‘Islands’ around Anschutz in Aurora begin filling in

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When the University of Colorado Denver first moved to Aurora in 2007, city officials anticipated that the surrounding north Aurora neighborhood, one dotted with scads of dingy hotels and motels, would be systematically replaced with posh new developments.

Now, nearly a decade after the Fitzsimons Army Medical Center gave way to the bustling CU Anschutz Medical Campus, many of those tracts of land are still waiting for a face-lift.

To the chagrin of many Aurora politicos, Anschutz has developed as an island; a distant entity largely isolated from the rest of the city by East Colfax Avenue to the south, Peoria Street to the west and Potomac Street to the east. Coaxing developers to pursue projects outside of those borders, particularly along the southern periphery, has been a nagging thorn in the city’s side.

But following about eight years of failed projects at Anschutz’ nefarious southeast corner, the city is finally planning to infill a long-empty lot at the corner of East Colfax Avenue and Potomac Street.

Greenwood Village-based Catalina Development Company is set to break ground on an estimated $81-million mixed-use project Oct. 8, marking some of the first physical proof of transit-oriented development in Aurora.

“Many years ago, we created a vision for development around Aurora’s rail stations that would bring unique urban places to the city,” Mayor Steve Hogan said in a statement. “It’s exciting to see that vision finally becoming a reality with the start of construction on this dynamic project.”

To the chagrin of many Aurora politicos, Anschutz has developed as an island; a distant entity largely isolated from the rest of the city by East Colfax Avenue to the south, Peoria Street to the west and Potomac Street to the east. Coaxing developers to pursue projects outside of those borders, particularly along the southern periphery, has been a nagging thorn in the city’s side.

Known as the Forum at Fitzsimons, initial plans for the development call for two resort-style swimming pools, 397 rental homes and 28,000 square feet of restaurant and retail space, according to a press release issued by the city. The residential and retail center will be located about a quarter mile away from the new Colfax light rail station at the intersection of East Colfax and I-225.

“It’s going to provide a housing choice in Aurora that has previously not existed,” said Andrea Amonick, manager of the city’s development services division. “So this is very exciting for Aurora and I believe it will set the stage for transit-oriented development at other stations.”

Randy Bryant, president of Catalina, said that the project is expected to be completed in about two years. And while nothing is concrete, he said the company plans to target a Buffalo Wild Wings-like sports bar to anchor the retail center.

“The Forum has everything you could ask for in a successful development,” Bryant said in a statement.

Acting as the Aurora Urban Renewal Authority, city council approved $10 million in incentives to construct the new development. The first $9 million of that sum will come from tax increment financing, while the remaining $1 million is in water tap incentives, which are only offered at TOD sites, according to Amonick.

In May, Bryant said that the nearby Fitzsimons 21 apartment complex on North Ursula Street could be used for comparable pricing.

“We’re using (Fitzsimons 21) as our baseline,” he said. “There’s just a huge demand for housing and we’re lucky enough to probably have the best site in that entire area.”

A one-bedroom apartment at Fitzsimons currently rents for an average of about $1,600 per month, according to complex’s website.

“I’m thrilled to death to get some development going in around there, especially around the light rail,” said Sally Mounier, city councilwoman for Ward I. “And the fact (is) that the campus needs housing — I see this as nothing but a win for everybody.”

The announcement of the Forum at Fitzsimons comes after a pair of scuttled projects at the lot on Potomac Street, which was previously occupied by the Heaven On Earth Motel. The dilapidated lodge sat empty and partially demolished for several years while city officials squabbled over what to do with the property and how to court developers for the site.

Lighthouse Properties, a Salina, Kan.-based developer, was the first firm slated to overhaul the derelict site in 2007, with plans for a new Hilton Garden Inn boasting more than 100 rooms. But Lighthouse later bowed out of the project amid the economic stagnation of the late aughts, and razed the final remnants of the motel in 2010. The demolition was privately financed despite Lighthouse being approved for a $300,000 loan from the city, according to Amonick.

But following about eight years of failed projects at Anschutz’ nefarious southeast corner, the city is finally planning to infill a long-empty lot at the corner of East Colfax Avenue and Potomac Street.

“Obviously the economic downturn basically stopped most development in the city from 2008 until quite recently, I’d say at least 2013 or 2014,” she said. “Who could have predicted that?”

Optimism regarding new development at the Potomac Street site was then reignited in 2013 when the Houston-based developer, Waveland Ventures, announced plans for a six-story hotel and conference center known as the Block 21 project. Plans for the development called for 200 guest rooms, 100 apartment homes, 30,000 square feet of meeting areas and a combined 18,000 square feet of restaurant and retail space. Waveland nixed the project just four months after unveiling initial plans, however, citing a lack of incentives provided by the city as the principle reason for the cancellation.

Rather than providing breaks for Waveland, the city council instead approved $25 million in economic incentives for Corporex Colorado to add a 249-room Hyatt hotel and conference center to that company’s preexisting Fitzsimons Village development, which abuts the Heaven On Earth plot. Corporex, which operates locally as an offshoot of its Covington, Ky.-based parent company, broke ground on the 31,500-square-foot conference center and adjacent hotel in September of last year and is expected to complete the project in the first quarter of 2016.

Now about two years removed from the last Heaven On Earth issue, city officials are anxious to turn dirt at the north Aurora property.

“The type of development that the city was seeking and is seeking along the south side of Colfax is a little aggressive (compared to) what the development community initially believed it could finance,” Amonick said. “But both the Fitzsimons redevelopment and the Anschutz Campus, as well as the advent of the Aurora line have changed people’s perception of what they can do in Aurora. This is a great occasion for Aurora and it will be even better when the building comes out of the ground.”

Hogan said that if other nearby projects were able to come online quicker, namely the Veterans Affairs hospital across the street, the Potomac Street site may have been developed sooner. And despite the fickle nature of hindsight, he said that the longterm plan for the land around Anschutz was never expected to result in rapid changes.

“I think we’ve all been a little bit jaded by the success that’s already occurred,” Hogan said. “If we go back to the mid-90s and look at what was supposed to happen, viewing it from that point in time, people were looking at as a 25, 30 and even 40-year build-out, and it’s only been 20 years. Things are moving, it’s just that when good things happen, people want more of those good things sooner — they just forget that maybe it really is on schedule.”

— Staff Writer Brandon Johansson contributed to this report.

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CJ
CJ
6 years ago

Transit Oriented Development seems like a good fit for that location. However, the large parking lot facing Colfax doesn’t seem like a “unique urban” amenity. Instead, it seems like it will be an obstacle for pedestrians and a design flaw. But I sincerely hope I’m wrong because this could be a great development for the area if done correctly.