Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

High-rise at light-rail station gets green light over opposition

Centennial Halls may be getting a stepsister on the north side of Buchtel.

The new sibling would be a 12-story, private rental apartment for graduate students at the west end of the University of Denver light-rail platform. Plans for the building took a major step forward April 30 despite heated opposition from a determined group of residents who have picketed the site for a month.

By a 9-1 vote, Denver City Council approved rezoning a nearly 3-acre triangle of land that includes the 540-space parking garage owned by RTD and property just west of the platform.

The decision clears the way for the builder, Mile High Development, to submit detailed plans for the 210-unit high-rise and for RTD to lease 10,000 square feet of unfinished retail space on the ground floor of the garage. Had the rezoning been defeated, it is unlikely the high rise could have been built and RTD’s retail options would have been severely limited.

“We could build an elegant, slender, architecturally significant building” similar to the Convention Center Hotel in downtown Denver, said George Thorn, president of Mile High Development and builder of landmark Denver properties that include the Denver Art Museum and the Wellington Webb municipal office building.

Opponents insisted the site was too narrow and that a building would mar the landscape and create safety and parking problems.

“We’d like to drive a silver stake through the heart of this proposal,” said opposition organizer Allan Ferguson. “The best and highest use (of the land) is open space.”

Although plans for the rezoning have been on the table for nearly two years, details have been sketchy because the rezoning proposal doesn’t require details about the development. The lack of certainty bred opposition, which eventually boiled into picketing at the site and an organized demonstration April 28 that attracted more than 40 residents.

“I didn’t expect this level of opposition,” conceded District 7 City Councilwoman Kathleen MacKenzie, whose efforts to ease residents’ objections resulted in a development agreement aimed at strengthening the accountability of the developer and RTD. The agreement — which has been endorsed by Thorn, RTD and city officials including Mayor John Hickenlooper — limits the height of the building, ensures landscaping, keeps neighborhood associations informed of all developments and demands access to the light-rail station during construction.

The rezoning also includes a waiver that toughens parking requirements and binds the developer to a series of creative transportation alternatives, such as ride-sharing and rent reductions for not owning a car.

“The waiver . . . holds our feet to the fire,” Thorn said.

All this was in place when council convened April 30 for a public hearing and vote. Even so, both sides brought out their big guns, including RTD board member Bill Elfenbein, who praised the high-rise site as “the perfect place for a Transit Oriented Development (project).” Transit-oriented development (TOD) is a strategy for encouraging mass transportation by positioning residences near transit stations.

Opponents of the project insisted it would compromise safety and worsen traffic and congestion. The disagreement raged among the 45 people who asked to address council, pushing the final decision well into the evening. Little consensus occurred, even as to whether “open space” requires designation to be open or it’s open simply because nothing is there.

In the end, council settled the issue, though not easily.

“I’ve agonized about this project,” MacKenzie said before the vote to approve it. “The hardest but most necessary thing to do in politics is to say ‘no’ to your friends, and I’m saying ‘no’ to my friends tonight.”

The approval doesn’t mean construction will start any time soon, since the project still needs to go through development review by the city, a land vacation and negotiation of a lease agreement with RTD.

“We’re trying to balance the region’s needs with the neighborhood’s needs,” said Councilman Doug Linkhart. “There are a lot more steps and a lot more details to be worked out.”

To read more about the rezoning efforts, please see the DU Today archives and the following articles:

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