Sun Valley's Future Looks Bright
Plans are in the works to transform one of Denver’s poorest neighborhoods into a cultural and entertainment hub in the heart of the city.
The Sun Valley neighborhood, bounded by Interstate 25 on the east, Federal Boulevard on the west, Sixth Avenue on the south and 20th Avenue on the north, already is home to attractions like the Children’s Museum of Denver and the Downtown Aquarium. Now, plans are on the drawing board to build new museums, redevelop public housing and add affordable and market-rate housing, as well as offices and other amenities, over the next decade.
In January, Santa Fe, New Mexico-based Meow Wolf announced plans to open a $50M immersive art exhibit in the neighborhood that is expected to attract 1.5 million visitors annually. The new five-story building, designed by Shears Adkins Rockmore Architects, will be wedged into a tangle of viaducts at I-25, Colfax Avenue and Auraria Parkway.
Meow Wolf co-founder and CEO Vince Kadlubek said the art collective was looking for a location where the throngs of visitors to the museum would not disrupt the neighborhood. It had considered River North, but there were so many nearby residences that Kadlubek feared the crowds Meow Wolf expects to draw would have a negative impact on the neighborhood. There are currently no homes in the immediate vicinity of the Meow Wolf site — the nearest residences are Sun Valley Homes, which is about a mile southwest of the site on the opposite bank of the South Platte River.
“When we did our search, neighborhood impact was one of the biggest pieces of criteria — especially in Denver where it’s such an issue anywhere you go,” Kadlubek said. “We felt like our location was pretty well already contained within what we would call a family attraction zone.”
Meow Wolf isn’t the only creative group moving into the neighborhood. Adrianna Abarca plans to redevelop four pastel-colored buildings owned by her family into the Latino Cultural Arts Center. The site is the former headquarters of Ready Foods, a custom food processor founded in 1972 by her late father, Luis. The collection of Mexican and Chicano art that she and her father spent decades accumulating will be permanently displayed at the center in the Mexican Heritage Museum.
In addition to the museum, the Latino Cultural Arts Center will include street-level retail, a coffee shop and cantina/cerveceria, classrooms, a library, event space and a small auditorium. A second phase of the project, which will be housed in more Abarca-owned buildings at West Eighth Avenue and Decatur Street on the south end of Sun Valley, will add the Sun Valley Academy of Latino Cultural Arts, which will instruct students between the ages of 16 and 24 in performing, visual and culinary arts, as well as music and the spoken word. There also will be street-level retail and dormitory spaces for visiting artists.
“Because of gentrification, I want to make an effort to cement the Latino heritage in the community,” Abarca said. “It’s important not to feel like an outsider when your history is here.”
Sun Valley isn’t likely to lose its Hispanic heritage any time soon. Latinos account for about 54% of its 1,500 residents. The Sun Valley Homes complex, on 22 acres in the shadow of Mile High Stadium, is slated for redevelopment, and the Denver Housing Authority has designed the project so that those residents won’t be displaced, even as the number of people living in the area doubles.
Between the Meow Wolf site and Abarca’s property is Steam on the Platte, an old industrial building dating back to the 1880s. Steam, among the first redevelopment projects in the neighborhood, had been home to a variety of industrial users dating back to the late 1880s, including the Johnson and Bremer Soap Factory and a rag-baling facility.
Urban Ventures and White Construction Group acquired the property in 2014 from the estate of the late Arvin Weiss, who in 2008 was sentenced to seven years in federal prison after being convicted of fraud and witness tampering in a scheme to cheat mortgage companies that funded federally insured home loans. After being diagnosed with cancer, Weiss was released from prison in 2013; he died soon after.
Urban Ventures and White Construction have created a mixed-use project on the site that has attracted office tenants that started moving in last year. There is a café that is operated by Girls Inc., a national nonprofit that inspires girls to be strong, smart and bold. At full build-out, the entire site will hold 190K SF of office space, as well as a 6K SF restaurant and about 100 new residential units.
Steam is within walking distance of the Auraria campus and the Broncos' stadium. It is at the intersection of the Lakewood Gulch and Platte River bike trails and a short walk to the light-rail stations at Decatur-Federal and West Auraria.
Urban Ventures President Susan Powers said she became interested in the site when the city started working on the station area plan around the Decatur light-rail stop about five years ago.
“We knew that this was really the growth area from downtown because it’s just the logical place,” she said. “And for us, the river was really key. It’s unusual to find any property you can build right up to the river.”
Sun Valley’s revitalization includes the Denver Broncos’ plan to build a $351M entertainment district with retail, commercial and residential developments, though the Metropolitan Football Stadium District has characterized discussion of that plan as premature.
And though it is not technically in Sun Valley, the Elitch Gardens Theme and Water Park is close enough to have an impact on the neighborhood. Revesco Properties, in partnership with Second City Real Estate and Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, paid $140M for Elitch’s in 2015; the site later chosen by Meow Wolf was part of that deal. The Revesco team has been waiting for the city to amend its circa 2007 Downtown Area Plan for the land between Interstate 25, Auraria Parkway and Speer Boulevard before requesting a zoning change that will allow it to develop the 17 acres of surface parking lots around Elitch’s as The River Mile, a dense, walkable mixed-use development with high-rise buildings and green space.
“We’re bringing the city to the river’s edge in a way the city hasn’t seen,” Duggan said. “We’re building density where it makes sense and leveraging our investment in light rail.”