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Adaptive Reuse In Denver Could Bring Activity Back To City's Older Neighborhoods


Cities across the country are grappling with the changing fabric of downtowns and other close-in neighborhoods as office usage remains stagnant and housing prices stay stubbornly high. In Denver and elsewhere, the idea of repurposing underused office buildings as housing, a type of adaptive reuse, has become a common suggestion.

But actually completing such a project is a feat easier said than done. Demographics, geography, financing and architecture must all come together in just the right way for adaptive reuse to find success. One of the first things to look for is the age of a building, with properties constructed from 1960 to 1990 offering a sweet spot, according to Denver County Assessor Keith Erffmeyer.

That means that the next phase of Denver’s development boom that put up dozens of new buildings, infusing new life and activity into previously untouched parts of the city, could instead look like a revitalization of the city’s older neighborhoods.

“The reality is that the greatest buildings we build right now aren’t being built at all. They’re being reused,” Jon Buerge, chief development officer at Urban Villages in Denver, said during Bisnow’s Future of Denver Hospitality, Retail and Mixed Use event May 11. “Our addiction to tearing out the old and adding the new is not sustainable in the long run.” 

Data from the city assessor’s office shows there are more than 1,400 buildings constructed between 1960 and 1990, with higher concentrations in certain pockets of the city.

As one of Denver’s oldest neighborhoods, Baker is one such place.

Originally developed in the 1870s, the neighborhood has also seen some explosive growth over the last decade but has a sizable stock of older, smaller properties that lend themselves well to reuse. Baker has about 37 commercial buildings built in the targeted years, according to data from the assessor’s office. One example is the 10.3K SF office space at 459 North Acoma St. 

The Quayle, a 102-unit income-restricted apartment complex for people earning up to 60% of the area’s median income, or roughly $50K per year, is an example of a successful adaptive reuse project in Baker. 

The building was originally known as the First Avenue Hotel, built by architect Charles Quayle in 1907. In 2019, Zocalo Development repurposed the building to include about 11K SF of retail space on the ground floor that houses four local restaurant tenants. The building is also situated near several local retailers and music venues that give the Baker neighborhood its distinct feel. 

Kevin Koernig, an architect and owner of Studio K2 Architecture, said adaptive reuse projects serve two functions for historic neighborhoods like Baker. First, they can help bring new housing units to market amid especially challenging economic conditions. Second, adaptive reuse can also help the neighborhood preserve its Victorian architectural history without inhibiting its future growth.  

“With this big push to adopt new, greener technologies in construction, I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to really tear down and rebuild a building,” Koernig told Bisnow. “Adaptive reuse allows a developer to use a lot less energy than they would building new construction from scratch.” 

Denver’s central business district is the most obvious place that could benefit from adaptive reuse. Not only has the neighborhood been significantly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, which caused Denver’s office vacancy rate to jump to a 10-year high, but it is also home to about 66 commercial buildings that were built between 1960 and 1990, according to the assessor’s office. 

The CBD is already home to some well-known adaptive reuse projects, including the Slate Hotel, which was converted from the old Emily Griffith Opportunity School campus in 2021. The Slate is a 130K SF boutique hotel that includes more than 66K SF of mixed-use retail, office and restaurant space, according to 4240 Architecture, the firm that designed the property. That project was a multiyear effort involving a local developer, approvals from city government and a nod from Historic Denver, illustrating how many layers are often at play in adaptive reuse undertakings.

The city of Denver is spending $75K to conduct a feasibility study with global architecture firm Gensler to find additional properties in the CBD that could be reused. Eugenia Di Girolamo, Denver’s chief urban designer, told Bisnow the city hopes the study will give it some insight into how to revitalize downtown Denver. 

“These projects could really help Denver bring more people downtown, especially as it moves away from a single-use office district to a more central neighborhood district,” Di Girolamo said. 

Adaptive reuse projects in the CBD could also help Denver meet its affordable housing goals. Denver has about 1,800 total affordable housing units in development across the city and plans to have at least 2,000 units completed by 2026, Deputy Director of Housing Opportunity Renée Gallegos told the Denver Gazette in April.

Park Hill, just east of the Denver Zoo, has also gotten an early start on adaptive reuse with the planned conversion of the former Johnson & Wales University campus into a mixed-use development.

Denver developers converted four unused dormitory buildings at the Johnson & Wales campus into 154 affordable apartments after Archway Communities, a local nonprofit, purchased the buildings in 2021. The total conversion cost is about $66.5M. Park Hill has seen a surge of multifamily development in recent years and contains 15 buildings constructed between 1960 and 1990.