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: https://www.infrastructureusa.org/climate-change-land-use-and-energy-2010/#sthash.eqY07uwJ.dpuf


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