Posted: February 08, 2009
Executive edge: Charlie Woolley
Denver developer has his heart in historic preservation – and endingLynn Bronikowski
On a frigid night in December, Denver developer Charlie Woolley gathered business leaders and commercial real estate colleagues in a LoDo building under renovation to give them a taste of what being homeless is like. The president and CEO of St. Charles Town Co. announced he was pledging $100,000 of his own money in matching funds to kick off the Commercial Real Estate Initiative to support Denver’s Road Home. Never mind that the stock market had dropped as low as the temperatures. Woolley was confident Denver’s commercial real estate community could raise $500,000 for the city’s comprehensive 10-year plan to end homelessness.
“I’ve seen how Denver’s Road Home works, and it’s so inspiring to see people who have struggled so hard get into a situation where they really do get in a home with lots of support services,” said Woolley, who since founding St. Charles Town Co. in 1993 has centered his career around converting old, urban buildings, including historic ones, into housing, retail, office and other viable structures. “Having those people on the street and not getting our support creates a lot of health problems and all the costs for the city and county of Denver associated with the problem of homelessness. And that’s really bad for commercial real estate and downtown Denver.” Woolley traces his interest in historic preservation to his father’s avocation of restoring 17th and 18th century houses in Massachusetts where he grew up. His grandmother’s family members were antique dealers. Woolley earned a bachelor’s in urban planning from the University of Massachusetts and an MBA from the University of Denver.
“I was interested in the social-values side of urban planning – people getting into good housing and solving other problems,” said Woolley, whose first job was renovating the Four Mile House Park before entering commercial real estate in 1985. He was an urban pioneer – converting what was once a turn-of-the-century clothing manufacturing plant and warehouse into Bayly Lofts, one of the first residential projects in the Ballpark Neighborhood. The project would give him an insatiable taste to preserve dozens more historic buildings including his favorite — the Lowenstein Theater, which his company acquired in 2005 and converted into a retail development that houses the Tattered Cover Book Store and Twist & Shout music store. “That was taking a pig in a poke and making something of it – a crown jewel,” Woolley said. “The building had been vacant for 20 years and needed the right kind of use so we scoured the community for people who could go in there. It was creative, historic preservation, and it made me lots of friends. We heard from people who said, ‘I was an usher there,’ ‘I danced there.’ In the ’50s and ’60s, this was the community theater building in Denver.”
St. Charles currently is renovating the former BMH Synagogue at 16th and Gaylord streets into a new home for Church in the City which sits on an old Safeway site at Colfax and York that Woolley hopes to develop in a multi-use project. “There had been neglect in the synagogue building for 20 years and pigeons had gotten in,” Woolley said. “The pigeon guano was as high as this table when we got in there,” he said, tapping the table in his office at 1515 Wazee St., the Hardware Block, another of his mixed-use developments in historic LoDo. “That was the ugliest condition we’ve ever worked in, but it will be a beautiful church.” He admits that the economic downturn has drastically curbed commercial real estate development. “You can talk to people but can’t get much in the way of commitment; forget about speculative real estate, and financing is on very conservative terms,” he said. “In ’09, we’re going to continue to be drawn to historic preservation and owner-user based real estate. “What I like about our business is that we are just as profitable as everything else, but we get the social dividends of neighborhood revitalization, historic preservation and support independent businesses, which are all super things, and people say, ‘Wow! Isn’t that awesome.’”
Lynn Bronikowski is a freelance writer in Denver.