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How Do We Reimagine Our City?

ULI Partnership Forum Attendees in conference room

From persistent office vacancies and a lack of affordable housing to rising interest rates cooling down our once-hot development market, the challenges we’re facing here in Denver (and in other urban environments around the country) are clear. So, how do we keep our beloved cities vibrant?  

That’s the big question our Founder and President Sarah Cullen is looking to address with her 2023 ULI Partnership Forum group. Sarah is one of six senior real estate professionals invited by ULI to lead and mentor a group of young leaders. Every month for half a year, they’ll be coming together to learn more about our built environment and the CRE professionals who are helping shape it.  

To kick off her first forum with a look at the issues and opportunities in our urban core, Sarah brought in the experts at JNS Architecture + Interior Design (JNS), a firm with a rich history of shaping Denver’s built environment and some pretty bold ideas for its future. A couple years back, they chose to invest in purchasing their office space across from the iconic Union Station. They are proud city-builders and believe strongly in enhancing the quality of Denver’s urban core. They’ve also been at the forefront of office-to-residential conversions since 2015 with their first residential conversion project, Turntable Studios. 

With conversions like these a hot topic right now, Sarah sat down with JNS’ Partner Tobias Strohe  and Principal Heather Vasquez Johnson for their perspective on what needs to happen to get more of our vacant spaces turned into much-needed housing and how they’re working with the Downtown Denver Partnership to create vibrant street-level experiences with Popup Denver. Here are a couple of the key takeaways:   

 

1) Now is the time to get creative in supporting Denver’s small businesses.

JNS has teamed up with the Downtown Denver Partnership and Denver Economic Development & Opportunity to design new storefronts on 16th Street Mall for budding entrepreneurs through Popup Denver, an initiative that supports small business grow their platform with a rent-free popup retail space while activating vacant storefronts and attracting Denverites to downtown.  

2) We can adapt to the times while preserving our urban character.

Cities will always need to adapt to changing needs. But that doesn’t mean scraping and starting anew every time. JNS recently completed a conversion of the 1960s-era Art Institute building into an attainable 192-micro-unit residential community. Not only does adaptive reuse offer a more sustainable alternative to new construction, but these projects also provide an opportunity to preserve Denver’s history and identity through the existing building’s architecture that’s representative of Denver’s character during a particular time period.  

3) Big thinking requires collaboration (and probably some code and zoning changes). 

Like most cities, Denver’s code system is complex (to put it mildly), making office-to-residential conversion projects much tougher than they might seem from the outside. Office buildings currently have low-risk safety codes compared to residential buildings. To make these older structures safe and livable, architects often need to add new HVAC, water and electrical systems, which can be hugely time-consuming and cost prohibitive. The right building also has to have the right bay-depths, floor-to-floor height and parking for residents. If the building was previously a hotel, as was the case with JNS’ Turntable Studios, things get a little easier as the safety code encompasses risk measures that make it easier for conversion.

With their newest conversion, Art Studios Denver, JNS did end up having to add in new systems, including plumbing and sewer connections and sprinkler systems. They were able to make it pencil because of the building’s size and floorplate, but doing something like that with a tall, skinny skyscraper is a different animal entirely.

That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. But it’ll require cooperation from a LOT of different parties. If we want to transform largely vacant Class B and C office structures into attainable housing units at any kind of scale, we’re going to need significant buy-in and investment on the part of private developers, the banks that own the loans and city Planning departments. This work will require a deep understanding of and – in some cases – a changing of city zoning and building codes. 

 

While the challenges we’re facing as a city are real and there are times when they can feel intractable, we’re always so encouraged by conversations like this with insanely smart, creative and passionate people like Tobias and Heather. Be on the lookout for the next ULI Partnership Forum recap where we take you outside Denver’s urban core. 

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