DENVER—The developer behind some of Denver’s most acclaimed redevelopment projects — Belmar, Art House and Union Station — is bringing its trademark vision and innovation to the former University of Colorado Health Sciences Campus.
The 26-acre property at Ninth Avenue and Colorado Boulevard has been the site of much consternation since CU moved its medical campus to the former Fitzsimon’s Army Medical Center in Aurora. Two previous developers failed to close on the sale of the campus due to the economic downturn in 2008 as well as neighborhood opposition.
Enter Continuum Partners, a Denver-based firm that specializes in urban infill developments that stand out for their quality, uniqueness and sense of place. Continuum’s large-scale, mixed-use projects are imbued with the hallmarks of the West: welcoming, ecologically sustainable and rich in character.
“The majority of our business is in Denver, so projects that we get to do in our hometown are very important to us,” said Frank Cannon, development director.
Continuum’s plan for the former medical campus is a mixed-use village with an emphasis on housing instead of major retail. The site will blend apartments and townhomes with retail, public greenspace, parking and a hotel. Much emphasis will be given to amenities for families — walkability, play areas for children and community gathering places. The site will feature a street grid, adding an 8 1/2th Avenue, improving accessibility.
Unlike past ideas — proposals for a Walmart store and King Soopers sparked neighborhood animus — the Continuum plan has drawn community praise. “We came up with a plan we thought the community would get behind,” Cannon said. “By being heavily residential rather than big-box retail, it focuses on net new growth to the city. It’s about creating a neighborhood that’s complementary to the community surrounding it.”
Continuum is in the due diligence phase, having put the property under contract to purchase for $30 million. The firm expects to close in December and begin demolition and construction early next year, with phase one expected to take about 16 months. The entire project should take four years to build, presuming that market conditions hold.
Some pieces of the former CU Health Sciences Center will remain intact. The five-story bridge across East Ninth Avenue—the one-time research bridge—will remain and be converted into a hotel. Also being preserved are the parking structure on the site’s northwest corner, 11th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard, and the historic nurses’ dormitory on Ninth. The dormitory is planned to become a 22,000-square-foot community building.
Cannon said the site will feature multi-family housing on the north and northwest side, transitioning to less-dense housing east of Ash Street. Retail shops, a pedestrian-friendly retail plaza and greenspaces will feature prominently in the southern commercial core.
Cannon said the property will feature a balance of local and national retailers. “There is more interest from retailers than we’ll have space for,” he said. “The challenge will be finding the right mix.”
The development plan calls for 320,000 square feet of commercial space, 900 to 1,000 residential units, over 2,500 parking spaces (underground plus existing and new garage structures) and large areas of open space. Continuum has already performed significant outreach in the community—seven neighborhood meetings and dozens of small group get-togethers—and will continue to touch base with the neighborhood every six weeks during the fall.
The firm will soon hold a kids’ workshop specifically geared to elicit the kinds of amenities children want to see at the site. Continuum is even asking the community to contribute ideas for a name of the development.
“We learned from the meetings that the usage really needed to support kids and families,” Cannon said. “On the other end, we heard from a lot of seniors as well. Whatever we do needs to be a fully integrated project that addresses a range of ages.”
When the project is completed, according to Continuum’s traffic study, it will generate 17,180 daily vehicle trips. That compares to the 27,390 trips the property generated when it was the CU Health Sciences Center. “There will be a big reduction in the morning rush to the site,” Cannon said. “It’s a more stable ebb and flow throughout the day. Overall, there will be nearly 40 percent less traffic than what was there previously.”
Continuum will be seeking financing from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority; the amount is under negotiation. The firm is currently designing the infrastructure of the site, which will include an underground parking facility.
Continuum has won national awards for its new urbanism developments, and Cannon expects Ninth and Colorado to follow in this tradition. “Our plan creates a neighborhood which is first and foremost driven by residential, with retail being an amenity and a placemaker for the residential,” he said. “Second, the plan we’ve proposed has a scale and a framework that fits within the context of the existing neighborhoods. Third, we really listened to the community in developing this plan, and we have a proven track record of developing projects of this complexity.”
It’s taken a while, but the neighborhood can finally breathe easy knowing that the next chapter for the former health sciences campus will be an asset to the community.
“There have been a lot of machinations over the years — the community clearly wants to see something happen at the site,” Cannon said. “We listened closely to what the neighborhood wanted, and we’re doing a distinctive, high-quality project that, like our other projects in the metro area, is well-suited for the Denver market.”
Published: Aug. 22, 2014