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ULI Case Study: Riverfront Park, Denver

Posted by Content Coordinator on Wednesday, March 19th, 2014


Project Summary

Riverfront Park at night, with Park Place Lofts on the right, the Glass House on the left, and Commons Park in the foreground. The park offers a highly attractive amenity directly adjacent to the project.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.

The Site

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.

Riverfront Park Site Plan 
Download full version (PDF): Riverfront Park Case Study

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:


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