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3 critical steps for a sustainable large-scale redevelopment project

November 30, 2020

By Michael Griffith

Communication and community engagement can drive successful redevelopment following the exit of a major use

When it comes to redevelopment, urban designers must speak two languages. We must be fluent in both “designer” and “neighbor.” At no time is this fluency more important than when a neighborhood loses a major use—such as a hospital.

The large hole left in the urban fabric comes with unique opportunities and challenges. And this redevelopment opportunity is common in cities across the globe. On one hand, redevelopment can expand economic opportunities; provide new, affordable, and missing middle housing; offer better-connected streets; enhance food and retail options; and create more sustainable developments. On the other hand, managing such change can be difficult, especially when members of the affected community aren’t sure what it will mean for their neighborhood.

So, how does a development team balance the diverse—sometimes even conflicting—interests and goals of the various community stakeholders and successfully redevelop a large parcel of land in an existing neighborhood? How do you ensure a master plan will meet its intended purpose now and serve the community for years to come? In our experience with Denver’s recent St. Anthony’s Hospital redevelopment, the key is building trust through open communication and action.

First, a little background. In 2011, St. Anthony’s Hospital moved from its original location just west of Downtown Denver to Lakewood, Colorado. The hole created an opportunity to redevelop the 22.5-acre site and give the community much-needed housing and retail, while reconnecting the campus to the neighborhood fabric that had grown up around it.

First, the City of Denver reached out to the neighborhood to determine needs and desires for the site. With that input, in December of 2014, the City of Denver Planning Board approved a general development plan for the area. The goal of the plan was to transform the former hospital site into a vibrant, mixed-use urban town center—a new heart to the local community. Our team started work on the redevelopment in 2013, helping to develop and ultimately execute the vision for the plan and create a groundbreaking LEED Neighborhood Development (ND) Gold development. 

This ongoing seven-year process offers three significant lessons in successful redevelopment of a large site.

Lakehouse is in Block One of the St. Anthony’s redevelopment and contributes to the district’s LEED Neighborhood Development Gold certification. Lakehouse is designed with stepped massing, transitioning from the neighborhood’s adjacent single-family housing.

1. Create (and maintain) a two-way dialogue

This is the most important part of any master-planning effort. It is not enough to listen to the concerns of the community in which you are developing. It is not even enough to design your master plan with their needs in mind. You will face an uphill battle every time if you fail to actively listen and then communicate back what you are doing and why.

In the absence of clear and consistent updates, people will speculate. The last thing you want is misinformation about the development spreading. Make it a priority from the beginning to establish clear communication plans for every step of the process. Have methods in place for both effectively listening as well as for communicating.

How do you ensure a master plan will meet its intended purpose now and serve the community for years to come?

During the St. Anthony master-planning process, the development team set up regular dialogue with community residents, businesses, civic groups, and institutions from the project’s onset. A 24-month visioning and public feedback process, which included over 100 neighborhood meetings and town halls, allowed the community to share their fears, hopes, and desires.

Many in the West Colfax neighborhood wanted a “main street” where they could walk to, get coffee or a bite to eat, and gather as a community. The existing neighborhoods—sandwiched between one of Denver’s largest parks and the car-dominated West Colfax Avenue—lacked walkable retail and a defined heart. Residents were eager for the redevelopment to add these much-needed amenities.

They were concerned about the exit of the hospital and what it would mean for access to healthcare. They wanted development that would thrive long-term. And it needed to be an inclusive place that would create opportunities for current residents—not push them out.

Using this input, we began crafting our plan, setting forth a vision for the site. It would be a place of pedestrian-friendly streets, high-density mixed-use development, quality locally oriented retail and neighborhood services, and senior and affordable housing. And all of this with a focus on sustainability and achieving LEED ND certification.

The design team made a point of communicating how various elements tied back to the original goals. Not every step in the process was met with resounding approval but it went a long way toward establishing trust. The bumps in the road that we met along the way bring me to my next lesson.

When St. Anthony’s Hospital moved from its original home, it opened more than 22 acres for redevelopment in fast-growing Denver.

2. Acknowledge the challenges—don’t steamroll them

With any large redevelopment, achieving consensus from the various neighborhoods, businesses, and government stakeholders presents a challenge. This project was no exception. To be truly successful, we had to identify the challenges at a detailed level—and address them head-on in exploring potential solutions.

While the community welcomed the idea of new retail and a true town center, there was major resistance to adding the housing density needed to sustain new retail. This negative reaction to density is common with infill projects. Often, this opposition limits communities from reaching their amenity goals. The key is clear communication of the various density scenarios and trade-offs necessary to balancing the desired outcomes.

In the end, we were able to get several parcels rezoned to provide the necessary density to support retail viability and create the desired vibrant main street the community wanted. Honestly, the process was arduous. People were concerned density would mean a wall of high-rise buildings blocking out the sun.

To get support, we had to prove our commitment to ensuring a solution that aligned with local goals. We carried out detailed shadow studies for each design scenario as the master plan evolved. We crafted block and building guidelines to show that the massing of buildings would feel consistent with the neighborhood. It wasn’t easy, but the rigorous design guidelines we developed through this process ensured that the community’s wishes are respected now and into the future.

A major concern involved access to new housing types that respected the area’s character. To address these concerns, the plan called for a mix of housing options, including condos, townhomes, and apartments that employed gradients of scale at the development’s edges.

The plan further preserved the 16th Avenue Chapel—a building with charm and cultural value—together with the adaptive reuse of the Kuhlman Building, the former nurses’ dorm and nunnery. The plan turns the former dorm into 49 affordable-housing units with street-level restaurant and retail space. Listening and reacting to concerns addressed multiple elements essential to the residents.  

Chapel Plaza is a pedestrian-friendly gathering place near the 16th Avenue Chapel, one of the original buildings preserved in the redevelopment of the St. Anthony’s Hospital site in Denver, Colorado.

3. Demonstrate a commitment to long-term success

Where master plans of the past considered the economic and social benefits of a development, the modern master plan must account for much more. It’s critical to take a holistic approach to sustainable master planning and design. That approach balances the physical and economic longevity and resilience of a place, as well as its impacts on the environment and human well-being. This way, we can craft a master plan that helps a community thrive long after the construction dust has settled.

St. Anthony reflected our team’s holistic approach in several ways. The most notable is the LEED-ND Gold certification. The effort touches every aspect of the community—from implementing the city’s first street-side stormwater planters to reusing 98% of the non-contaminated materials from the old buildings on the site. Other highlights include requiring all vertical builders to achieve LEED BD+C certification for at least 50% of new building square footage and creating bike-friendly streets with access to mass transit.

Residents near the former St. Anthony’s Hospital wanted a vibrant main street, which required retail and housing density to support it.

Sustainable, community-focused redevelopment

What was once an aging set of buildings disconnected from the neighborhood is now a vibrant, forward-thinking, healthy, and modern community poised for long-term success. In addition to 850 residential units, the site is alive with vibrant restaurants, coffee shops, boutiques, a brewery/cinema, community gardens, and a seasonally programed public plaza.  All this designed with the long-term sustainability and viability of this community in mind.

How did it happen? By creating and maintaining two-way dialogue, acknowledging challenges and working through them, and demonstrating a commitment to long-term success.

The exit of a large—and longtime—use will always present challenges for a community. St. Anthony’s is Denver is just one example. But a thoughtful redevelopment effort can improve opportunity and quality of life, creating a vibrant new place to call home.

  • Michael Griffith

    A landscape architect with a dozen years of experience, Michael delivers urban design that improves community member experiences.

    Contact Michael
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