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Importance of well-designed, concentrated urban mixed-use projects

Denver Union Station
Denver Union Station

James G. Johnson, AIA Founding partner, Johnson Nathan Strohe, Denver

As Colorado’s Front Range population and urban density multiply, appealing locations and escalating land values demand creative and often complex development offerings. Returns on investment are enhanced by a synergistic combination of experiential activities or uses. The Crawford Hotel at Denver Union Station is an internationally recognized leader in urban mixed-use projects, having been awarded the 2015 Urban Land Institute Global Award for Excellence and the 2015 Colorado AIA Design Award for Built Architecture. It is a transformational project in the city of Denver that magnetizes urban activity. Our team’s design credo to produce “Denver’s Living Room” best describes the historic building’s role in downtown Denver now and in the future as the transportation hub spawns more armatures.

As economies in the developed world have transformed from agrarian and industrial economies through service and information to more “experience” economies, the role of well-designed, concentrated urban mixed-use projects becomes increasingly important. Projects like Union Station and The Crawford Hotel effectively monetize experiences, adding value and return on investment. People come for the experience and spend money on the product.

Other relevant examples of successful vertically integrated mixed-use projects in Denver include 1600 Glenarm and The Denver Dry Goods redevelopment at 16th and California streets. Besides these projects’ financial returns, their benefits to urban vitality and the experience economy are significant.

As economies in the developed world have transformed from agrarian and industrial economies through service and information to more ‘experience’ economies, the role of well-designed, concentrated urban mixed-use projects becomes increasingly important.”

As mixed-use projects become more complex and vertical in nature, there are often implications on land ownership financing and legal structures. Conventional wisdom is that “fee simple” projects are preferred by developers, lenders and equity investors. When various different uses are stacked vertically, they are typically required to be divided into separate commercial and/or residential condominiums. Multiple uses on multiple parcels of land ownership intensify the Rubik’s Cube and likely the building code implications. Use of common elevators and stairs present functional and security challenges as do ingress and egress locations on separate parcels.

The simplest form of vertical mixed use is a newly constructed mid- to high-rise tower with vertically stacked uses, which is rare in our examples since existing buildings often occupy desirable sites or create unique character.

Each building type (or use) has unique considerations, and some uses mix better than others. Office and retail uses often occur at different times of day, allowing shared parking and other systems to operate with complementary efficiency. Other combinations, such as residential and retail, have simultaneous peak hours, causing additional costs with little beneficial overlap. Hotel and office can be challenging in morning peak hours, but parking can be managed.

Hotel and condominium homes mix well as exemplified by the Four Seasons tower at 14th and Arapahoe streets in Denver, where common amenities (including valet arrival and departure) can easily be shared and the building height used to the advantage of hierarchical sales values. For hotel and apartment projects, building footprints are similar and both are conducive to efficient parking modules. Multifamily (for rent) housing requires retail-like visibility for continual re-leasing: frequent move-in/move out access, view optimization and design efficiencies for profitability.

Condominium homes (for sale) need more ceremonial arrival points, more privacy and more exotic views than apartment or hotel projects. Also, their sound isolation requirements are paramount.

Retail and restaurants require ground-floor locations, except with rare anomalies. Visibility and ease of parking are essential for the first-time and repeat user.

Full-service hotels are complex, with needs for separate identities/locations for lobby, restaurant, service and guest room functions. Conference centers requiring long spans and multiple exits are best located at ground or lower floors.

Office buildings have a unique, somewhat prescriptive floor plate that doesn’t always play well with others. Case in point is the architecturally awkward combination of the Marriott Hotel and office tower at 18th and California streets, a product of 1980s design thought (or lack thereof). Creative office space of the 2000s is more flexible in footprint.

Among other downtown Denver examples, Larimer Square has its attributes, while Sakura Square has its challenges. One is inviting and friendly to the pedestrian while another is not. The recently announced mixed-use project at the former Market Center Station appears to balance a mix of retail, office and apartment functions carefully while respecting parameters of the Lower Downtown Historic District.

Competition for preferred views, solar exposure, commercial visibility, vehicular and pedestrian accessibility makes mixed-use projects difficult to design and execute properly. When these challenges are faced creatively, we begin to see the kind of urban infill that will continue to make Denver a city that rivals some of our coastal competitors in the new experience economy.

Featured in CREJ’s Jan. 20-Feb. 2, 2016, issue

Edited by the Colorado Real Estate Journal staff.