Panel Discussion, April 16, 2010
Small cities and towns located on the fringe of bigger cities are now part of the urban growth areas and share the planning issues and challenges of urban development in the metropolitain area scale. When well planned and well executed, the development in the centers of these cities and towns provides a good alternative for suburban living. Denver’s metropolitain area is no exception. A good example for successful development in this type of setting is the development in last ten years in Downtown Golden, Colorado. The following panel tells the story of Downtown Golden along with the challenges of investing in complex projects and the merits of encouraging urbanity and quality of life. Our host Mark Heller, Executive Director of Golden Urban Renewal Authority (GURA), not only provided an attractive space for the event but also picked the projects and arranged the three presenters for the panel. CNU Colorado expresses deepest gratitude to Mark Heller and GURA. The texts provided here are shortened and edited versions of the presentations provided on April 16, 2010
Let me start with telling you things you already know. Urban renewal authorities catalyze redevelopments by sharing back sales and property tax. We are able to use that revenue stream to fund public-private partnerships, public infrastructures, even marketing and business development as long as we can couch it in terms of the prevention and elimination of blight. Blight is a statutory word and I won’t bore you with the definition. In other words, urban renewal works by leveraging property and sales tax increment revenue through direct reinvestment or by facilitating and partnering in private development.
Here is the GURA Boundary (figure 4). This is where we receive our tax money from and this is where we are required to spend it. GURA was formed in 1989 by the City Council, because then Downtown Golden was suffering from high vacancy rates and deteriorating infrastructure. There were literally broken down vehicles and dogs lying in the street. We tore the complete street out from building face to building face and put in all new utilities, widened the sidewalks, added the brick pavers and decorative lighting, changed it from angled to parallel parking, began a façade program, and added other kinds of street furniture. The most important improvement was adding color to the downtown. It looks much better now than in 1989. In the 1990s and early 2000s we did a number of building and public infrastructure projects totaling over four million dollars, which added hundreds of new workers to the downtown.
Now I would like to go through some of these projects quickly. This is Clear Creek Commons (figure 1). It has a strong presence on the street.
Here is Golden Gem, an old cinema building (figure 2). Starbucks was one of the original tenants. There is an important balance in a small downtown area between chain stores and independent stores. That was controversial when it went in, but it has been successful for them as well as for the mix of businesses downtown since.
Here are the Clear Creek Square (figure 3) that we will talk about soon. Recently we’ve taken on quite a bit of debt to fund the Gateway Station project which Bob West will tell you about that added 35 luxury condos, 10,000 plus square feet commercial, new parking for the residents and a new parking garage, and also to help fund a smaller mixed-use commercial building, Jackson Court, that Brad will talk about.
We also do all kinds of smaller things that people don’t notice as much. For instance, we have decorated one of the brand new parking structures with banners based on work by Golden artists or Golden themes. If you haven’t been to downtown Golden for the holiday lights, you really should (figure 5). It’s brilliant.
We also developed some pocket parks. We redid the street pole banners with a photo contest featuring local photographers. We have all sorts of minor projects – streetscape, power-washing, parking enforcement, resource efficiency, business development, including websites and e-commerce. Facade improvements are an imporant part of what we finance as well. Here are the before and after pictures of redoing facades right next to our welcome arch (figures 6 and 7).
Let me introduce the three projects we will overview today. Len McBroom was involved with the Clear Creek Square PUD. It is a redevelopment of an elementary school site. The school was 1930s or 1940s construction. The school was still functioning. The school district decided to close and relocate it a half mile out of the downtown area but the closing was constroversial It was a significant site for historical preservationists, for people who were teaching at that school, and who had kids going to that school. It was also the first major redevelopment in the downtown area – involving buildings that were a different scale than what we had seen before even though they were architecturally tied to it. It was a big shock to folks. I think the combination of losing of the school and the massive new development were two big pills for the community to swallow especially for those who prided themselves on the small historic feel of Golden. However, it was done and I think we are better for it. That set the stage for the downtown area to be able to grow and change. The PUD created another smaller mixed use project, Jackson Court, that Brad will talk about.
The third project is Gateway Station and Bob West will talk about it. The site it occupied was Hesteds. The property manager was happy to sit on it. He knew eventually someone would pay what he wanted. The building was part of 3 or 4 parcels that he owned. There is a dry cleaning business behind the Gateway Station site at the corner of 13th and Washington. The property owner was a wise guy. He knew if he ever sold the big parcel separately from the small parcel that was contaminated, he’d never sell the small parcel. That together with a high purchase price left it undeveloped for twenty years. It wasn’t until Nexcore decided to put ego aside and give the old man his money, which was an epiphany. Let’s not get too wrapped up in why this guy is asking too much for his property; let’s see if we can make money at his purchase price. GURA was not going to condemn it because of prior history he had with the city. So our only choice was to work with Nexcore and give him his exorbitant price. We got it redeveloped after decades and now we have a great new corner.
Good evening. I have a degree in planning and landscape architecture from Rutgers. I switched to the development side in the early 80s. I have had a career in real estate development and real estate in general since. The Clear Creek site is approximately 5 acres. Clear Creek is on the north, 12th Street on the south, 4th Street on the east, and on the west was an alley. Jackson Street was a vacated street that no longer existed. It was in the flood plain of Clear Creek, which was a major constraint on the site. Mark told you about the history of the Mitchell School. We felt the site was a urban infill site, that is, the market opportunity was to contribute to the revitalization of downtown Golden through urban mixed-use redevelopment with historic context and connectivity. The choice that the community had to make was historical adaptive reuse. I am here to share with you that all that was done before McBroom Company showed up. We can’t take any credit for that controversy.
The sponsors of the project are Golden Urban Renewal Authority, the City of Golden, and — this is unique — the Golden Civic Foundation. There were also numerous private sector developers, investors and lenders as well as numerous market design-engineering professionals who hwlped us. We can’t take full credit for the development.
What is the right mix of uses to ensure the vitality? The potential uses were retail, office, hospitality, housing, institutional, and city facilities but outstanding issues were the right size, scale and phasing of the project. We determined a density that necessitated structured parking and downtown had never had it before in this scale. Commitment to quality design construction was important.
The project went through a normal urban renewal process where it went out for bid and a developer was selected. This was the PUD plan that was approved in 1999 (figure 8).
The program that earlier developer came up with included office (48,000 sf), retail storefront (24,000 sf), condos (30,000 sf); an FAR of 0.47 to 1; townhomes on the river; and three small 3-story 8,000-foot floor plate buildings with retail on the ground floor and office above. When we were involved the previous developer was in default and could not get the financing work on the office buildings to start the project. Why? The banks wouldn’t finance local credit tenants because they couldn’t get enough preleasing commitments. They had core values that were more urban than suburban.
The deal we made was that the public sector would put in the land, finance a bridge, help the entitlements and public approvals, provide flood plain off-site and on-site improvements, provide tax exempt financing for structured parking, and realize 72 housing permits outside of Golden Pacing Ordinance. That was very important to us. We didn’t want to get into a political fight to acquire housing. We thought that was key to making this whole thing work. We felt this was very risky and pioneering at that time. The structure of TIF is where the developer takes risk and chases the money. If they deliver, they get the reward. If they don’t deliver, there is a lot of risk sharing going on and we weren’t willing to take that risk. We told the urban renewal authority that we needed to quantify our incentive up front so we would forgo the TIF to have something to leverage at the back end. We made that deal. It was very controversial at the time because it included transfer of land that wasn’t developed yet, which was necessary to get the deal done. The development program doubled the density. It took the office space up to 60,000 sf and combined it with a Class A floor plate. The residential was condo, not for rent, 189,000 SF, with a 0.87 to 1 FAR. It triggered a structured parking and our solution was to bring it out of the ground, not to make it underground under the buildings or elsewhere.
This is the perspective of the new conceptual plan (figure 9).
The office building is two 12,000 foot plates, which is a flexible size to attract small tenants or large tenants. We thought that also was critical to pulling this project off. Since we constructed this project, Mark has made me see that there were different things we could have done for the alley. The three residential structures were big – 26 units per building – but we didn’t put them under one roof. We were able to phase it. There were three 26-unit projects instead of 78-unit project, that was critical to getting it financed.We broke ground and the Telecom, our anchor tenant, vacated the lease. We had to do a PUD amendment. The city had completed the off-site improvements for the channel. And after the fact, it was determined that the channel was not wide enough. A big problem! To make the correction, they had to take land area from our site. Our deal was in trouble. The great urban plaza circle turned into a hammerhead so that we could fit our residential into the site.
It took us three years to get this project off the ground. One of the lessons we learned was that when one phase of the project goes into trouble, all phases go into trouble. The office building had been retenanted (Pentax was the savior) and was able to get back to the revitalization. It was 2003 and we were supposed to be done with the project in 2003. As of then we had just stabilized the office building and we were just about to do our deal with the residential. We were half way done. A four-year project was quickly turning into eight.
Now let me talk a little bit about the character. Because we had a Class A tenant with a contemporary forward-looking building. So while we tried to keep within the context of downtown, we also wanted to introduce some things that we felt would appeal to the office tenants that we were trying to attract (figures 12 and 13).
We were able to bring a tenant like Pentax and made the deal (which was not in any means easy) because we had free parking in a ready-made downtown (it’s a public policy: Golden doesn’t have paid parking) and we were able to consolidate along the axis of I-70 and all of the properties that were being considered were west end downtown Denver and the airport. The employees of the company said they don’t like the airport, they won’t pay for downtown parking, okay, go to Golden. We won by default.Retail was another challenging aspect of this project for us. What we learned was that end caps work, inline don’t. You have to work very hard to get the inline to work. What we found was that we had more success with office tenants on the inline. This is the street frontage (Figure 17).
You can see how we have tried to deal with the change in grades by setting back and yet providing some plaza and potential seating areas in front of the storefront. A big component of the project is that it is connected to the river through the space between the two residential buildings. That was part of the dedicated open space. Three condo buildings were meant to be three mill buildings that were topped off. It went through two architects, so it evolved. Thank you.
I am presenting on two behalfs: I am a partner of Studio DH Architecture for the last 15 years and also, with my partner, the developer of Jackson Court. My partner and I decided to move our architecture firm, which had been in Denver for fifteen years, into Golden. We both live on the west side of town and Golden has really been our hometown. We saw Golden as an opportunity to being part of a community and felt very strongly about moving our company here. We approached Mark and asked if there were any development opportunities in downtown. He mentioned of this undeveloped piece that was part of Clear Creek Square PUD. Len had done all of his work. An RFP came out. We had to put on our developer hats and had to compete for that property against folks who knew much better than us what they were doing. I think the attractiveness of our proposal was that it would be an owner-occupied building. That was something attractive to the city.
The site is right along Jackson and the alley right along 12th Street. It is somewhat an unusual site: it is oriented east-west and not backed by an alley. It is not very deep; we only had about 54 feet to build in (figure 18). To our north we have zero setback to the parking garage that Len built. We had a challenge with the openness of the parking garage, so we ended up building a firewall on the north side of our building. The garage was key. Without GURA’s participation in the deal there was no way it was would have happened. It happened through negotiation, but GURA provided the land; the land is about 9,000 sf. They also are partial owners of that parking garage. The parking garage allowed all of our off-street parking requirements to be satisfied. That was huge. We didn’t have to build a parking lot or a structure. GURA also participated in some of the site development costs that we had. There were some unusual utility challenges they helped with. With the land and the parking assistance, our numbers worked.
The site was a hole on 12th Street. An important part of our proposal to the city was that we would design our building. For that we studied the historic context of the City of Golden. We followed the historic patterns to have openings on the facade, that is, punched windows. There are no long ribbon windows with storefront on the bottom. The basic rhythm and bay width of the stores there are 20-25 feet. Also, there is a rich history of masonry and architectural detailing in the buildings in Golden. The majority of the buildings have very detailed and ornate cornices (figure 16). The window heads are detailed with beautiful window headers and column capitals. Corners are also important; round or clipped corners are common.
We looked at schemes where the alley was between the parking garage and our building. But given the limitations of the depth of the site it just left us with too narrow of a building to make the retail work. That meant for tenants that needed rear loading and access, we had to tell them to bring everything in through the front door. It has limited us to some degree in the tenants that we can attract. As Len said, the corner is relatively easy to lease, the inline is more difficult. We decided to go with a two-story building, the first story being retail. That was part of the agreement with GURA. Since GURA survives mostly by sales tax, it was our obligation to put retail tenants on the ground floor. We did look at multiple story options but eventually we did stick with the two-story. We did look at the possibility of putting some residential above but because of the proximity to the Buffalo Rose – they put out a lot of sound – we decided against it.
Here is a picture of the building taken shortly after it was built (figure 17). Our architecture firm takes up a little less than half of that second floor. We have leased the balance of that office space to other office tenants. We had a doctor’s office in there for about a year. They have since left. We now have a diner in one corner and a spa in the middle.
The streetscape was important for us (figure 19). With GURA’s efforts we have wide sidewalks many places in downtown—they average about 20 feet. With the mix of materials, the trees, lights, awnings, signage—there is some outdoor seating—we honored the work that GURA had started in downtown. We also have tenant signs, blade signs and a sign for the diner. We are only a half block off of Washington Avenue but you might as well be a half-mile away. Good signage can change that. Thank you.
I am Bob West and I have been with Oz Architecture as a senior principal for 31 years. You have just heard two people who are involved in Golden about how GURA has acted responsible for their projects. This is another project where urban renewal was very critical.
Probably some of you weren’t around in the late 50s and early 60s; Denver was a really vibrant city. There were a lot more cowboy hats walking down 17th Street. But there was a lot of activity due to offices, retail, and big department stores that people actually shopped in. Ten years later, in 1970, downtown Denver was a wasteland. You could shoot an arrow down 17th Street and you wouldn’t hit anybody. DURA (Denver Urban Renewal Authority) had this idea to tear down all the historic structures and rebuild large modern architectural pieces and try to move all the people to the upper levels away from the sidewalk. In other words, there would be bridges that cross over all the streets in Denver. They didn’t think the ground floor life on street was that important. There were 7 or 8 projects built that way. It really ruined downtown Denver. Now you know Denver, in 2010. Look at the difference! What caused that resurgence in Denver? A lot has to do with LoDo. In 1970, LoDo, the historic district of Denver was a malaise, a place where you wouldn’t go at night. Now it is one of the healthiest historic areas in the US. Higher density brought tremendous amount of living opportunities; residential units, lofts that spilled into the rest of Denver and enlivened its commercial health.
One of the keys to urbanism—which is also the key reason why the Gateway Station is important to Golden—is that you really need to create a 24/7 type of urban life.
I am going to talk about how you create architecture that gets people on the street in a 24/7 type of arrangement for activity and vibrancy. People love to live in historic places. Think about the Front Range – old town Fort Collins, Boulder, and Golden. People love to live and be around historic centers and all of the details of the buildings are why.
What we tried to do with this project was to respect those elements, but we had some real challenges. Here is a bird’s eye view (figure 22).
We looked at this project with GURA in an almost 3/4 block arrangement since we were tasked with developing the property itself. We were also tasked in working with GURA in developing the parking garage. We looked at end caps that would relate to the development already happening across 12th. Also we focused on getting people from the Coors Visitor’s Center up on 13th Street by a continuum of retail on the first level and up onto Washington Street. What you see out there now is simply the garage. What will happen are end caps with a brownstone type opportunity to finalize that particular block.
The numbers needed to make sense. We knew that the sales price for these condos would be in the high $200s or low $300s per square foot. It costs exactly the same to build in Golden or Boulder or in Denver. The sales price in Boulder and Denver are high $300s or $1,000 per square foot. To compensate, we had to maximize the density on this site. That’s why you see this type of massing and scale today on this block. Without that there was no way this project could have happened.
These are the plans (figure 20). The ground level is mainly retail. We always like to wrap retail around the entire street face. We feel there is always value in retail potential property when there is a parking garage on the other side of the alley right across from you. One of the challenges of this type of project is that we have 16,000 sf of retail, 7,500 sf of office, 34 condos plus parking. It’s almost like a Rubik’s Cube to put all of those elements together and work right. You always want to put access to underground parking as far back on the project as possible so you don’t have the drive lane interrupting any of the potential retail space. The other interesting thing about this project was that it is set up so that, as the other parcel is developed, we can actually access parking below that project from this garage. We decided to have an interior corridor because it is a deep square block. We had to get access to the office space through an elevator and stairs. We wanted a residential address on Washington Avenue with a separate entry where tenants could pick up mail and use their own elevator to the residential units.
We utilized cut off corners at the main intersection.That is an element you see in historic buildings. Entrances are set back in order to define the entry of storefronts. On the second floor we were facing the parking garage, and we didn’t feel we could sell units looking at the parking garage across the alley, but we did feel we could sell office condos. That’s where the office went. One of the things you can see in this particular footprint is that we had a very deep building. We wanted to draw light back into the units as far as possible, so we used a ‘lanai’ rather than an attached balcony. From the façade you don’t see balconies hung off the building on the street. We were dealing with a building with a large mass, five stories tall. The top floor was pretty controversial among the community. However, this project couldn’t have been developed at a two-story scale. As you know, Golden is a two to three-story scale town. How do you work a project of this size and try to get it fit in in a reasonably comfortable way? We used 25-foot bays as seen in the façade. A lot of things you see in architecture at scale you feel from the street level. We played some tricks such as the second story cornice that breaks up the scale of the building. We looked at changing materials, which were done for breaking up the elements of the building and for cost reasons. You see the punched windows, masonry detailing, a very typical Golden base where there is a column and a recessed entry awning element side band over the top. We set the top floor back to minimize the perception of the fifth story from the sidewalk. One other problem with putting condos on Main Streets is that people like to put their bikes and all of their stuff on their balconies and you see it when you have an open railing. This one has a 3-foot high solid railing that hides the clutter on the balconies.
We also feel that having these lanais set back gives a nice scale and shadow break to the building which also helps breaks up the mass. Here you can see how the stepping back of the fifth floor really works in breaking the scale down on a pedestrian level (figures 24 and 25). To be a good neighbor, one of the ideas was also to break down the mass on the corner where it marries the two-story elements. We ended up painting the historic sign back on the wall. We think this building after it ages will blend in as well as possible under the circumstances.
Panel Question and Answer
Deena Swetlik: My first question is for Bob. Was it all office condos then or just that part facing the alley?
Bob West: No, just on the alley. You don’t go in the same hallways. You can go up the elevator to the office side and not go into the residential area.
Deena Swetlik: Is the urban renewal authority really a BID (Business Improvement District)? There isn’t a BID for downtown, is there?
Mark Heller: We (GURA) are a lot of things and that may change. The downtown district is only the urban renewal project in Golden. We are starting to think about that this summer. We may create a DDA (Downtown Development Authority). I don’t think we have the business to make a BID strong enough to do much. Even if we create a DDA, it will be a while before we get the increment. We may end up creating the DDA sooner than later and may end up transferring GURA’s surplus. The windfall of the city will be enough to pay for everything it is responsible for. A unique thing for Golden is that 10 years ago the citizens passed an amendment limiting the city’s ability to provide incentives over $25,000 without a vote of the people. So GURA or a new DDA would be the only entity that could actually finance a redevelopment. As we have heard in the three projects presented here, the financing would not have happened without GURA.
John Olson: I have a question for Bob. On your Gateway project, it looked like stepping back of the fifth story was handled pretty well. It is pretty invisible from the street. How far back was that step back?
Bob West: Fifteen feet. The upper level is penthouses so they have nice terraces.
John Olson: My other question is for Mark. Downtown is your only urban renewal district, is that because you have never been approached by other people who want financing elsewhere?
Mark Heller: There are other parts of the city that could benefit from urban renewal. I think there are a few people in the city with a lot of money and a lot of antipathy towards urban renewal. We have been sued many, many times. I think that has had a lasting negative effect on the politicians, past, present and future. Nobody wants to handle another urban renewal project because it was so controversial. I hope that fear will fade because it is such an effective tool. For Golden, it’s our only tool.
Michael Copeland: I have a question about parking. Len, do you recall what the cost of your garage broke down to per space?
Len McBloom: $10,000 a parking space in 2001.
Mark Heller: The one we built for Gateway was $16,000 a space.
Michael Copeland: Bob West, is a future phase the next end cap? Is that parking going to go somewhere else?
Bob West: That parking can go underneath that end cap. In the main project there are 51 parking spaces for 34 units. The reason why this project works is the parking garage – it parks for retail and the office space.
Mark Heller: The parking garage was actually GURA’s contribution. The residential parking for Gateway is under Gateway. Any developer needs to provide actual on-site spaces for their residential units. Council can play games with commercial parking. For Gateway Station because it was replacing the current building that had been grandfathered, they were not required to provide that commercial parking. Council extended grandfathering for this development. Technically speaking, in terms of code compliance, Gateway did not have to build any new commercial parking. GURA felt that we really needed to have commercial parking. I think their bank and commercial tenants needed to know that there were actual parking spaces nearby. So we built underground. In each end cap, we built knockout panels. It still won’t provide all of the physical commercial spaces that those bookend parcels might need. The cost of building underground parking on small sites frustrates redevelopment of those bookend parcels. GURA was willing to make a deal with Brad – a non-reallocation agreement. We pledged to not allocate any of the public spaces next to Brad’s building to mollify his tenants. Our city attorney really hated that agreement and said that we can’t do it again.
Ronnie Pelusio: Was there surplus parking in the parking garage for Brad’s project, that is, jackson Court? What was the arrangement?
Brad Haswell: Gateway Station sold its last few units over the last four months. Now there are only resales available. With the economy turning eventually, you are going to see a real surge in Golden. I think supplying parking is key for more development in downtown. Boulder is a perfect example where parking garages were positioned around Pearl Street. For 25 years one end of the mall suffered greatly. The east end always had issues filling up and being active. The west end of the mall as incredibly vibrant and active. That was because there were two parking garages there. When they finally built the the garage that capped the eastend, that entire side of Pearl Street took off. It is absolutely critical to have parking. The fact that you already have it will be a huge positive for developers in the future.
Mark Heller: We took a lot of flack for that. People ask if you’re trying to be such a walkable town, then why are you spending millions of dollars on parking? My answer always was: “do you think the Boulder’s mall is a vibrant place? How do you think they got there?”
Cynthia Patton: With the Gateway project what was your public involvement process? Did the project happen after the ballot measure that capped the incentive?
Mark Heller: No, because urban renewal authorities are not the same as the city and do not have to comply with the city charter. It didn’t happen after the vote.
Len McBloom: We were 30 days away from getting the permit for that built-to-suit at Clear Creek Square and we were sued along with the city and the urban renewal authority. We took them to court and got it dismissed in record time. It allowed the project to go forward. The Telecom crashed two months later; we got the bankruptcy notice six months under construction. If Clear Creek Square had not happened, Gateway would not have happened. You can find a lot of fault with Clear Creek Square in terms of density, how it was executed, but it set the stage for a lot of other projects in Downtown Golden.
Cynthia Patton: For those of you who had a public process, were people more interested in the design component of the project or the retail strategy and the types of retail they would be attracting and adding to the downtown?
Mark Heller: Regarding Gateway, huge on both. We have a twice a month meeting with our downtown merchants, they were among the biggest proponents of Gateway Station. They knew that it would bring more competition, but it would also knew it would benefit the vitality. The community was intensely interested in every facet of Gateway Station. Downtown is the heart and soul of the city. It was a long and difficult process. I think the computer technology that we have now is key to that. We can actually show folks the new building and how much view it would or would not block. The northwest corner that almost collapsed inwards was a result of public input. Because it was a PUD, we could use public input and our financing to get things moving.
Bob West: I thought it was a great process. There was some controversy when we proposed that level of density on Main Street. I thought the suggestions were good. I thought we had a good working relationship with the town. You’re never going to please everyone, but I think we pleased most people.
Len McBloom: I think a lot of mixed-use development opportunities have their point in time. The point in time for Clear Creek Square was early in in terms of acceptance of mixed-use. We had a terrible time getting our lenders to accept mixed-use in downtown Golden. So much so that we had to say to GURA that we will not give you a commitment on sales tax generating retail. It was a very contemptuous issue that we had to negotiate through with GURA at that time. We gave them basically a “best efforts” deal – we will give you a period of time, but at some point we need to be free to lease the space to whomever we can lease it to. Another thing about Clear Creek Square that we made a conscious decision about horizontal mixed-use. Thus, the office financed as office. The residential financed as residential. We wanted to have a restaurant. The parking was a real challenge. I know Mark asks me why I created the condos? Because I had to get the tax exempt financing into the proforma. Because I was a private sector user and didn’t qualify for tax exempt financing. Private users can’t benefit from TIF for profit.