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Highlands Square saga drawing to a close

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Highlights:

  • After 3 years, Highlands Square apartments moving forward.
  • Allied Residential plan is the same as RedPeak’s.
  • Some neighbors remain up in arms, while other embrace it.
A RNL drawing shows how the church will be connected to a new, 5-story apartment building.

A RNL drawing shows how the church will be connected to a new, 5-story apartment building.

The planned development of a luxury apartment community in the heart of Highlands Square in northwest Denver is drawing to a close, ending a three year-saga. Since neighbors learned in 2011 that three luxury apartment buildings were planned north of West 32nd Avenue off Lowell Boulevard, the development drama has been the catalyst for:

  • A zoning lawsuit;
  • Fears of traffic and congestion;
  • Charges of NIMBY-ism;
  • Debates on smart growth vs greed;
  • And most recently, the merits of the historic designation of a church building vs the height of a future building.

And since RNL released the first drawing, there has been continuing debates and in some quarters, criticism, of the aesthetics of the buildings to be constructed in trendy West Highland.

And even though it is likely that Phoenix-based Alliance Residential will begin construction this fall on what could be a $30 million-plus development, the pending project continues to elicit strong sentiments from neighbors.

Black plague allusion

One person, local newspaper publisher Guerin Green, even brought the black plague into the discussion on the neighborhood social media site, Nextdoor.

“The growth fantasists don’t seem to realize that without infrastructure to support it, it eventually collapses into itself,” wrote Guerin, whose publications include the North Denver News and the Cherry Creek News.

“Narrow streets, lack of intelligent provisions for employee parking, cultural indifference to (alternative) transit is a recipe for mid-term failure induced by short(term) greed,” Guerin continued.

“This is a lesson learnt over and over since density allowed the black plague to ravage urban Europe centuries ago,” Green, posted on a Nextdoor thread regarding the development, which drew about three dozen posts.

Others, however, welcome the redevelopment of the vacant and boarded up church site.Aerial View of connection

“I’m excited for the new energy and vibrancy this will bring to the hood,” William Winter posted on Nextdoor.

The project gained momentum on Aug. 5 when the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission approved an application to connect the historic Beth Eden Church building at 3241 Lowell Boulevard to a new, 5-story, luxury apartment building to be constructed next to the church.

It is the same plan by RNL that Denver-based RedPeak Properties had proposed when it had the properties under contract about three years ago.

RedPeak dropped out of the deal earlier this year, several months after the 10 neighbors lost a zoning court battle in Denver District Court.

The neighbors, who belonged to a grassroots group called No High Rises in West Highland, argued that the site is an “area of stability,” and not an “area of change” under the city’s Blueprint Denver, and thus, they contended, 5-story buildings are inappropriate in a neighborhood of mostly single-family homes. However, Judge Robert L. McGahey, Jr., dismissed all of the challenges, noting that Blueprint Denver and the city’s Comprehensive Plan are purely advisory documents.

Meade Street perspective from RNL.

Meade Street perspective from RNL.

Now, Alliance Residential, a multi-billion dollar company, hopes to buy the properties from a group headed by Tom Wootten.

Earlier, the City Council had approved a historic designation for the church building, built in 1931.

The nonprofit Historic Denver supported the designation, which was initially opposed by Wootten.

Meade could have had a 4-story building

If Wootten had been granted non-historic status for the building, under a settlement with the 10 neighbors that unsuccessfully sued him and the city in the zoning case, he would have put in place a covenant that would have allowed a maximum of four stories to be built on Meade Street.

Wootten even said he would be willing to include a covenant guaranteeing to preserve the church’s distinctive facade, if it was granted non-historic status.

“It is a shame…that the four story height limit was lost with the historic status,” Emily Haack posted on Nextdoor.

Annie Levinsky, executive director for Historic Denver, in a letter to the Landmark Commission, said the design application “respects the key character defining features of the structure that were emphasized during the designation hearings.

Another perspective from RNL Design.

Another perspective from RNL Design.

“This includes maintaining the distinct steeply-pitched roof line, replacing the large decorative front window and its tracery pattern, and providing a gap, or reveal, between the old building and the new addition to be attached to the south,” she said in the letter.

She realizes the Landmark Commission has no say on any of the new buildings, including the one to be integrated into the church building.

“However, we are hopeful that the design qualities of the church will influence the design of the new structure and lead to a vibrant project that adds character to the historic business district,” she wrote.

Will Smith, on Nextdoor, said he is not bothered by the coming development, as he said that was inevitable.

Dollars signs over design

However, Smith said that he is bothered by the “design and aesthetic quality” of the proposed buildings.

“At this point the proposed edifice is more “me too” design and development,” Smith wrote. He went on to say there is there is “nothing contextually pleasing within the design elements,” leaving him to wonder “what is wrong with the developer/designer/architects of the area these days. There is no real creativity being brought to bear.

“I can easily see a host of other designs which would vastly contribute to the area and not only someones immediate profit. Sad to say but long term community gains are not being considered in the economic maximization,”  Smith continued.RNL Beth Eden ChurchBeth Eden Church RNL

There is a better answer, according to Smith.

“What would be novel is if the developers would actually engage the community in the design of the location…Given the recent politics that too is unlikely to happen. It becomes a brawl of take it or leave it on each side.”

Sky not falling

Ty Johnston, on Nextdoor, said that a takeaway from the heated discourse is that you can’t satisfy all of the people all of the time.

“Some people will enjoy the density and value this will bring to the neighborhood, and some will dread the increased traffic and lack of parking,” he posted on Nextdoor.

However, he does not believe that if the three buildings are constructed, it will doom the trendy neighborhood.

“It is important to realize that no matter what side your on, the sky is not falling, even though some might shout otherwise,” according to Johnston.

Have a story idea or real estate tip? Contact John Rebchook at JRCHOOK@gmail.com. InsideRealEstateNews.com is sponsored by Universal Lending, Land Title Guarantee and 8z Real Estate. To read more articles by John Rebchook, subscribe to the Colorado Real Estate Journal.