URBAN LAND INSTITUTE
Riverfront Park is an urban infill planned community that currently includes 1,859 rental and for-sale housing units in 14 buildings, 49,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, a museum, and three parks on a 23-acre site adjacent to downtown Denver. Initiated by the city of Denver on former railroad land, the project involved a firm that assembled and rezoned the land and a second partnership of firms that undertook much of the development and construction. The project is arranged in a linear fashion between railroad tracks on one side and a 19-acre park developed by the city on the other, and is connected to the downtown by an iconic pedestrian bridge that spans the railroad tracks.
Riverfront Park is the result of a 25-year collaboration to create a viable and vibrant urban residential community in downtown Denver. Built under a form-based zoning code, the development encompasses 1,859 privately developed, for-sale, for-rent, and affordable homes, with buildings first opening in 2001 and with construction still underway in 2014. The neighborhood fits within the city’s grid and is connected to surrounding areas by four pedestrian bridges that cross railroad tracks, an interstate highway, and a river, each funded through a combination of public and private investment. Built on a brownfield and former rail yard, the project was an early model of sustainability. Today, residents can play, wander, skate, swim, and walk their dogs along dedicated non-vehicular pathways or in four different parks built by the state, the city, the developer, donors, and residents.
Denver was founded at the confluence of two quiet waterways, the South Platte River and Cherry Creek, where gold was first discovered in the Denver region. Over the city’s history, the waterfront has transitioned from an outpost to a boomtown to rail yards to a shantytown to a flood zone to a light-industrial park and now, finally, into a bustling downtown residential neighborhood. Just prior to redevelopment, the site was owned for many years by the Burlington Northern Railroad and included a huge rail yard and many tracks, as well as some old industrial warehouses that had to be demolished.
The Riverfront Park community and the adjacent Commons Park are located at the historic heart of Denver, at the confluence of these two rivers. The site, including the park, is bordered on the northwest by the South Platte River, on the southwest by Cherry Creek, on the southeast by the railroad lines and the Union Station project and downtown Denver (with two pedestrian bridges that span the tracks), and on the northeast by 20th Street, a major arterial. The site offers immediate access to Interstate 25 via two nearby freeway interchanges. The site also benefits from a recently added pedestrian bridge across I-25 that connects Riverfront Park with neighborhoods to the north.
The Idea and the Development Team
The idea behind the project emanated from several sources, including the city of Denver, which had a vision for redeveloping the railroad yards and adding parkland and new development to the area; Trillium Corporation, which bought the land from the railroad and worked with the city to plan and entitle the area for redevelopment; East West Partners (EWP), a resort developer that ultimately purchased the land and became the master developer for the project; and Crescent Real Estate Equities, which partnered with East West on development and provided critical equity financing to make the project happen.
The idea and the vision for the project began during the 1980s with Mayor Federico Peña, who started a dialogue with the railroads about consolidating their railroad lines into fewer tracks, and redeveloping the excess land. In 1991, Trillium Corporation, led by its founder and chairman, David Syre, acquired several hundred parcels of land from Burlington Northern Railroad, including several excess parcels located in downtown Denver near the South Platte River that were no longer needed for railroad uses. The site that Trillium acquired included all of the land where Riverfront Park and Commons Park are located, as well as a partial interest in the adjacent Union Station parcel on the other side of the tracks.
At the same time, the city was hoping to start a redevelopment process in the area, following on the success that had been achieved in the LoDo area of downtown Denver. The city had been making plans for the area under both Mayor Peña and Mayor Wellington Webb, and this would continue under Mayor John W. Hickenlooper Jr. Notably, Mayor Webb took office in 1991, and one of his major goals was to build and improve the Denver park system, which led to the Commons Park idea.
Once the railroads had consolidated the rail yard into a narrower channel and fewer tracks, Trillium brought in Design Workshop to help with a planning and design study to develop a concept plan and design guidelines for the newly available land. A public process was undertaken to prepare and execute a 21-block infrastructure and development plan. In the mid-1990s, a special district—the Central Platte River Metropolitan District—was established, and thereafter Trillium Corporation sold approximately 25 acres of land along the South Platte River to the city of Denver for the development of a new park, which was a part of that plan.
In 1996, Harry Frampton and Mark Smith of East West Partners, a resort development firm based in Beaver Creek, Colorado, heard the mayor of Denver speak at a ULI event in Denver about plans for the South Platte River area, and they subsequently decided to investigate the prospects for buying land and developing in the area.
In April 1999, East West Partners, together with the firm’s longtime equity partner, Crescent Real Estate, purchased 22.65 acres of entitled land from Trillium Corporation and began the process of redeveloping that site into what is now called Riverfront Park. One of the main reasons they were attracted to the property was the Commons Park. Their vision for the project, while similar to the city’s vision, was framed by their experience as resort developers. They had spent much of their careers developing resort communities and mixed-use villages oriented around mountain and ski amenities. Riverfront Park, they believed, could be thought of in a similar fashion, but with the city and the nearby Commons Park and Platte River as the amenities. Their objective was to create a quiet urban residential neighborhood with easy access to the urban park and downtown Denver. To a certain degree, they thought of the project as an urban resort.
About Urban Land Institute
“The mission of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) is to provide leadership in the responsible use of land and in creating and sustaining thriving communities worldwide. Founded in 1936, the institute now has more than 40,000 members worldwide representing the entire spectrum of land use and real estate development disciplines, working in private enterprise and public service.” – See more at: http://www.infrastructureusa.org/climate-change-land-use-and-energy-2010/#sthash.eqY07uwJ.dpuf