Downtown Denver plan sets guidelines for a new, dense neighborhood atop a sea of parking — and Elitch’s — that could house thousands

Provided by Revesco Properties A rendering from Revesco Properties’ conceptual master plan for the River Mile shows the types of development that might occur on the current site of Elitch Gardens Theme and Water Park in coming decades, from new buildings to changes along the South Platte Riverfront.

Denver city leaders this week are poised to endorse an ambitious downtown neighborhood plan that could set the stage for the next mega-wave of urban development.

The neighborhood doesn’t yet exist, but it’s easy to see the potential in the sea of surface parking lots surrounding the Pepsi Center and next to Elitch Gardens Theme and Water Park: rare large-scale space to build new towers — even skyscrapers — containing thousands of apartments and condos, offices and hotels, and street-level restaurants and stores, all within an easy walk of transit stops and the South Platte River.

Eventually, if one developer’s still-conceptual plans pan out for the 62-acre Elitch’s property, the amusement park could be relocated to make way for the redevelopment of what’s been its home since 1995.

A conceptual master plan filed with the city in March calls for several skyscrapers taller than 40 stories, with the tallest reaching 59.

Those plans, which call for housing for as many as 15,000 residents, are far from coming to fruition. In Revesco’s development time frame of 25 years or so, the plans will be at the mercy of the economy and market forces.

The area looked at by planners for the Central Platte Valley Auraria District includes more than 60 acres of surface parking, outlined in yellow. Most of it is near the Pepsi Center and Elitch Gardens Theme and Water Park.

The amusement park’s owners stress that it’s probably there to stay at least for several years, with the focus in the first phase of development focused squarely on the lots near Speer Boulevard. It would start by building a parking structure to replace that parking.

But the City Council’s expected approval of an amendment to the Downtown Area Plan on Monday will mark a significant step for the wider area, by setting guidelines and even guard rails for the types of development to come. The council, which meets at 5:30 p.m., will have a public hearing before voting.

The city-initiated plan amendment — covering the area bordered by Interstate 25, Speer and Auraria Parkway — was set in motion last spring after Revesco Properties announced plans to begin redeveloping the amusement park’s 17 acres of parking lots. It calls the proposed area the River Mile.

Kroenke looms large in area’s future

Revesco was part of the ownership group that bought Elitch’s in 2015, with backing from billionaire Nuggets and Avalanche owner Stan Kroenke — whose company exerts plenty of control over the future of the Pepsi Center site across the light-rail and freight-rail tracks that divide the two attractions.

On that side, speculation has focused on the potential for some or all of the Pepsi Center’s nearly 5,000 parking spaces to be replaced by garages, with the arena encircled by a walkable urban neighborhood.

“We don’t have any direction from Kroenke that he wants to do anything,” said Steve Nalley, the neighborhood planning supervisor for the Denver Department of Community Planning and Development. “We’re just trying to think about the future, that’s all.”

It’s a future that, according to the plan, has the potential to sprout a new downtown neighborhood on the scale of the last two decades of development between Union Station and the river to the northeast — where nearly 7,000 people have taken up residence so far, according to the Downtown Denver Partnership.

The year-long planning effort attracted interest from across the river. Jefferson Park and other neighborhoods pushed successfully for the plan to support a rebuilding of the 23rd Avenue bridge across I-25 — a key connection to downtown, via Water Street — to better accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians.

As for the potential for thousands more neighbors? “You get over the initial shock of Elitch’s being gone (in the later phase), and you recognize that nothing is permanent,” said Michael Guiietz of Jefferson Park United Neighbors. “The city is going to continue to change and evolve. A lot of our residents are used to that type of change.”

The new plan’s major highlights go beyond suggesting where the densest development should go, although it says the tallest buildings should be clustered along the rail corridor and near the light rail stations. That would make for decreasing density approaching the river.

An update to the Downtown Area Plan for the Central Platte Valley/Auraria District recommends re-establishment of the street grid, new bike/pedestrian bridges across the river and railroad tracks, and new parks or open space.

Just as important, according to the plan’s authors, are recommendations for the revitalization of the riverfront, for open space and parks between some of the new buildings, and for an extension of the downtown street grid that caters as much to pedestrians and cyclists as it does to cars. Revesco’s concepts echo much from the plan, including the erection of pedestrian bridges across the river near the Downtown Aquarium and the Children’s Museum of Denver.

The city plan also recommends reduced parking requirements — or even setting parking-ratio maximums — to encourage reliance on transit, biking and walking.

The Elitch’s site probably will need some below-the-surface environmental cleanup before much digging can occur. But Revesco’s concept plan also envisions trucking in dirt — perhaps from a future dredging of the river or from the upcoming Interstate 70 project — to raise much of the site by 5 to 20 feet; one of the benefits would be the elevation of street level above the rail tracks.

“The reason we’re excited to see this come to life is that it’s an opportunity that most other cities don’t have — with a few owners in a combined area along a mile of riverfront, in downtown,” Nalley said.

A rendering from Revesco Properties’ conceptual master plan for the River Mile shows one view along the South Platte River. The company is making plans to redevelop the current site of Elitch Gardens Theme and Water Park in coming decades.
Development focus shifts from Union Station area

In 2007, when the Downtown Area Plan was written, it didn’t say much about the area southwest of Speer. For one thing, the Pepsi Center was less than a decade old. Also, the redevelopment of Union Station hadn’t yet begun.

But Tami Door, the downtown partnership’s president and CEO, says the time is ripe, given Revesco’s plans.

She co-chaired the committee that convened public meetings and oversaw the new plan. Anti-development resentment has grown in Denver as traffic and population have increased rapidly in recent years, but Door argued that this plan should be embraced since it targets dense development where it should go — near downtown, with plenty of transportation options nearby.

“Certainly, those kind of amenities and investments create a stronger, more economically viable area,” she said about Revesco’s plans. “At the same time, what a beautiful gift to your community to open up the river and create more opportunities in the outdoors.”

Last month, the partnership issued an annual report that confirmed a common conception about downtown: Its 23,000 residents, by and large, are white and well-paid and have no kids, revealing a diversity gulf with the rest of Denver.

The parking lots at Elitch Gardens Theme and Water Park, photographed on April 12, 2017, in Denver. A local investment team that bought Elitch Gardens in 2015 is exploring the possibility of developing the amusement park’s lots.

As the city tries to foster more affordable housing in and near downtown — as well as draw more diverse residents and families — officials see the River Mile redevelopment as a prime opportunity.

And the city will have leverage: Later this year, as Revesco’s plans progress, it plans to ask the planning department and the council to approve new, denser zoning that would allow for taller buildings. There’s now a precedent, with a rezoning plan approved in February for the area near the 38th and Blake transit station laying out incentives that will allow developers to build higher if they provide for more income-restricted housing.

“I’m looking forward to that, and I just wanted to let the council know that that’s next,” council President Albus Brooks said in mid-May when a committee reviewed the downtown plan amendment. “I think that’s an important piece. … I just see this as one of the best opportunities to create the Denver that we all want — this inclusive, this green, this equitable, this walkable Denver.”

For his part, Revesco CEO Rhys Duggan has told The Denver Post that his company is undertaking a “deep dive” on affordable-housing options across the property — “so it doesn’t become an elitist neighborhood.”

Such possibilities are currently only at the discussion phase, and uncertainty surrounds any future development between the Auraria Campus and the river. But by setting clear public expectations, city officials say, the new city plan’s value will come when it is consulted before key decisions get made.

“This is an advisory plan,” Nalley said. “It sets a vision for the future of this area for the next 20 years. It also identifies strategies in order to implement that vision. This has always been a part of downtown — but it’s going to look and feel more like a part of downtown.”

Here is a City Council presentation on the new downtown plan:

Here is the full version of the Downtown Area Plan Amendment for the Central Platte Valley/Auraria District:

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