Denver Real Estate 2012

We may not be in a citywide bull market, but there are plenty of reasons to feel pretty darn good about real estate in the Mile High City this year. This is especially true of Highlands, which has become a nationally recognized, trendsetting model for the possibilities of 21st-century new urbanism. Here’s how Highlands became the hottest part of town—and which local neighborhoods might be next.

May 2012

Going Up In Denver’s hottest and most saturated neighborhood, there’s only one way to build—and some people aren’t too happy about it.

The one category of real estate Highlands currently lacks is mid- to high-end rental properties, so it’s no surprise that developers would want to fill that market gap. Unfortunately, the proposed buildings designed to do just that have roused a vocal group of Highlands homeowners who think it’s a looming disaster.  

RedPeak Properties will break ground later this summer on three plots near Highlands Square at 32nd Avenue and Lowell Boulevard. The project will result in low-rise (four- or five-story) apartment buildings with about 150 rental units. One of the three buildings will have some 9,000 square feet of retail space. The apartments will be studios, one- and two-bedrooms that will rent for $950 to $2,000 per month and are designed to be “a new residential option” for a neighborhood that currently lacks rentals, according to RedPeak development director Evan Lichtenfels. 

Although the project is in compliance with Denver’s zoning code, and RedPeak tweaked its plans after area residents voiced concerns about its size and scope, certain folks haven’t been mollified. The resistance has gotten ugly at times—councilwoman Susan Shepherd got into a shouting match last fall with antidevelopment activists on her own front porch.

The concern is that the new buildings will create an untenable traffic crunch in an area that already can be difficult to navigate. “They want to build on three lots that are already public parking lots, plus the project will eliminate some on-street parking because of fire codes,” says Bill Menezes, a representative for the group No High Rises in West Highland, which has vociferously opposed the project. “Common sense tells you this will cause major problems.”

No High Rises rejects RedPeak’s claim that it can only make money on a multistory, mixed-use complex. Menezes cites another nearby project at 32nd and Irving—five standalone townhomes with a small retail complex—as proof that a developer can build something profitable that also fits into the Highlands landscape. “It boggles the mind that here’s someone who thinks you can make money on that type of project, within the character of the neighborhood, and RedPeak is saying no, and the city is OK with it,” says Menezes, who also contends that the city won’t rectify an earlier zoning error.

Lichtenfels insists the LEED-certified project won’t create the feared headaches; he says the buildings will have ample parking, including bike parking (RedPeak is negotiating with the city to get a B-Cycle station on site). The developer worked with an advisory committee that includes councilwoman Shepherd and several groups—including No High Rises—to tweak the buildings’ design. “We’ve tried to be sensitive to residents’ concerns and create designs that fit the area’s existing structures,” says Lichtenfels, who characterizes the advisory committee’s meetings as productive and amicable. “We’ve made concessions, but no matter how many we make, there may always be people opposed to the project.”

The 32nd and Irving project features houses (that are actually on 31st Avenue) built by Gravitas Development, which are priced at around $600,000. Although Ryan Diggins, a Gravitas partner, says his company tried to fit the existing landscape, he also understands RedPeak’s motivations. “There are almost no rental apartments in that neighborhood, so they’re eliminating a key demographic that wants to be there,” he says.

Another Highlands-focused broker doesn’t understand all the fuss: “I think the people objecting to the project won’t put their minds around change,” says Liz Richards of Kentwood City Properties. “Some of these new rental projects will be really nice, and they’ll bring in the type of high-end renters that only help the neighborhood.”