Flipping Denver's Brownfields: Changing the Legacy of Urban Land

All over Denver, former industrial sites are upending histories of pollution. Cleaning up and redeveloping these properties, better known as brownfields, offers the route to a denser, stronger city.
Once upon a time, Denver was home to the tallest smokestack on Earth.

Built in 1892, the 350-foot brick chimney at 41st Avenue and Brighton Boulevard at Asarco's smelter was demolished on Feb. 25, 1950, attracting a crowd of a quarter-million people.

But the demise of the smokestack didn't erase the surrounding site's history of gold and silver refining. It was one of Denver's most notorious brownfields -- former industrial or commercial sites where future use is affected by real or perceived environmental contamination -- for decades.

Because of residual lead, arsenic and other pollutants, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the 75-acre Asarco property a Superfund site -- the designation reserved for the most contaminated areas in the country -- in 1993.

Nearly 25 years later, the site has been reborn as Crossroads Commerce Park.A drone shot of the Crossroads Commerce Park.

Asarco was forced to clean it up as the result of several rounds of litigation. Development began after cleanup, and Trammell Crow has built 670,000 square feet of speculative industrial buildings and three build-to-suit projects since 2014. Four build-to-suit sites remain on the property.

Ann Sperling, senior director for Trammell Crow in Denver, says she has targeted "largely industrial or e-commerce" companies as tenants.

A complex public-private partnership remediated the property and installed infrastructure, and Trammell Crow developed the buildings. "It underwent years of investigation and remediation," says Sperling, citing "the cooperation and involvement" of the EPA, the Colorado Department of Health and the Environment, Adams County, the City and County of Denver and Globeville I, an LLC established by EnviroFinance Group. (EnviroFinance is also involved at redevelopments at  St. Anthony's and Dahlia Square sites in Denver.)

The first tenants moved into Crossroads Commerce Park in mid-2016. Amazon, American Tire Distributors, and Lennox are current occupants of the spec buildings; Empire Staple, Sierra Pacific Industries, and Inline Distributing Company are in the build-to-suits.

It's a comeback for an area that was a void in Denver's urban fabric for a generation, after serving as "a huge employment location for years," says Sperling. As many as 800 employees will work in the Crossroads Commerce Park when construction is complete, she notes.

"This project has been recognized widely as an example of [brownfield redevelopment]," says Sperling, citing awards from ULI Colorado and other organizations.

And it's proven an economic catalyst for the surrounding area instead of a barrier.  After a decade of inactivity, the area has seen 1.3 million additional square feet come online since 2014. "Imitation is the best form of flattery," says Sperling.

Human-scale reuse

Jesse Silverstein is senior advisor to the Colorado Brownfields Partnership. The organization's predecessor, the Colorado Brownfields Foundation, folded into the nonprofit Community Builders in 2013. "We had done a very good job of raising awareness," says Silverstein. "We decided our mission was accomplished."

Silverstein's list of the top brownfield success stories in Denver reads like a guidebook to the city. "Mile High Stadium, Elitch's, the aquarium," he says. "Certainly the largest successes are Lowry and Stapleton."

But small projects might just have a collectively larger impact. "My heart and soul is really on Main Street," says Silverstein. "Let's get down to people scale." He points to Fire Clay Lofts, built in the late 1990s at the site of an old brickyard in Ballpark, and work undertaken by the Colfax Mainstreet Coalition.

The Colfax Mainstreet initiative was a collaboration between Denver, Lakewood and the Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA), as well as business improvement districts (BIDs) and private developers.

"I've been working in the city's brownfield program since 2006," says Dave Wilmoth, senior project manager, with Denver Department of Environmental Health's Environmental Quality Division. "When we started Colfax, we wanted to do something a little different. We wanted to work more collaboratively with for-profit entities."

The strategy was to partner with the four BIDs along Colfax Avenue to identify developers who might work on brownfield sites, and the $900,000 EPA grant funded evaluations of properties’ contamination and the associated risks. "Time is money," says Wilmoth. "We streamlined all of that for them and helped developers get through those hurdles with minimal disruption."

"A lot of what we did on Colfax was adaptive reuse," says Wilmoth, noting that Colfax is legendarily the longest commercial street in the urban U.S. "There are a lot of gas stations."

But many were abandoned after the interstate era commenced in the 1960s. "Prior to I-70 getting constructed, [Colfax] was the highway," he continues. "When I-70 opened, Colfax almost immediately went into decline."

Wilmoth says Art Deco garages and service stations built from the 1920s to the 1960s "were the targets" of the Colfax Mainstreet Coalition. One such station was at East Colfax and Monroe Street in the Congress Park neighborhood. After a $60,000 grant from the coalition removed three underground tanks and cleared the property for development, Rosen Properties renovated the 1920s-era structure, underutilized since the 1970s, into a multi-tenant space that now houses Cerebral Brewing and Humble Pie.

Rising property values citywide have made similar projects possible beyond Colfax. On South Broadway, a long-fallow Sinclair gas station is in the process of transforming into a Snarf's Sandwiches location expected to open in late 2017.

Snarf's also transformed a shuttered auto shop in the Ballpark area into another location in 2014. "The owner [Jimmy Seidel] has had his eye on this property for years," says Natalie Brilliant, Snarf's director of corporate development, noting that numerous underground tanks were removed before renovations began at the vintage 1950s station. "We're keeping the same look"

The city's Wilmoth says he's now replicating the Colfax program on properties within a half of a mile of the South Platte River in Denver with a $400,000 grant. "We're looking at the Central Platte Valley as a model to follow," he says, and points to "real opportunities” both north and south of downtown.

The Giambrocco project in RiNo is one of the sites that took advantage of the program. "It's almost four city blocks," says Wilmoth. "Like most of RiNo, it was a light industrial property."

This is how big cities grow. "Denver, like many urban core cities throughout the country and around the world, are increasingly challenged," says Wilmoth. "They're boxed in but they're seeking growth. Growth comes from densification."

New life

The Colfax Mainstreet Coalition commissioned Silverstein to publish a report on its impact. He found that the grant funded assessments at 17 sites in Denver between 2014 and 2016, all of which have since been developed. The report estimates that the projects in the city will account for more than 1,200 permanent jobs and 367 affordable housing units, and about a $40 million increase in tax revenue over the next decade.

The Colorado Brownfields Partnership's Silverstein says craft brewing, cannabis and light manufacturing have been drivers for numerous brownfield projects in Denver. "The broad implication is that by adaptively reusing or redeveloping the small sites, the collective development community can bring back utility to buildings and meet modern business needs," says Silverstein. "Along with that we can get some higher-paying jobs. That's very positive."

He says programs like the Colfax Mainstreet Coalition offer an incentive that helps balance the added risk of a brownfield project, noting that the added risks come with more potential rewards. "These programs are intended to invest money to address a public cost that is a legacy of pollution," explains Silverstein. "The biggest issue is still stigma. It's a fierce stigma."

Developers, bankers, and potential tenants still often shy away from brownfield sites. "Lenders are still pretty shy on lending on a contaminated property," says Silverstein. "Is there enough value in the project where the environmental conditions are a drop in the bucket?" If there's not enough value, he adds, "They're going to hold up the revitalization of that neighborhood."

There's no shortage of supply, Silverstein notes. "Brownfields are everywhere. Brownfields are synonymous with redevelopment and adaptive reuse." He points to I-25 between Alameda to Evans avenues as the next frontier in Denver. "That's a tough area because there's not a lot of residential."41 acres once occupied by the Gates rubber factory are slowly moving towards groundbreaking to become Broadway Station and a whopping 2,600 new residential units.

However, construction is underway on more than 200 units of apartments at the formerly radioactive Shattuck site, one of Denver's most notorious brownfields of yore, two blocks west of Broadway at Colorado Avenue. A mile north, the 41 acres once occupied by the Gates rubber factory are slowly moving towards groundbreaking to become Broadway Station and a whopping 2,600 new residential units. "Gates is a huge-scale opportunity and hopefully it continues to move forward," says Silverstein.

Another large-scale brownfield in central Denver could follow a similar path. Near 6th Avenue and I-25, Union Pacific shut down the old Burnham Railyard in 2015. After reports the railroad giant would sell the 70-acre property, company officials declined to comment on their plans to market the property for this story.

While it represents a Gates- or Asarco-like hole in Denver that could better serve the city as a mixed-use development, redeveloping the property will be no small feat. "Railroads are the toughest ones to do," says Silverstein. "Railroads are considered to be a separate entity under the federal government. They almost have their own sovereignty."

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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