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- City committee approves General Development Plan for St. Anthony’s.
- GDP would allow 20-story buildings along West 17th Avenue.
- About 700 signed opposition petition.
A decision by three key Denver department heads could help pave the way for one or two buildings as tall as 20 stories to be built on the former St. Anthony’s Hospital site by Sloan’s Lake.
The city’s Development Review Committee on Tuesday unanimously agreed to approve the General Development Plan that would allow up to 20 story buildings along West 17th Avenue, across from Sloan’s Lake, the largest lake in Denver.
The GDP is now in place; neither Mayor Michael B. Hancock nor the City Council will consider it. The City Council, however, would need to approve any zoning change that would allow a 20-story building to be developed.
“I think this is an important milestone,” said Councilwoman Susan Shepherd, who represents District 1, which includes the 24-acre site, one of the biggest ongoing developments in Denver.
The DRC’s decision supports a decision by the Denver Planning Board, which with one dissenting vote in December, recommended the approval of the GDP, submitted by the landowner, EFG-South Sloan’s Lake, whose parent is Denver-based EnviroFinance Group.
Rocky Piro, executive director of Community and Planning and Development, and one of the members of the committee, on Wednesday, said he and the other two members were well aware that about 700 people had signed a petition opposing the current GDP. The other two members are Lauri Dannemiller and Jose E. Cornejo, executive directors of Denver Parks and Recreation and Public Works, respectively.
Opposition viewpoints considered
Piro said the committee considered the opposition’s viewpoint “very seriously,” but noted the plan has divided the area, with some registered neighborhood groups in favor and others opposing it.
He attended the Planning Board meeting last month, in which dozens of people opposed it as being too dense and with too tall of buildings, while others said the plan would bring needed economic relief to a forlorn area that lacks such things as good restaurants, a hotel and a movie theater.
Besides the potential height of the buildings some people said the GDP does not require enough open space.
That is because the 10 percent open space requirement for the 24-acre site is based on the net size and not the gross size of the 24-acre parcel.
The net size is the space minus things such as roads and sidewalks. Under the approved GDP, required open space would be about 1.4 acres, instead of about 2.4 acres if the gross size had been used. Historically, most open space requirements for developments in Denver have been based on the net size, as that reflects the land that can actually be developed.
The plan “reflects the criteria” for the GDP, Piro said.
Asked if he thought it was a “good plan,” he said he tries not to make “qualitative judgments.”
However, later in the interview he elaborated on that question.
GDP provides needed framework
“You asked if I thought this was ‘good’ and I do think a lot of good things can happen because the GDP is in place,” Piro said. “We see this as really helping to catalyze the redevelopment and reinvestment along West Colfax. The GDP also helps “provide the development needed to support the investment made in transportation at the light rail station two blocks to the south of the site.”
“We’re really excited about it,” Piro said.
Chad Reischl, co-president of the West Colfax Neighborhood Association, or WeCAN, also is excited that the development process is moving forward.
“This is going to bring a lot of positives to the area,” said Reischl, who lives three blocks from the project and is an urban planner by education. “It’s going to create a nice little walkable neighborhood.”
He said he and his group like to look at the positives, while he said some other neighborhood groups and opponents “look at negative externalities that in my opinion may or may not happen.”
With as many as 1,750 new homes on the site, there may be more traffic, he said.
“So it might take me another 30 seconds to get to Target,” across Sheridan Boulevard in Edgewater, he said. “I’m willing to sit in my car for another 30 seconds in exchange for great new restaurants and coffee shops and grocery stores that I can walk to.”
Opponents, he said, have been “focusing on the fact that we might end up with one or two buildings that are taller than what we are accustomed to. Again, we prefer to focus on all the positives than the possibility of some negatives.”
Others, however, are not nearly as sanguine.
One of the more public opponents has been Larry Ambrose, vice president of the Sloan’s Lake Neighborhood Association, which opposes the GDP and president of the Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation, which also has taken a stand against it.
On Wednesday, Ambrose described the former St. Anthony’s site as a “huge empty lot and, when EFG gets done with it, it will be a mostly huge subdivision with empty 40 foot wide streets. And, if it ever gets developed in our lifetime based on the existing GDP it will be a massive, complex of overly tall, densely packed buildings and tiny open spaces with a FAR (floor area ratio) of eight to nine.”
He said he believes the “vast majority” of people in Northwest Denver “see the obvious folly,” with the current GDP, noting that almost 700 signatures have been collected on an online petition opposing it.
“If there were not discerning people like me and the hundreds of others who have questioned this, scams and corruption would run amuck everywhere, all the time,” Ambrose added.
“In this particular case, they have….so far.”
Kevin Neimond, president of the West Highland Neighborhood Association, said he is not surprised that the DRC “approved a plan that leaves the door open to construct 20 story buildings on the site.”
The WHNA voted against the current GDP and suggested a different plan with a maximum height of eight stories.
“I had hoped that the committee would consider the well-reasoned requests made by the Sloan’s Lake Neighborhood Association and the West Highland Neighborhood Association to increase open space, decrease the allowable building height closest to the lake, and build up to eight stories in the interior of the development away from the park and single family homes,” Neimond said.
While it is within the committee’s purview to approve the Planning Board’s recommendation, he said that does not change the opinion of the WHNA.
Opponents shift focus to council
Rather, the forum has changed from dealing with the Planning Board to the City Council, he said.
“I’m not sure what the ultimate outcome will be, but I take Councilwoman Shepherd at her word when she says that she is listening to all opinions on this issue,” Neimond said.
Shepherd said she knows it is a contentious issue.
“I realize there was support for the GDP and I realize there are people who have issues with it,” Shepherd said.
However, she said torpedoing the approval process would not have been in the interest of the city or the neighborhood.
“The appropriate time and place to have a zoning discussion is when an application has been filed,” she said.
“Attempting to limit future economic development at this time in the process by arbitrarily assigning different height limits of building that could be built, would not be productive at this time,” Shepherd said. “We have a time and place for those discussions.”
Shepherd: West Colfax residents deserve more amenities
Shepherd said it is important not to lose sight of the desired outcome for the redevelopment.
“Our biggest goal for that site is to be the catalyst to help lift up the West Colfax corridor that has been severely blighted for decades,” Shepherd said.
“The residents of that neighborhood deserve better than boarded up storefronts and vacant lots and a high crime rate,” she said.
In order for that to happen, “it is exceedingly important that this piece of the process proceeds,” she said.
If there is application for a taller building in the future, there will be a full and fair hearing, Shepherd said.
“The process should not be stopped based on fear mongering,” she said.
Niccolo Casewit, an architect who lives in Barnum, said while the approval of the GDP is disappointing, there was little doubt that it would be adopted.
“Clearly the train left the station many months ago,” he said.
Private developers key
Casewit, however, said private developers that eventually purchases parcels from EFG, could decide to take matters into their own hands.
“The private sector can decide the project would be more profitable if the design / arrangement were changed,” he said.
“I think the plan may actually not be the most profitable or highest and best use,” Casewit said
”The GDP is a framework is inadequate for an investment of up to 300 million dollars,” he said.
While he and others oppose the GDP that in itself isn’t enough to get the results he and others desire, he said.
“The neighborhoods can protest a zoning change but that is really not enough to stop this plan,” Casewit said.
Market demand, including the ability to get financing, will be big factors moving forward.
“The plan as shown may simply stand vacant for 10 years despite developers wanting deals,” he said. “There are no guarantees in developments.”
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