Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Light rail high-rise will downsize to mid-rise

Plans for a high-rise apartment building at the University of Denver light-rail station have gone from a tall order to a short stack.

The proposal for a 12-story building that just over a year ago sent neighbors spilling into the streets with picket signs and running to City Hall with fistfuls of complaints, has been downsized to about seven floors.

The developer calls the reduction “viable.” Critics cautiously concede that shrinking the project is good.

“[Parking] dictates a smaller project,” says George Thorn of Mile High Development, who has been eyeing the Buchtel Boulevard location as a spot for rental housing for several years. “We’re talking more now like a six- or seven-story building.”

Thorn’s plan has changed because one of the keys to the project has also changed, he told community leaders during mid-July peace talks spearheaded by Denver City Council member Chris Nevitt. And that change has forced a revamped vision of what could be done with the 25,000-square-foot triangle of RTD-owned land just west of the light-rail platform.

“George has worked hard to address the neighbors’ concerns with his project,” Nevitt says. “And neighbors appear to be working hard to find ways to welcome it.”

Initially, Thorn hoped to meet the project’s parking obligation with the help of the RTD station’s parking garage. RTD would add a fifth floor to the garage, which the building can accommodate structurally, then lease the 132 spaces to Thorn for the use of high-rise dwellers.

But RTD’s enabling legislation does not specifically permit residential agreements pertaining to property the district leases or controls.

“It doesn’t say we can’t do it, but it doesn’t say we can either,” says Bill Sirois, manager of transit-oriented development for the agency.

RTD officials have tried to get the legislature to amend the language in the law to allow such arrangements, but have not been successful. Without that change, Sirois says, RTD is reluctant to enter into a parking arrangement with Thorn for the garage or to lease land to him for the high-rise.

However, the district could sell Thorn the land, which is a possibility that the RTD board will consider in executive session on Aug. 19. The result of a land sale, Thorn says, would be a mid-rise building with residential units on top of parking.

“The max parking that we think we can afford to do is two levels — one at grade, the other above grade,” he says.

Other factors that have altered Thorn’s plans are the uncertain real estate market and competition from three new student rental projects in the vicinity: the six-story University Lofts that opened last fall; the 11-story Vistaloft, which opens in September and the six-story Asbury Green, which will open in fall 2009.

“It’s caused us to step back,” Thorn says. “We’re looking at two or three different kinds of rental housing. If things change dramatically in the for-sale market, we make take another look at that. But right now we think there’s a strong rental market around transit stations.”

Neighborhood residents are still digesting the changes, says Liz Ullman of University Neighbors, with attitudes ranging from total opposition to approval of the changes.

“I personally feel like we’re being heard,” she says. “The scale [of the project] and parking and the function of the station were all on our list of issues.”

One new element in Thorn’s proposal is his willingness to design the entrance to his mid-rise in a way that would also improve the entrance to the RTD garage. Nevitt describes the drop-off area as “a disaster,” and says he asked Thorn to come up with a way of making it safer for pedestrians and “kiss-n-riders.”

Thorn did.

“We think we can solve that by allowing cars to come onto our site,” the developer says.

How exactly the new commuter drop-off system would work hasn’t been figured out yet, but RTD has made it clear that the agency has neither money nor will to correct that defect itself, says Lynn Crist, executive vice president of Mile High Development.

“This is an opportunity,” she says.

Sirois agrees.

“Three of the neighbors’ main objections were to the loss of parking and that’s gone away, the density has been cut in half, and we’re resolving the circulation system.

“There are some real positive things that have happened.”

Read about the light-rail drop off, which critics say needs improvement.

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