Continuum’s Plan for Old CU Hospital Site Draws Favorable Reviews
By Steve Raabe
The Denver Post
A foreign sound — applause — erupted recently at one of an endless series of public meetings on redevelopment of the old University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.
Neighbors of the abandoned east Denver campus had been upset for so many years at so many development plans that they spontaneously began clapping when they finally heard a proposal they liked.
The new concept by Denver-based Continuum Partners is generating high hopes from nearby residents and city officials. The developer is proposing a $500 million mixed-use community with a new-urbanism vibe that is receiving favorable reviews.
“Neighbors are responding positively,” said Denver City Councilwoman Mary Beth Susman. “Continuum did their homework about what the community and council members were envisioning for the site. It is a ‘village’ concept with a sense of place, rather than a suburban shopping mall concept.”
A previous development proposal that infamously sought to place a Walmart store on the 26-acre site was vehemently opposed by most neighbors.
The new plan by Continuum, still short on details, places more of an emphasis on housing and less on large retail.
Continuum Partners is an urban infill development specialist with a focus on creating pedestrian-friendly projects that include an array of residential and commercial uses.
The firm developed the Belmar mixed-use complex in Lakewood on the site of the former Villa Italia mall. It also is co-master developer with East West Partners of the Denver Union Station project in Lower Downtown.
“What I think separates us (from other developers) is the ability to create appropriate responses to the neighborhoods we come into,” said Mark Falcone, CEO of Continuum. “The fun part for us is that everything we do is a little bit different. It’s that type of intellectual challenge that really stimulates us.”
Continuum was selected last month by the University of Colorado Board of Regents after several developers submitted bids to purchase the property at East Ninth Avenue and Colorado Boulevard.
The deal marks the fifth time in 10 years that a developer has attempted to purchase the property and launch a project. Previous efforts failed from a combination of difficult market conditions and neighborhood opposition.
Continuum now has the property under contract to purchase for $30 million. The company is conducting due diligence and, barring unexpected complications, expects to finalize the deal in December. Demolition and new construction would commence soon after.
“We are not planning to spend a lot of time kicking the tires,” said Frank Cannon, Continuum’s development director. “When we start, you will see an enormous amount of activity all at one time.”
Four structures on the campus are slated for preservation: a parking garage at East 11th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard, the former bio-research building at East Ninth Avenue and Colorado, the historic nurses’ dormitory on Ninth, and the five-story bridge across Ninth, which is proposed for conversion to a hotel.
Other buildings will be demolished to make way for an estimated 1,100 units of apartments and townhomes, parks and plazas, and 150,000 square feet of commercial space — slightly larger than the nearby Lowry Town Center. The development numbers are preliminary and subject to change.
“I am cautiously optimistic about the new plans,” said Laurie Bogue, president of the Bellevue- Hale Neighborhood Association, whose residents surround the project. “We specifically like that they have taken the time to talk with neighbors, to listen to what the neighbors are saying about what we want for this development.”
Bogue described the Continuum plan as “a breath of fresh air” compared with a previous plan by Fuqua Development, which first proposed a controversial Walmart store, and then a King Soopers that didn’t fit with Denver’s mandate to re-establish the street grid within the CU campus.
“It basically was a strip mall. The Walmart didn’t go over well with neighbors,” said Jeremy Németh, chair of the planning and design department at the University of Colorado Denver.
“Continuum is taking on difficult projects at difficult sites,” he said. “The way they think is not about producing more vehicle-miles driven. It’s about adding walkability, bicycle access, creating an urban environment.”
Continuum’s equity partner is CIM Group, a Los Angeles-based investment firm with $13.9 billion under management. Local team members include Zeppelin Development and developer John Huggins. Continuum also is negotiating for an undetermined amount of tax-increment financing from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority.
While Continuum is enjoying a honeymoon with neighborhood groups, some residents say they’re still concerned about the project’s effect on Colorado Boulevard traffic congestion and parking.
Continuum representatives have addressed both issues at community meetings.
“Colorado Boulevard is Colorado Boulevard. There is nothing we can do to fix the problem of Colorado Boulevard,” Cannon said at a recent meeting. He added that Continuum’s focus on pedestrian amenities and smaller-scale retail will minimize the amount of vehicle traffic added by the project.
For parking, the developer is proposing to build 600-700 underground spaces plus a 250-car above-grade garage, in addition to preserving the existing 1,200-space parking structure.
Neighborhood activist Lon Breslow, who helped organize the fight against the Walmart proposal, said he is happy so far with what he’s hearing about the new plans.
“The design is quite innovative in its adaptive reuse of existing assets on the campus,” he said. “The emphasis on housing with integrated public spaces, underground parking and a commitment to local business gives the plan the walkable urban neighborhood feel that we wanted.”
Steve Raabe: 303-954-1948, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/steveraabedp