What If? Elitch Gardens Move Downtown Reconsidered

When Elitch Gardens moved downtown in 1995, Denver officials saw it as a coup. Today there's a sense an amusement park isn't the best use of the 68 acres of prime real estate in the Central Platte Valley, but there's no clear path to redevelopment in the near term.
Elitch Gardens is often cited as the only amusement park located in the downtown of a major U.S. city, and its relocation from Denver's West Highland neighborhood to the Central Platte Valley in 1995 represented a triumph on several fronts.
The move kept a venerable, 105-year-old institution in Denver; the new Elitch's served as a catalyst -- albeit one of many -- in transforming the Central Platte River Valley from a vast expanse of weeds and grass into an urban hub of entertainment that enticed visitors from the suburbs and beyond and helped set off a steady wave of high-density projects emphasizing walkability and use of mass transit.

The relocation even represented an environmental triumph of sorts, as the new amusement and water park was built on a former Superfund cleanup site that by most accounts would have made higher-density development prohibitively expensive, on land the city of Denver purchased from Colorado & Southern's rail yard.
But the transformation of the Central Platte Valley and subsequent escalation of land values invites the question: Would an amusement park have been built on those 68 acres today, or would a plan for higher-density development win out?
Randy Nichols, a longtime downtown developer, calls the question an "interesting concept" and prefaces his answer by pointing out how much different conditions were 20 years ago. "At the time, I do remember thinking, 'Wow, that's really cool having that as another amenity downtown,'" says the President and Founder of The Nichols Partnership. "And I don't think anybody was saying, 'Oh, that's such a tremendous development site, [Elitch's] is the wrong use for it.'"
But what would developers be saying today? "The whole world has changed in the last three to four years," Nichols says. "The Highlands is becoming really a great area; Platte Street is becoming a great area, and the Platte Valley is becoming an incredibly great area. So if the decision were to be made today, I don't think it [Elitch's] would ever end up where it is. It'd be a much different use today."
Among the factors that have changed: land values. Nichols estimates that land in the Platte River Valley that sold for $24 to $31 per square foot 20 years ago today would sell for $250 to $300 per square foot. 
Bill Mosher, who oversees the development and investment activities in Colorado for the commercial developer Trammell Crow Company, figures the price appreciation where Elitch's actually sits has been even more dramatic. He puts the value of the old rail yard land 20 years ago at $2 or $3 per foot before Hensel Phelps, the lead contractor on the project, went to work on it.  
"Today it's probably over $100 a foot," Mosher says, though he adds, "It depends on whether there's environmental issues, whether there are floodplain issues, whether there are landfill issues."

Elitch's in Highlands Ranch?Elitch Gardens is often cited as the only amusement park located in the downtown of a major U.S. city.
The floodplain and contamination issues were considerable, according to Susan Powers, who served as Director of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority from 1987 to 1998. She recalls that the banks of the Platte River were widened to accommodate more water and that the property was built up with additional landfill. After some cleanup, contaminated areas that remained were capped with concrete. 
"It was a pretty hard sell for financing, because it was at a time when downtown was certainly not very healthy yet," says Powers, who is now President of Urban Ventures, a real estate development firm. "lt was in that early turnaround time, and here you have the story of a contaminated property in a flood plain. I thought it was a great use of that property and had a lot to do with the story of new development that happened in that area."
According to Powers, Highlands Ranch was the first choice for the new Elitch's location, but the Douglas County community passed on it. So attention turned to the Central Platte River Valley, which had no other foreseeable development prospects. 
"Downtown was dying, there wasn't a residential market at all," Powers says. "It was really kind of no man's land over there. Just a wasteland. It was really the first effort to try and change the image of what happens to former rail yards."
Trammell Crow's Mosher points out that the factors in the site selected for the amusement park  were not only that it would put to use what had once been a Superfund Cleanup site but give downtown Denver more regional attractions for tourism and the hotel industry.
The cost of remediating the site to standards suitable for high-density development as opposed to paving or "capping" parts of it is sometimes brought up as one of the considerations in putting an amusement park there -- as well as an obstacle that might limit future options.
On that, however, Nichols says, "That's not a deal killer. The whole Platte Valley has environmental issues and dirty soil and all that sort of thing, but it obviously hasn't stopped any of the development from occurring."
Still, Mosher says he's never heard talk of turning the amusement park into a higher-density use. "And I'm not so sure Elitch's isn't its highest and best use [of the property], frankly, because of some of the issues around there," he says. "Just buying the property from Elitch's would probably be an expensive proposition."

A mixed-use visionIn 2006, there was talk of coverting Elitch's to a higher-density use like the apartment buildings near it.
Indeed, it was during a period when Elitch's was in the process of changing hands in 2006 that Ken Schroeppel, a local authority on the subject of urban development, recalls some talk -- including an opinion piece in a Denver newspaper -- of converting the amusement park to a higher-density use. Schroeppel serves on the faculty of the University of Colorado Denver where he lectures on sustainable urbanism. He also operates the popular DenverInfill.com and DenverUrbanism.com websites.
Schroeppel responded to that notion of converting Elitch's to a higher-density use with a pair of blogs, including one titled, "Denver's Elitch Gardens: Don't raze, urbanize!" His other post on the subject made the case for keeping Elitch's and undertaking high-density projects on existing surface parking.
Talk of Elitch's future quieted in 2007 when Orlando, Florida-based CNL Lifestyle Properties purchased Elitch Gardens from Six Flags. The park had operated as "Six Flags Elitch Gardens" after Premier Parks purchased the park in 1997 and later acquired all of Six Flags' parks.
Some seven years after Elitch's pending sale spurred talk of its future, Schroeppel's view hasn't changed. He points to the preponderance of surface parking lots in the Central Business District and LoDo that would be better candidates for redevelopment than Elitch's.
"There's still something like 65 parking lots, and that doesn't even count the Golden Triangle. And then there's Arapahoe Square, which is almost all surface parking," Schroeppel says. "I would say if we continue to develop at the pace we're on – we're in quite a boom period at the moment -- we'd probably have at least two or three real estate cycles before we would be starting to run out of land. We're probably talking 30 to 40 years. So I think any talk of Elitch Gardens as a redevelopment site is quite premature."
Nichols agrees such talk may be premature. "I don't hear anybody say, 'I'm going to see if they'll sell their parcels for Elitch's,'" he says.
"That being said, it'd be a great site. I think it'd be something...if you could get a hold of it at a reasonably good price. Maybe it's not ready today, but it's certainly in the path of progress for the future that you would jump on it."

This is the third in a three-part "What If?" series by Confluence Denver. Previous installments covered the Greyhound station in Denver and the potential return of streetcars to the city.

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

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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