Lowry: Metamorphosis from Military to Mixed-Use Nears Completion

For nearly two decades, the transformation of the former Lowry Air Force Base has been nationally praised as a model for base redevelopment and, more broadly, urban redevelopment. Now, the ongoing project gears up for its final installment: Boulevard One.
When Lowry Air Force Base closed in 1994, an 11-mile barbed wire fence surrounded 1,000 vacant buildings; practically overnight, the once-vibrant community morphed into a ghost town few wandered past dark. The base closure was one of the first in a national wave.

"There was no real blueprint yet for how to do this," says Hilarie Portell, Director of Public Relations and Marketing for the Lowry Redevelopment Authority.

When Lowry folded, the city lost nearly $300 million in annual spending and about 10,000 jobs -- right around the time Denver was rebounding from the oil and gas bust in the 1980s. After securing landmark status for buildings and districts with historic value, the Authority had to create new jobs and housing for a wide range of citizens.

"Military bases are economic engines for a community," says Portell, explaining, "Our job was to replace lost jobs in a sustainable way."

An administrative core used for office purposes became the Lowry Town Center. Early on, starting in 1998 with parcels surrounding the town center, developers introduced two large spec office buildings and a small business office park based on demand from small and mid-sized companies.

The base's college was converted into satellite campuses for the Community College of Denver and the Community College of Aurora, and a medium-security prison and old officer's quarters saw new life as elementary schools. Thanks to smart development decisions, Lowry currently houses 100 employers, including retail stores and services, nonprofit organizations and schools.

From the get-go, neighborhoods were planned to offer everything from affordable housing for transitional and homeless families all the way up to million-dollar custom homes in hopes of creating a diverse urban community that would function like a village. Thus far, the Authority has built and sold 190 affordable homes and 892 affordable apartments, a notable percentage of the more than 4,500 total residential units once the project is complete.

"We wanted a device by which affordable housing could stay affordable for perpetuity; that's a tricky thing to do, especially in a hot real estate market like Denver's," Portell says. The solution was the Colorado Community Land Trust, a nonprofit that holds the land under its affordable-priced properties, allowing homeowners to pay monthly leases for their homes and keep some of the equity accrued while simultaneously ensuring sales prices remain affordable for subsequent buyers.

Preserving history The exterior of Hangar 2.

Making old buildings useful again is easier said than done, especially when you're working with a site previously owned by the Department of Defense. The DOD, after all, doesn't have to follow city codes; as such, existing structures had serious problems with fire regulations, ADA compliance and energy efficiency.

The next step, then, was finding the right people. Architect Jim Hartman of Hartman Ely Investments has worked in old buildings for nearly four decades and was, "instrumental in sensitively renovating many of the historic buildings at Lowry," says Portell.

In 1998, Hartman converted the barracks into Grand Lowry Lofts, a mixed-income housing unit. Later, he turned the steam plant into 15 custom lofts.

"That one was butt-ugly before we finished it up," Hartman says of Steam Plant Lofts. "To generate steam they had four massive boilers inside and miles of piping," he explains, adding, "We had to cut all of that heavy steel out, which probably took three months."

Other contributions include conceptual master planning for the Wings over the Rockies Air & Space Museum and the redevelopment of Hangar 2 -- one of Hartman's favorite challenges.

The conundrum with the Hangar 2 site was figuring out what the heck to do with an enormous, 90,000-square-foot empty hangar filled with hazardous and exposed steel. "We spent over six months figuring out how we could take this steel structure and turn it into something legal," recalls Joe Vostrejs, principal at Larimer Associates, Hartman's partner on the project.

The team finally came up with an idea: The hangar had originally been used to store airplanes. Why not turn it into a storage facility? Today the hangar itself offers 636- state-of-the-art storage units with attached 400-square-foot specialty office spaces. The building's 50 percent more energy efficient than a new building of its size and use thanks to a solar system, added insulation, ventilation and smart mechanical systems.

The Lowry community wanted good, chef-driven dining, and they didn't want to drive to Cherry Creek to get it. The hangar's outlying properties, then, were repurposed to meet that need, and current culinary tenants include the beloved Lowry Beer Garden and North County -- both managed by Larimer Associates -- along with Café Mercato, Bubu, which opened last month, and the forthcoming Maui Wowi coffee shop. Larimer Associates is negotiating with a fifth tenant to be announced later this month.   

Not every building in Lowry was worth rehabilitating. Hartman now sits on the design review committee for the Lowry Development Authority's latest -- and final -- installment.

Boulevard OneA rendering of VUE Boulevard One.

While the rest of Lowry was being redeveloped, the Air Force owned and occupied one last parcel: Buckley Annex. "In 2005, the Air Force unexpectedly closed that area, which was a regional finance and accounting center for the Department of Defense," Portell explains. The property was vacated in 2011, and the Air Force conveyed the land to the Authority in May of 2012.

The massive and outdated 600,000-square-foot finance and accounting center was demolished in 2014, and some 42,000 tons of old roads, parking lots, runways and tennis courts have also been removed and recycled.

With demolition complete, builders will soon begin construction on Boulevard One, with 120 single family homes, 230 row homes, 450 apartments and up to 200,000 square feet of commercial and retail space -- all with a planned overall density of approximately 11 dwelling units per acre. Building heights in the mixed-use sections of Boulevard One are capped at five stories, although most buildings will not exceed three.

"The whole issue of building heights and parking and traffic has been a concern to surrounding neighbors, and it's important that the development here integrate with surrounding neighborhood uses," Portell says.

"The new community," she adds, "overlays the older one." The Air Force's three major runways became the neighborhood's three major streets. "Where the Air Force had housing areas for enlisted men and women, we built houses; where they had offices, we built workspace."

The Authority hopes to attract an array of retailers to serve a local market: restaurants, coffee shops, yoga studios, a dry cleaner, et cetera. "Zoning would allow for live music and entertainment, too," adds Portell. It won't, however, permit large format retail like Target. "The idea is to create a vibrant and interesting neighborhood that's easy to get around."

"Today's buyer feels more comfortable in an urban environment where they can walk, bike or take a short Uber ride somewhere. They are very conscious of accessibility," agrees Dave Steinke, general manager of Infinity Home Collection, the company that will be installing luxury single-family homes during the first phase of construction, which begins this month.

Infinity's contribution, Vue Boulevard One, features three single-family detached floor plans ranging from 2,984 to 3,335 square feet. The company specializes in contemporary architecture, and, in line with Lowry's green mission, is adding sustainable amenities to each home. The four homes Infinity already released for sale sold, and buyers should be moving in by August. The entire Boulevard One project is expected to be complete in three to five years.

"It takes a really good team effort to pull off what has become Lowry," says Hartman, praising these sorts of urban infill medium density developments as "a great model for communities across the country to redevelop correctly."
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Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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