WORDS: : Kevin Criss
It’s a blue sky Colorado day and Jim Johnson, founding partner of Denver’s Johnson Nathan Strohe architecture and design firm, is sitting across the street from the two-hotel project he’s been spearheading in central Boulder.
Asked what he’s most proud of with this project, Johnson responds without a second of hesitation, as if he’s been pondering the question for a while.
“This project gives me a huge sense of pride because it’s a professional homecoming,” he says looking at the project. “I first started studying architecture in 1971 up on the hill at the university, got my environmental design degree, then my Master of Architecture. To be here when the building is being framed and look up at the Flatirons and the campus and all, and think about how much I’ve learned about hotels since I was a young college student in Boulder, well, it’s just really very gratifying.”
Johnson is the architect as well as the interior designer of both the Embassy Suites and Hilton Garden Inn that will cover a nearly two-block span west of 28th Street on the north side of Canyon Boulevard, walking distance to Folsom Field and downtown Boulder.
And he has certainly learned a few things about the hospitality industry, having designed more than 80 hotels in a stellar 41-year career. This project? It’ll be his firm’s largest ever.
At approximately 167,000 square feet, five stories and two below-grade parking levels, the Embassy Suites will feature 206 guest rooms, a 6,500-square-foot ballroom – the largest in Boulder – and Brickstone’s Kitchen and Bar, which not only will cater to hotel guests but to Boulder’s foodies as well. The Hilton Garden Inn will be five stories, 94,000 square feet, and feature 178 guest rooms, the Garden Grille restaurant and a courtyard. Both hotels will share an expansive outdoor pool and plaza.
Johnson Nathan Strohe’s clients on these properties are Sage Hospitality and NAI Shames Makovsky, and construction is by Milender White Construction.
Replacing Pieces of ‘Old Boulder’
Since the 1950s, the Boeve family had owned and operated the Best Western Golden Buff Lodge at this location and The Buff restaurant, located on the grounds, was a beloved breakfast and lunch institution. (In 2014, The Buff Restaurant moved into a newer, larger location right across the street at 2600 Canyon Blvd. It remains a Boulder favorite today.)
Boulder developer Scott Pederson purchased the property from the Boeves in 2012 and then reached a development agreement with Lou Della Cava, who owned the building just to the east. That building just happened to be the legendary Eads News and Smoke Shop, a Boulder landmark since 1913. Della Cava is currently building a mixed-use office building in this location.
In 2012, Pederson transferred his rights to Denver’s NAI Shames Makovsky, a full-service commercial real estate firm. Founder Evan Makovsky, a 40-year veteran in commercial real estate, has been hailed as an “urban hero” for his redevelopment and preservations efforts in Denver.
In late 2012, Shames Makovsky teamed up with Sage Hospitality, Johnson Nathan Strohe and Millender White thanks to their extensive past working relationship, and together they worked with Della Cava and the city of Boulder to figure out the best solution for the parcel.
According to Johnson, “There was some consolidation and some movement of property lines to accommodate the office building, and then we had to figure out the parking.”
It was decided that in addition to the hotels, a two-story underground parking structure would work best with Della Cava’s office sharing the first level of parking with the hotels. After clearing the Boulder Planning Board with a unanimous vote, a formal groundbreaking for the hotel development was held April 28, 2015.
Smooth Sailing with the City
The city of Boulder, which can be a challenge for any developer, proved to be smooth sailing for all parties involved.
“It has been and continues to be a great experience working with the city of Boulder,” says Johnson. “Their aspirations for high-quality urban design and architecture help set the bar higher for us. They deserve credit for making sure the building is designed the building is designed extremely well and that we’re using high-quality materials.”
“This project has been uniquely designed and programmed to meet the extensive requirements of the city of Boulder,” according to Walter Isenberg, president and CEO of Sage Hospitality. “We’re excited to bring this product to the Boulder market. It will fit well with the demands of CU, Boulder and the central Boulder scene.”
Kathleen Bates, dual general manager for Embassy Suites and Hilton Garden Inn with Sage Hospitality, (and a huge CU Buff fan like Johnson), agrees that these hotels will be perfect for Boulder.
“These hotels really complement what’s needed here,” says Bates. “Travelers coming into this market will find that these properties fill many of their needs. We’re going to have the largest ballroom in Boulder to house a lot of events that have typically gone outside of Boulder because there hasn’t been enough space. Sage did feasibility studies on the market and we found these hotels really make sense for the area and we’re super excited to introduce them to Boulder.”
Solutions Below Grade
While the hotels will be located just beyond the Boulder’s 100-year floodplain, when it came time to dig for the two-story underground parking garage, groundwater became a more pressing issue for Milender White.
“Groundwater at this location is at 10 feet and we had to go down 40 feet,” says Adam Mack, executive vice president construction for Milender White. “So, we employed a construction method called secant piles, which isolated the entire property from the groundwater. We drilled 574 overlapping caissons in all to make an envelope around the property. Those caissons were then faced with a shotcrete and a waterproofing to appear as concrete walls. They serve both as a water barrier and as a finished product.”
According to Mack and Johnson, the plans for the parking structure evolved as they collaborated with Sage Hospitality and Makovsky. It soon became clear that there was a desire to put more than just mechanical systems and the laundry room down there.
“Because of the focus on the pedestrian orientation in and around the building, we placed all the loading docks, trash, employee break rooms and boiler rooms below grade, which is actually something that Evan (Makovsky) insisted upon,” Johnson says. “It wasn’t necessarily required by the city of Boulder, but its net effect is very positive in my opinion.
“We made the garages deeper than they would have been otherwise. We have turning radii to work with in terms of accommodating the trash and recycling companies here in Boulder. It’s unique and it gives Kathleen (Bates) the opportunity to keep the back-of-house functions separated from the front of house – the public realm. It means there’s really no back door on either of these two buildings.”
The Look and Feel of Boulder
According to Johnson, Mack and Bates, from the beginning they have been focused on creating hotels that are not only on-brand, but hotels that will fit in with the urban fabric of Boulder.
“Sage has a great visionary approach to creating these unique, high-quality hotels,” says Johnson. “It was important that the architecture and design for each hotel represent the Hilton brand, while also providing an original experience that felt unique to Boulder.”
To achieve that Boulder aesthetic, inside each hotel Johnson Nathan Strohe utilized a blend of organic materials such as wood and stone alongside warm metals like natural copper and bronze. The skin of the hotels will feature a mix of stucco and red sandstone (a Boulder signature if there ever was one) quarried from Lyons, just 17 miles up the road.
According to Bates and Johnson, Sage’s flexibility with their design standards is what allowed for the architecture to take on a “Boulder” look, instead of a cookie-cutter approach.
“These hotels are going to go way beyond the brands,” says Bates. “Each has a real boutique feel in many ways including the display of local artwork, mostly works from CU alumni, faculty and students. We will also be supporting the community by adopting the zero waste initiative that is very important to the mayor and the city. Sage felt it was important to support the values that are meaningful to Boulder and show we want to be a larger part of this great community.”
What You Don’t Hear, Matters
With the location being in one of the noisiest areas in the city, soundproofing is just one of the details that Johnson Nathan Strohe, Milender White and Sage Hospitality have been focused on.
“I can tell you that Sage has put every last detail and focus into selling a good night’s sleep,” says Mack. “That starts with absolute quiet and the STC ratings. They have held us to a high standard and we are designing and achieving that in the field.” (Sound Transmission Class is an integer rating of how well a building partition attenuates airborne sound.)
White said that a good night’s sleep is critical to not only the business traveler but to the leisure traveler as well. And with 28th Street and a shopping mall to the east, and shopping centers next door and across the street, (not to mention one of Boulder’s busiest streets right out front), it was essential to meet the challenge of providing a quiet sleeping environment.
Focused on the Finish
Thirty months into this project, Mack says they have excavated 85,000 cubic yards of soil, poured 21,000 cubic yards of concrete and by the time things wrap up they will have 1.4 million man hours utilized to create the hotel.
According to Byron White, President and CEO of Milender White (and a fellow University of Colorado alum), the project is “tracking six weeks ahead of the contractual completion date and is coming in under budget.”
Considering the tight site conditions, zero lot line and being on an insanely busy street corner, these accomplishments seem all the more impressive.
Back on the sunny deck across the street from the project site, Johnson decides to add to his original answer about pride with a nod to design.
“In terms of the actual design of the building, the thing that I’m the most proud of is the way that the two hotels are going to fit with the campus and the office building and its connectivity to the neighboring commercial and residential areas. It’s such a big project, but it will really fit into the urban fabric and the style of architecture. They are going to be beautiful additions to Boulder.”
Published in the September 2017 issue of Building Dialogue.