Broncoland: Rethinking Denver's Stadium District

It's an entertaining thought for the Denver Broncos -- rip out the parking lots, and put up a paradise.
The soon-to-be-renamed Sports Authority Field at Mile High, home of the Denver Broncos since 2001, sits on roughly 89 acres on the northern edge of the Sun Valley neighborhood, said to be Denver's poorest. Much of that land owned by the Metropolitan Football Stadium District (MFSD) is taken up by the 76,125-seat stadium itself. But the Broncos' campus also includes 14 surface parking lots, mostly south of the stadium, totaling 7,500 parking spaces.

Wedged between the booming Highlands to the north and similarly thriving downtown Denver to the east, it's an area ripe for development, one that's larger than Disneyland's 85 acres, and one that begs the question as Denver booms: Is there a higher and better use for that sea of surface parking that's mostly vacant for all but a dozen or so days of the year? Like, say, a stadium entertainment district?

That notion gained steam back in December because of an announcement by the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development that Sun Valley had been award a $30 million neighborhood grant to help build 750 new mixed-income housing units. Buried in that vision for Sun Valley's revitalization that focused on improving housing was this sentence:

"In the northern part of the neighborhood, the Denver Broncos plan to construct a $351 million Entertainment District with retail, commercial and residential developments."

Visions of Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke's $2.6 billion stadium and entertainment zone on 298 acres, described as an "NFL Disneyland" and slated for completion in 2019, must have danced in some heads. A flurry of stories about a Broncos entertainment district blossoming alongside the stadium followed the HUD announcement, most of the stories resembling this one in Stadium Digest.

The Broncos, though, were quick to temper whatever grand visions those stories conjured, releasing a statement of their own on Dec. 12:

Our organization fully supports the enhancement of the area around the stadium, including the Sun Valley neighborhood. While we've had discussions with the Metropolitan Football Stadium District and the city about the future development surrounding the stadium, those conversations have been very preliminary and have not included any cost estimates. We will continue to explore this possibility with the Metropolitan Football Stadium District and the city.

Similarly, Matt Sugar, director of stadium affairs for MFSD, characterized plans for an entertainment district as premature and referred to a Sun Valley Decatur-Federal Station Area Plan from April 2013 as the origin of the entertainment district chatter.

The vision dates to the 2013 Decatur-Federal Station Area Plan."That's where most of this is coming from," says Sugar, who called plans for such a development "not ready for prime time," and later added, "I think somebody got a little ahead of the game there on what was happening in and around here."

Still, one of the civic or business leaders endorsing the revitalization of Sun Valley -- the entertainment zone within it -- was
Mac Freeman, the Broncos' vice president of business development: 
"Sports Authority Field at Mile High draws over 750,000 visitors a year," his endorsement in the 2013 Decatur-Federal Plan reads. "Providing more entertainment and shopping options near the stadium will heighten the experience for Broncos fans, help enliven the Sun Valley neighborhood, spread out event-related traffic impacts and bring more jobs to West Denver."

Synergy with Sun Valley

It seems a question of when, not if, plans for an entertainment district around Sports Authority Field take shape and become public. That's the sense you get from Reed Silberman, owner of Ink Monstr, a commercial print shop in Sun Valley. Silberman is president of Sun Valley Community Coalition, a registered neighborhood organization (RNO) and serves on Denver Housing Authority's Community Advisory Committee for Decatur-Federal plan.

"The stadium's been very vague to this date what their intentions and plan are," Silberman says. "I know they've been working closely with Denver Housing Authority to kind of have synergy with the Sun Valley development."

The sea of parking around the Broncos' home field might have a better use.As for where an entertainment district would be located, Silberman says, "It would be the parking lot zone, from the Colfax viaduct where Brooklyn's [sports bar] is, all the way up to the stadium. They're going to 'densify' parking from what I understand: build parking structures instead of having flat-ground parking. Then it's going to be bars, restaurants, retail, vibrancy, basically a transformed entertainment district from what it is now, to, I guess, complement the Sun Valley development."

But how did the $351 million figure materialize? Silberman's not sure. "We're not privileged to where that money is coming from and who's spending it, if it's the stadium, if it's the developer, if it's a partner of the stadium," he says. "We did know it was initially a part of the discussions with DHA, with the Sun Valley Development Plan. But I am not aware of who their investment is coming from or why they picked that number [$351 million] and what the initial phase of development would be."

One source familiar with the stadium-development industry said potential partners in such projects are likely reluctant to talk about what they know, speak out of turn, for fear of ruffling the feathers of those who they hope to earn business or win bids from.

"I think everybody's wanting to take the Broncos' lead on it and probably not wanting to get involved in any statements just because they want to be involved in the project but wouldn't want to be out in front of anything," that industry observer notes.

A national trend

Whenever plans are drawn up, there'll be no shortage of existing concepts to draw from, nor a lack of local expertise.

One such expert is ICON Venue Group, based in the Denver suburb of Greenwood Village. ICON has headed up dozens of stadium projects around the world, including Denver's Pepsi Center and Sports Authority Field, as well as Colorado State University's Multi-Purpose Stadium, slated for completion in Sept. 2017. ICON's CEO, Tim Romani, was executive director of the Metropolitan Football Stadium District until 2001 when he left to form his company.

More relevant to the subject of entertainment districts, ICON is also managing the $575 million restoration and expansion of the Chicago Cubs' Wrigley Field, including a development adjacent to the ballpark that will include a hotel, office space, fitness club, retail space, related infrastructure and open-air plaza.

Milwaukee has plans for an entertainment district at the Bucks' new arena.Beyond Wrigleyville, entertainment districts surrounding sports venues is a national trend. New home arenas for the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks and the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco have similar developments in the works, as do Major League Baseball's Texas Rangers, and the NFL's Green Bay Packers are exploring options. In Los Angeles, the NBA's Lakers and NHL's Kings play at the Staples Center at L.A. Live, and Los Angeles Stadium at Hollywood Park is under construction.

As for the transformation of the entire Sun Valley neighborhood, Reed Silberman, the owner of Ink Monstr and dedicated neighborhood stakeholder, is hopeful it will happen.

"I think it's really exciting," says Silberman, who bought the building for his business in 2012 and spent a year renovating it before moving in. "I think it's going to definitely make this a vibrant community with a lot of job creation and amenities that we don't have now. The door is open for pretty much everything to come in, whether it's  grocery shopping, retail shopping, adventure sport rentals; I'm sure we're going to see a wide range of different types of businesses and offerings and amenities to the neighborhood, because we need it all."

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.
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Read more articles by Mike Taylor.

Mike Taylor is a freelance writer in Denver. He is editor of ColoradoBiz magazine and previously wrote for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram and The Anchorage Times.
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