborhoods from ghettos to working class neighborhoods, likely peppered with some of the single occupancy hotels foreseen in Hickenlooper's ten year plan to end homelessness in Denver. Of course, an improving light rail system created by the FasTracks proposal passed by metro area voters, will also make it easier for low income workers to make it to work downtown from many more places in the metropolitan area, and buying an RTD pass is still cheaper than maintaining a car.

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