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New & Next: Shared Spaces Quietly Catalyze Community Redevelopment

In Denver today, over 400 nonprofits and small businesses are working in 30-plus shared spaces, employing thousands and occupying over 1 million square feet of commercial space.

The Junction Box houses Wonderbound and other tenants in Arapahoe Square.

The Tramway Nonprofit Center, an 115-year-old, 95,000-square-foot former Denver Tramway Company, occupies a full city block.

With today's exploding coworking trend, it is easy to miss the fact that Denver has been building a foundation for this smart approach to real estate for over a decade. Megan Devenport  of Denver Shared Spaces and Christi Craine of Urban Land Conservancy dig into the trend.
What seems like an overnight explosion of hip, collaborative spaces for small businesses, tech companies and startups, is actually evidence that Denver has hit a tipping point. Just ten years ago, Denver had only three self-identified shared spaces. They weren't sexy, they weren't home to high-growth companies and they didn't offer cool design -- they simply housed nonprofit organizations that were using co-location as a tool to work together and increase productivity.

At that time, the commercial real estate industry had not yet awoken to the opportunities to come. Full-service executive suites were the stuffy domain of title companies and wealth managers (no offense), and Denver's small nonprofits and startups were largely relegated to undesirable office space on South Colorado Boulevard. Nap rooms, beer taps and open workspaces had only just become part of companies like Google. Needless to say, those pioneering shared space centers in Denver were not measuring themselves against the trendsetters in Silicon Valley.

A decade and a Great Recession later, Denver is now home to more than 30 shared spaces representing a broad spectrum of tenants. How did we go from three to 30 in such a (relatively) brief time period? The reality is that the remarkable expansion of shared spaces as a development tool is fueled in part by an ongoing collaborative infrastructure supporting and connecting these centers.

A nationally recognized, public-private partnership, Denver Shared Spaces (DSS) creates new centers, improves existing spaces and champions supportive policy across metro Denver. Started in 2009 by Denver Office of Strategic Partnerships (DOSP), Piton Foundation and Urban Land Conservancy (ULC), DSS has grown to include partners from additional city agencies, commercial real estate companies and community-based nonprofits.

DSS is a unique resource that acts as the local repository for best-practices, facilitates peer-to-peer learning opportunities and works with local government to remove barriers and incentivize the development of community-supporting shared spaces. Operating on the premise that effective shared spaces create a sense of place, extend the reach of organizations housed within them and achieve greater impact on local communities, DSS is proving that shared spaces are not for just the trendy companies. This working environment directly helps nonprofits improve the lives of the people they serve.

As a snapshot of Denver's collaborative infrastructure for these projects, let's take a look at the Tramway Nonprofit Center acquired by ULC in 2007. This 115-year-old, 95,000-square-foot former Denver Tramway Company maintenance facility located in Denver's Cole neighborhood occupies a full city block. It isn't the historic status or size of this property that is impressive, but rather the fact that it houses 16 organizations who serve thousands locally and regionally and provide jobs for hundreds of mission-minded individuals.

ULC's acquisition and direct financing of capital improvements has leveraged additional investment including DOSP's Nonprofit Energy Efficiency Program. The Denver Office of Economic Development has supported improvements necessary to not only enhance the quality of the structure, but better connect tenants through renovations that allow for collaboration. Now at full capacity, ULC has contracted with DSS to facilitate on-going community growth and identify partnership opportunities between tenants. This uniquely collaborative approach ensures that ULC can not only continue making improvements to this shared space while charging 30 percent below-market rates, but can also cultivate a network of services that directly benefit the residents of the neighborhood and beyond.

In Denver today, over 400 nonprofits and small businesses are working in 30-plus shared spaces, employing thousands and occupying over 1 million square feet of commercial space. While this may be a drop in the bucket compared to our booming development market, it is important to recognize that each center is uniquely positioned to act as an economic driver for its immediate neighborhood and the wider Denver community.

As we think about Denver's current growth and robust development pipeline, this real estate approach represents an important component of a diversified development strategy. Community-driven shared spaces provide the necessary stability for nonprofits and small businesses across a range of economic cycles. These spaces are part of a broader ecosystem, one that Denver relies on to successfully stabilize, revitalize and catalyze development.

Megan Devenport provides program management for Denver Shared Spaces, a dynamic public-private partnership that supports mission-driven shared spaces through consulting, education, and policy advocacy. Her background in social work and direct service informs her work, framing innovative shared spaces as tools for equitable development and revitalization of communities.


Christi Craine is operations and communications director at Urban Land ConservancyShe is a member of Mile High Connects, Healthy Places Westwood, Westwood Unidos, Community Development Partnership and Denver Shared Spaces.
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