What’s next for the lot next to Civic Center Station? Many have ideas

Every few years in Denver, a sudden civic controversy turns a bright spotlight on a piece of ground that thousands of people pass by every day without knowing who owns it or why it looks the way it does. 

An intense public discussion in September about the RTD-controlled property at Colfax and Broadway – literally the center of the city – highlighted the challenges of developing seemingly priceless lots amid a growing economy. After initial hesitation, RTD’s Board of Directors offered a portion of the lot it leases to developers of the National Medal of Honor Museum in a state-supported proposal. Museum leaders eventually chose Arlington, Texas, as their preferred site. 

Civic planners say the renewed public interest in the highly visible rectangle fronting Colfax Avenue, across from Civic Center Park, is a rare opportunity to brainstorm the property’s future. RTD has 55 years left on a 99-year lease at the property, which is currently covered in crusher fines and a drainage collection system. 

“It’s a key intersection, not only in that area, but, for the whole city,” said Eric Lazzari, strategic partnerships director at the Civic Center Conservancy, a private nonprofit that raises funds and creates programming to enhance the nearby park. “Urban public spaces need people. It’s a well-established fact throughout the world.”

So what is RTD doing with the land now? Aren’t developers in the hot Colorado economy knocking down the door to pay RTD millions of dollars for rights to one of the most-trafficked spots in the Rocky Mountain West?

Not exactly. 

The long-term lease from a family foundation covers half the city block and includes part of Civic Center Station itself. The lease costs RTD about $270,000 a year and allows the transit agency to sublease land to a developer for a building up to 100,000 square feet. Certainly it’s an attractive corner: Civic Center Plaza, the privately owned 22-story office building on the northern half of the block, sold for $125 million in June. 

But Susan Altes, RTD’s senior manager of real property, and Chessy Brady, manager of transit oriented development, listed some of the downsides mentioned by developers in the years the property has been available:

  • 100,000 square feet limits a building to a few floors at most. Moreover, it’s bounded by other height restrictions from the state Capitol and 16th Street Mall view planes. 
  • For a project to pencil, developers want at least two 30-year financing cycles, and preferably one 99-year lease, while RTD only has rights to 55 more years.
  • Parking and service access is nonexistent. City regulations would preclude curb cuts that close to major intersections, and digging underground parking would be prohibitive for such a small building. 

“It’s a very, very complicated piece of real estate, this block,” Brady said. 

Both the Civic Center Conservancy and the Civic Center Transit District Plan state that a mixed-used building with offices, retail, food or shopping, plus an active public plaza, would be a great use of the spot. 

“We, as an organization, feel that long term for that area, the best thing is vertical (use), whether hotel, residential or office,” Lazzari said. “More eyes and bodies near the park is huge for what we’re trying to do as an organization.” 

All planners who work with Civic Center say bringing positive activity is crucial to counteracting drug activity, illegal camping and other negative uses that afflict the park. 

Understanding those development limitations, Lazzari said multiple planning exercises by city officials, the Downtown Denver Partnership and others have proposed “activating” the RTD space with public activities. These could include:

  • A park or garden space with cafes
  • Pop-up retail or eating spaces
  • Public art projects
  • Fitness classes
  • Alternative transit hubs for bikes, scooters or other means

But the challenge of managing any such public space, Lazzari added, and the challenge RTD has faced, is that “you do have to put some money into it to make it usable space. You have to invest.”

There is no such ready pool of development money at RTD, Brady and Altes noted. The transit agency’s primary charge is to use fare and tax revenue to advance regional transportation, not to develop parks or activity centers. Partners would be needed to change the situation on Colfax, whether other government agencies or nonprofits with development resources. 

With that thought in mind, RTD restarted conversations with the Civic Center Conservancy and others this week. 

There are hopeful signs, despite a few years of inaction at the space, RTD officials noted. The buyer of the Civic Center Plaza office building has hired noted architect David Tryba to redesign the entryways and lobbies, which could integrate with a broader space to the south. And Tryba is also working on plans for two privately owned parking lots northeast of East 16th Avenue and Lincoln Street.    

“Something could happen,” Brady said. “What we should do now is engage a partner or two and test some things out.”