As is tradition here at DenverInfill, let’s start the new year off with a recap of the year just completed and a look forward at what might be in store for Downtown Denver planning and development in 2009.

Things started off well enough in 2008. Several major construction projects that began in 2007 started going vertical in 2008, giving us for the first time in two decades a skyline dotted with construction cranes and skeletons of buildings rising into the sky. One Lincoln Park topped off in 2008 and, by the end of the year, was welcoming its first residents. The tower is a sharp addition to the skyline and, hopefully, the first of many to come for that parking-lot-riddled part of Upper Downtown. Spire ended 2007 in limbo with its construction loan rudely pulled out from under it a few months earlier. Fortunately, in January of this year, the Nichols Partnership was able to find a new lender and resume construction. Since then, it has been a thrill watching the 41-story tower climb to almost its full height, and at some point later this year we’ll see the Spire’s spire illuminated down its west-facing side. The 45-story Denver Four Seasons Hotel & Residences is the other tower that has been slowly but steadily climbing its way into the skyline in 2008. Now about half way up, later this year we’ll finally see the installation of Denver’s first “pointy” top on a tower. Something to look forward to!

Other 2008 highlights certainly include the completion of SugarCube and 1400 Wewatta; two projects that replaced ugly parking lots and that now greatly contribute to Lower Downtown’s urban form. Not too far behind SugarCube and 1400 Wewatta are the other three LoDo/CPV projects underway: 1755 Blake, 1515 Wynkoop, and 1900 16th. All three have topped off and will see their finishing touches added and grand openings occurring this year. Throughout 2009, we can look forward to these five buildings filling up with tenants and opening ground-floor retail uses that will substantially enhance LoDo’s pedestrian environment.

Another major accomplishment in 2008 was the beginning of construction for 1800 Larimer, the 22-story office tower being developed by Westfield Development. As 2007 came to a close, the site at 18th and Larimer had been scraped clean and prepped for construction, but it wasn’t until May 2008 that 1800 Larimer officially got underway with the announcement that Xcel Energy would lease 70% of the building for its Denver regional headquarters. After spending most of 2008 as a big hole in the ground, the project is now up to street level and, during the first half of 2009, we’ll have the opportunity to watch 1800 Larimer go vertical and join its neighbors in the Downtown skyline.

We’re still not done. In late 2008, the Embassy Suites project finally shifted from a demolition project to a construction project. Consequently, as we enter 2009, we can look forward to watching a 17-story hotel tower rising up across from the convention center and joining the Spire and the Four Seasons in the transformation of 14th Street. Not far from 14th Street, another project that made progress in 2008 was the Auraria Science Building, which in March had its funding yanked, only to be restored a few days later. It’s not a tall structure, but the new Science Building presents a defining street wall along Speer Boulevard and represents the first campus building constructed under the guidelines of the new Auraria Campus Master Plan which calls for Auraria to fully embrace its Downtown location by incorporating a mix of uses and by staking a strong urban edge facing the Central Business District along Speer.

In the Civic Center district, construction of the new Denver Justice Center proceeded smoothly throughout 2008. The project’s main Courthouse and Detention Center buildings are at their full height, with some exterior facade materials now starting to be installed. While both buildings won’t open until 2010, by this summer we’ll see the completion of the buildings’ exteriors and the public plaza in the center, and we’ll learn how well the whole complex works from an urban design perspective within its prime Downtown setting. The other big news in Civic Center in 2008 was a resolution to the drama surrounding the location for the new Colorado History Museum. In February, the state finally settled on a site at 12th and Broadway, a block south of the existing museum, and in June, Governor Ritter authorized funding for both the Colorado History Museum and the proposed Colorado Justice Center projects. The final design of the new museum will be revealed within the next month or two, and construction on the museum is scheduled to begin this spring. Finally, in March 2008, we learned what the new Clyfford Still Museum will look like. That exciting project, located next door to the expanded Denver Art Museum, will break ground in 2009, and will further intensify Denver’s cultural offerings in the Civic Center district.

On the edges of Downtown we saw more construction progress during 2008. In the Golden Triangle, the 17-story 816 Acoma project topped off and is nearing completion, and the 10-story 1200 Elati project was finished. In the Ballpark district, the 7-story Zi Lofts is mostly complete, and the 8-story 2101 Market project a block away isn’t too far behind. Dozens of smaller projects broke ground or were completed in Uptown, Curtis Park, Capitol Hill and City Park West on the east side, and in Jefferson Park and Highland on the west side.

In 2008, we were introduced to several new projects, and a few that we were already familiar with either stayed in the “proposed” category or joined the ranks of the “cancelled.”

The tallest new project proposed for Downtown Denver in 2008 was 1501 Tremont Place, a 34-story office tower planned by Brookfield Properties for Block 196. Announced in October, the project most likely won’t break ground in 2009 unless the economy dramatically improves or a major anchor tenant signs on, but clearly Brookfield’s deep pockets and the high-profile site make this project a decent long-term bet. The second tallest project announced in 2008 was Shea Properties’ 999 17th Street, which consists of a 31-story hotel and condo tower and a 24-story office tower along Curtis on Block 109. Since the project’s announcement in April, the developer has moved forward with development review with the city, but no construction schedule has been released. Similar to 1501 Tremont, the strong reputation and experience of Shea as a national developer and the project’s exceptional location is good news for this project in the long term, but again, it’s unlikely we’ll see any action on this project until the national economic crisis settles down and the local market regains its strength. The third and final Downtown tower announced in 2008 was the Hotel Gold Crown, a 17-story hotel and condo project planned for the old Burger King site on Block 131. Unlike the previous two, this project is planned by a smaller and less experienced development firm, so it’s questionable if this project will move forward any time soon or not. But, a chain link fence has recently gone up around the site, so you never know. Good luck to all three of these projects in 2009!

Of the projects that lingered in the “proposed” category throughout all of 2008 but never got off the ground, by far the most prominent was Two Tabor, the 43-story office tower planned by Callahan Capital Partners for Block 068. Announced back in 2007, Two Tabor inched closer and closer to breaking ground throughout 2008, with the developer rumored to have been within a few days of closing on its financing when the economic crisis hit and the deal fell apart. Other rumors, however, say that a Spring 2009 groundbreaking is planned. We’ll see.

A couple of other projects that have been on the drawing board for a while that didn’t get underway in 2008 are the W Hotel and 1601 Wewatta. The “W” is proposed for where the sad Office Depot building currently sits at 16th and Market. It too has been delayed due to the national credit crisis, but it is still very much alive, I’ve been told. Adding to the complexity of the project is the need to find a suitable place to relocate Office Depot, but I’m optimistic we’ll hear good things about the W later in 2009. 1601 Wewatta is the Sunshine Development project planned for 16th and Wewatta behind Union Station. The development was announced in 2007, and a few days before the start of the Democratic National Convention in August 2008, the developer released a project rendering and erected a big sign at the site. When work will actually begin on 1601 Wewatta remains to be seen, but the project’s location next to the massive Union Station transit project bodes well for its eventual construction.

The most prominent project to bite the dust in 2008 was, without a doubt, 1401 Lawrence, the 51-story condo tower planned for the corner of 14th and Lawrence. With a soft condo market locally and a national real estate bust looming on the horizon, the Toronto-based developer bailed on the project in May. The day the tower’s demise was announced, Great Gulf sold the site for $8.4 million to a China-based firm, whose plans for the property remain unknown. We’ll likely have to wait until the local condo market rebounds before we know what they have in mind for the site. The other big project that was cancelled, sort of, was Buzz Geller’s “Bell Park” tower. Planned as a 34-story signature condo tower at Speer and Market, the project had been embroiled in controversy since 2006 when it was first announced. A compromise regarding the tower’s height was achieved in 2007, but as the design evolved in 2008, the city and the Lower Downtown Design Review Board ultimately came to the conclusion that the proposed design didn’t meet the guidelines. Consequently, the project is now slated to take on a low-rise profile. If or when it gets built remains to be seen.

The renovation of key buildings in Downtown Denver continued in 2008. The highest profile restoration was certainly the historic Fontius (originally Steel) building, now known as the Sage Building on Block 162. The saga of Block 162 has been well documented here at DenverInfill (see the sidebar at left) and it was in August 2008, just in time for the DNC, that the historic structure in the heart of Downtown shined like it hasn’t since its grand opening in 1923. If nothing else positive had happened in Downtown Denver in 2008, the careful restoration of this building would be reason enough to consider 2008 a good year. Other notable restorations or renovations in Downtown Denver in 2008 include Miller Global’s redo of the retail space at 1001 17th Street, St. Charles Town Company’s renovation of 1800 Glenarm into office condos, and Nichols Partnership’s updating of the office building at 17th and Larimer.

Despite the economic hardship that we face heading into 2009, one project that will get under construction for sure this year is the big Union Station transit project. Throughout 2008, a number of important milestones were reached: the completion of the revised project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement, the creation of the Denver Union Station Project Authority (the entity that will oversee the construction and management of the project), and conceptual design work for the public spaces within the Union Station Transit District area. This spring, dirt will finally start to fly with the construction of the new Light Rail platform at the foot of 17th Street at the CML tracks. Once the new Light Rail station opens in late 2009, major work constructing the underground bus terminal and commuter rail lines behind the historic station will also begin. More information will be available on the website as we finally start to see construction take place at Union Station.

On the planning side, several initiatives will kick off in 2009. Work will begin soon in evaluating the condition of the 16th Street Mall, its infrastructure, urban design elements and in coming up with a rehabilitation strategy for the Mall’s troublesome granite pavers. Later this year, the city and the Partnership will also start on a new Arapahoe Square District Plan, so that we’ll have the right tools in place to allow the severely underdeveloped Arapahoe Square district to transform into what we have envisioned for it in the Downtown Area Plan when the next wave of development hits (which hopefully will be soon). In 2009, the Partnership will also begin two other planning efforts: one focusing on the Tremont District (the area generally southwest of 16th Street and southeast of California Street to Colfax) and in establishing an urban design and transportation framework for the area; and the other creating a Pedestrian Priority Task Force that will begin making recommendations for improving Downtown’s pedestrian environment, a significant component of the Downtown Area Plan. Last but not least, this new year we should be able to finish lining up the necessary funds for the proposed 14th Street streetscaping project, which would allow construction on that important effort to hopefully begin in 2010.

Finally, no 2008 retrospective would be complete without discussing two additional major issues that impacted Downtown Denver during the year: the DNC and the national financial crisis. Regarding the financial crisis, the credit meltdown, the real estate bust, the economic collapse—whatever you want to call it—there’s no doubt that it has already impacted, and will continue to severely impact, the Downtown Denver development scene. Depending on what happens in the coming months, we could be looking at a relatively short-term pause in real estate development in Downtown (as in a year or so) or a more prolonged delay that could last well into the next decade. Either way, these first few years of the 21st Century have been really good to Downtown Denver—I mean really good—and that leaves us with an excellent foundation from which to move forward.

That brings me to the Democratic National Convention. In this, our city’s sesquicentennial year, Denver smacked a home run when it came to pulling off the DNC. Major kudos to Mayor Hickenlooper, Elbra Wedgeworth, Steve Farber, and the rest of Denver’s DNC Host Committee and the thousands of volunteers who helped make the event a resounding success. Not only was the DNC a great accomplishment for Denver, but we were fortunate to host an event of significance that will go down in history—all during a moment in time when our city was riding a wave of revitalization and vigor that we haven’t experienced in generations. Our timing was perfect and we nailed it. Congratulations, Denver!

In conclusion, we march on in our quest to restore Downtown Denver’s urban intensity back to what it was before World War II, when all its blocks were covered with buildings occupied by a multitude of uses, when its streets were filled with an array of transport conveyances, and when its sidewalks were teeming with pedestrians engaged in their urban surroundings. We’re making progress, so in that regard, 2008 was a good year.

Thank you again for visiting DenverInfill. Have a great 2009!