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Posted: June 19, 2013

High rises and high hopes

Highlands redevelopment marked by apartments, restaurants and a little controversy

Nora Caley

The Highlands neighborhood might be a real estate hot spot, but in its early days, residents couldn’t give their land away. According to Rebecca Hunt, president of Highland United Neighbors Inc. (HUNI) and a senior instructor at the University of Colorado Denver, in 1859 one of the earliest Highlands settlers tried to trade 136 lots for a horse, saddle and bridle, but the deal was rejected because the horse was more valuable than the land.

Oh, how things have changed. Today the Highlands neighborhood, bordered by West 38th Avenue, Interstate 25, the South Platte River, Speer Boulevard, West 29th Avenue and Sheridan Boulevard, is experiencing tremendous real estate activity, from single family homes to apartments to retail and restaurants. In a sure sign that the area has become trendy, people are grumbling about the lack of parking.

The early years 

Failed horse trade notwithstanding, people did move to the Highlands, the name given to the 35 subdivisions located uphill from Denver, after the 1864 flood. The area was annexed by the City of Denver in 1896.

Over the years the ethnic population varied dramatically. Alisa Zahller, senior curator for artifacts and curator of the art and design department for History Colorado Center, says Italians moved into the Northwest Denver neighborhood in the early 1900s, then moved out after World War II. “They were exposed to new cultures and they wanted something better,” Zahller explains. “So they moved to Arvada and Wheat Ridge.” In the 1920s a sizeable Hispanic population emerged, and in the 1990s the area began its gentrification.

Among the earliest and most visible redevelopments was Highlands Square, the intersection of 32nd Avenue and Lowell Boulevard that once consisted of mostly struggling retailers and restaurants. John R. Lucero, deputy director of Denver’s Office of Economic Development, says in the early 1990s the city stepped in. “We did a lot of financing for small business,” Lucero says. “We also improved a lot of streets, sidewalks and facades.”

Today the shopping district boasts 90 restaurants and retailers, ranging from independents such as Wild Yarns knitting supplies and Bang! restaurant, to chains.

Rocky Piro, manager of Denver Community Planning and Development, says the city also helped with the infrastructure. The viaducts on 15th, 16th and 20th streets were demolished in the 1990s, improving the connection between downtown and the Highlands neighborhood. Also, the pedestrian Millennium Bridge, completed in 2002, made the area even more walkable.

In addition to walkability, there is architecture, Piro says. “There is really good housing stock in Northwest Denver, a lot are pre-war brick, well-built homes with the finishing pieces and interior woodworking with fireplaces. Those are really attractive to people.”

Renovating timeworn properties is also appealing, as the number of permits issued has gone up and down with the economy. According to the City and County of Denver, in 2012 there were 291 new residential units built in the Highlands area, down from 320 in 2011. Still, those numbers are much higher than during the recession; in 2008 there were only 53 new residential units.

Controversy

Some residents would rather the permits had never been issued, turning to historical preservation to prevent construction. Hunt says HUNI worked to save a small abode on Clay Street. “It was part of the 1915 period bungalows, and they wanted to tear it down and put up a box,” she says. “But we got that preserved.”

In 2008 Denver changed some zoning rules after advocates pushed for single-family-only housing in pockets of the neighborhood. As a result, in part of West Highland (roughly 29th to 32nd Avenue, Stuart to Meade streets) a single-family home cannot be demolished and replaced with a multifamily building.

A larger change came in 2010 with citywide zoning modifications. Those refinements, which the City of Denver’s website explains were meant to “balance conservation and development,” have not stopped planned apartment projects. The developer RedPeak Properties, whose projects include 1600 Glenarm Place and the Seasons of Cherry Creek, intends to build three apartment buildings near Highlands Square. The proposed buildings will be four and five stories tall. Opponents filed a lawsuit and distributed yard signs demanding “No High Rises.” The National Fire Protection Association defines high rises as roughly seven stories. Still neighbors were miffed about obstructed views and increased traffic. RedPeak and No High Rises are not commenting about the debate, but at press time the old buildings on the property had been razed.

Piro notes that controversy is only part of the ongoing debate. “How do you take on new development, be sensitive and ensure we have a vibrant, diverse community here that’s welcoming to all people?” he asks.

Density

Jim Rodriguez, a licensed Realtor serving Northwest Denver, says two segments of house hunters are interested in the area. “The demographic is young professionals and empty nesters,” he says. “They want to be able to walk and a sense of community.”

Developers are detecting opportunity in the Lower Highlands, dubbed LoHi, east of Federal Boulevard. To keep up with demand, several apartment projects have either recently been completed or are in the works. The Highland Park Apartments near 30th and Zuni streets opened in 2012 with 125 apartments and the corporate headquarters of CorePower Yoga as the anchor retail tenant. Also recently completed is Line 28, with 130 units on 16th and Boulder streets. Vancouver, Wash.-based Holland Partner Group developed the project, originally called Highland Bridge Lofts. The new name refers to the streetcar line that formerly served the neighborhood.

One large project under construction is a 332-unit luxury complex on 2785 Speer Blvd., near I-25. Nearby will be the 105-unit Skyline View Apartments on Zuni Street and 28th Avenue. Also on the drawing board: Treehouse Development and Brokerage is building a five-story, 61-unit apartment building on the former site of Pagliacci’s restaurant on West 33rd Avenue and Navajo Street.

And then there are townhomes. LoHi Central Townhomes will break ground on 17th Street this month, with completion slated for the spring of 2014. “Changes are happening rapidly in LoHi,” says Mike Magner, the developer and owner of LoHi Central. “Over the next year you will see the completion of several townhomes and apartment buildings with more retail and restaurants coming in.”

Sherman R. Miller, executive director of the University of Colorado Real Estate Center, points out that one property type is missing: office space. “The office tenants are generally still looking to locate closer to or in the central business district,” he says.

One exception is the Tavern Hospitality Group, which bought the building at 2563 15th St. “Currently, we have several businesses on the ground floor that lease from us,” says Helen Wood, director of marketing. “Their leases run out in a year or two.  Once their leases are over, we’ll build a Tavern.”

The company will also build a parking garage. “Parking definitely is a challenge,” Wood says.

Not only is there a lack of parking, but a shortage of houses for sale. “Activity is strong because of low inventory,” says Ryan Carter, a real estate consultant/broker with 8z Real Estate. Because sellers were hesitant to put their homes on the market, prices spiked. “As people get priced out of Highlands, Berkeley, Sunnyside and Sloan’s Lake are getting a bump.”

Permits are down, with only 20 in January through March 2013. Still, Rodriquez says the Highlands area is in demand.  “It’s an upwardly going graph, and I think we are still in the middle,” he says

Nora Caley is a freelance writer specializing in business and food topics. She can be reached at noracaley@comcast.net.

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