Gates to the City: The Bright Future of Denver's Former Industrial Core

The area around the recently demolished Gates Rubber plant is ablaze with development, but there's still a notable hole in the city in the middle of it all. A new plan for the site is beginning to emerge.
The Gates Rubber plant, for better or worse, shaped south Denver for the majority of the last century.

Now that it's gone, it's still shaping it -- although the current shape could be described as amorphous at best.

A notable innovator and manufacturer of rubber belts, Gates was one of the city's largest companies after the company set up shop at 999 S. Broadway in 1914. By the 1950s, Gates employed more than 5,000 people, and many of them lived in the immediate vicinity.

But the factory shut down once and for all in 1991 after production was moved largely to Asia, and that left Denver with a sizable void in its urban fabric.

Cherokee Denver's lauded vision for mixed-use, transit-oriented redevelopment came crashing to Earth with the Great Recession and the title reverted back to Gates in 2009. Time froze at the decaying factory until crews finally demolished it in 2014. Gates sold the site for $28.5 million in September 2014, and Denver-based Frontier Renewal is currently managing the property for owner Broadway Station Partners (BSP).

Gates sold the site for $28.5 million in September 2014, and Denver-based Frontier Renewal is currently managing the property for owner Broadway Station Partners (BSP). Nearly a decade after the initial plan coalesced, BSP is rekindling the vision for redevelopment now that Denver's economic fortunes have reversed.

The company has big plans, says Rocky Mountain, a board member with both BSP and Frontier Renewal, but a good deal of environmental remediation work remains. (Yes, that's his real name.) "BSP is a horizontal developer whose business model is to clean up the environmentally contaminated land, entitle the land for highest and best use and sell parcels to vertical developers," he explains.

The big picture is starting to come into focus. "Current plans call for a mixed-use development with about half the density of the previous plan and almost double the open space," says Mountain. "The current plan envisions about 2,600 multifamily units, about 1,000,000 square feet of commercial space and 150,000 to 250,000 square feet of retail."

Beyond that, he isn't getting into too many specifics. "BSP has engaged a world-class team including land planners, architects and engineering firms to design a master plan for the redevelopment of the Gates site," says Mountain. "With Broadway Station being the second-busiest light rail stop in the RTD system and the only station with both north-south and east-west light rail traffic, BSP has put a premium on transit-oriented development guidelines in the redevelopment of this site."

There's still a good deal of bureaucracy to navigate. The planning process requires city council approval of the I-25 and Broadway Station Area Plan (due for completion in spring 2016), rezoning and reworking the tax increment financing (TIF) and assorted regulatory sign-offs regarding design standards, traffic and infrastructure.

"In order to have land ready to sell to vertical developers, BSP must not only remediate contaminated land but must also entitle the land through the City of Denver and work with the Denver Urban Renewal Authority to reconstitute the TIF package for infrastructure," explains Mountain. "BSP is hopeful that the entitlement process and TIF reconstitution will be complete in Q2 of 2016," says Mountain.

About two-thirds of the 41.8-acre site currently already has regulatory closure from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), he adds. That includes all land parcels to the west of the railroad tracks as well as the 2.5-acre parcel to the west of the South Platte River.

Mountain says BSP has also submitted a four-acre parcel east of the railroad tracks on the Broadway side of the property to CDPHE and company officials are hopeful that parcel will be certified as clean by the end of 2015.

"BSP will continue to work with CDPHE to obtain regulatory closure for the remaining approximately 10 acres on the east side of the tracks and hopes to make substantial progress against this goal in 2016," he adds.

A new Sprouts Farmers Market opened in August 2015 at Mississippi Avenue and Sherman Street.Signs of change

East of Broadway, there are plenty of projects that are harbingers of the pending redevelopment across the street. A number of apartment projects have been completed, including The Lionstone Group's 267-unit 1000 South Broadway complex, and a 400-unit project from Carmel Partners is in the works at Mississippi Avenue and Sherman Street.

Townhomes and single-family homes are also part of the mix. Kiely Wilson and Lance Gutsch co-founded Pando Holdings in 2012 to acquire 6.15 acres of old Gates parking lots for $9.3 million.

Pando subsequently sold 29 single-family lots to TRI Pointe Homes -- the resulting houses quickly sold out -- and built a series of townhomes that were intended as for-sale product. But the dynamics of Denver's overheated rental market changed the math on the $56 million project, dubbed Platt Park North.

"We decided to keep our 60 townhomes and rent them out," says Wilson. The first units hit the market in April and they're now 90 percent leased.

Noting that the typical three-bedroom unit rents for about $3,000 a month, he says there was nothing like Platt Park North on the market. "We just see it as a good long-term investment."

Wilson touts the "central" location, with easy access to I-25, light rail and Old South Pearl Street. "The area's already surrounded by great neighborhoods: Baker, Wash Park and Platt Park."

But the immediate vicinity -- namely the many empty parcels along Broadway -- still leaves something to be desired. Wilson calls it "the hole in the donut," adding, "My opinion is Denver doesn't really have a midtown."

With Gates and the other present and future projects, there's a huge opportunity to create one that makes sense for a denser, more transit-oriented future. The original plan from Cherokee Denver included not only housing, but Sundance Cinemas, local restaurants and plenty of retail and office space. Concepts that have emerged since included a campus for creative industries, an "innovation district" and public art that highlights the area's rubber legacy.

"As Gates goes, it's only going to get bigger," says Wilson. "They're a good group and I think there's enough demand. It's going to be a great project."

But it's not just about building -- it's also about connecting. "Reconnecting this swath of urban infill south of the Central Business District into the existing grid is a key goal for BSP's redevelopment effort," says Mountain. "Providing neighbors to the west of the Platte River to access to Broadway Station is a key goal and it's equally important to provide neighborhoods to the east of Broadway with access to the trail system to the west of the river.

The I-25 and Broadway Station Area Plan is a linchpin for continued development, he adds. "Ensuring that Broadway Station is pedestrian- and bike-friendly is another important goal and significant time and energy have gone into thinking about bike paths around and across the property as well as ensuring that it development remains very walkable. Finally, the RTD station itself is seen as the 'heart' of the redevelopment and BSP has sought to actively engage RTD in the planning efforts to ensure that the ridership experience for all of RTD's constituencies -- train riders, bus riders, commuters as well as RTD transit employees -- is enhanced through the redevelopment efforts."

From ruin porn to investment target

It's not just developers. Retailers and speculators are already making moves in anticipation of more redevelopment to come.

Case in point: A new Sprouts Farmers Market opened in late August at Mississippi Avenue and Sherman Street. Two months later, the building's Greenwood Village-based developer, Cadence Capital Investments, sold it -- and its 15-year lease -- to a California investor for $13.1 million.

"Sprouts was looking for an opportunity to serve the south Denver market," says Lucy Dinneen, development partner with Cadence. "This area has a fairly dense population and is densifying further. It is also relatively well-educated."

Dinneen also cites the location and potential for more development as key factors that catalyzed the project. "The store opened strong with the expectation that, as the density in this area continues to increase and neighbors learn about Sprouts, it will just continue to grow."

Pando Holdings, for its part, isn't done in the area. The company has acquired nearly 70,000 square feet of land on the east side of South Broadway between Mississippi and Arizona avenues and cleared most of the structures.

"We own the majority of that block," says Wilson. "We're not sure what we're going to do with it. It's good real estate one way or another. Stay tuned."

Broadway Station Partners is hosting the first of two public meetings detailing their plans for the Gates site from 6 to 8 p.m. on Wed. Dec. 9 at McKinley-Thatcher Elementary School.
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Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

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