The Denver City Council on Monday approved a redevelopment plan for a century-old college campus that officials say will breathe new life into the city's long-overlooked southwest side.
The plan envisions Loretto Heights, 72 acres on a hilltop in the Harvey Park South neighborhood, as a future community center made up of mixed-use development that repurposes some of the campus' historic assets while preserving others.
"Our work will bring this area of old beautiful, buildings — along with some new buildings — alive. This is what we need in that area," Norma Brown, a Loretto Heights College alumna, told the council. "This project has brought the community together."
The site was first home to a Catholic boarding school for girls that opened in the late 1800s, and evolved into a series of educational facilities over more than 100 years, eventually becoming Colorado Heights University.
One of the former dorms, Pancratia Hall, is slated to become a nearly 70-unit affordable housing complex for residents that earn 30% to 80% of the area median income.
The developer that now owns the campus, Westside Investment Partners, has assured that there will be more affordable housing projects included in the revamp.
More than 40 people spoke during a public hearing on the plan. The majority of them — including residents, community organization representatives and development team members — spoke in support of the plan and praised the year-long process the city led to create it.
"The community outreach was beyond anything that I have seen," said Mark Upshaw, a resident of the nearby Dartmouth Heights neighborhood. "I always felt heard."
Others, however, argued that the document leaves unanswered important questions about how the redevelopment of the campus will affect traffic, housing prices and local residents — especially those who are low income or minorities.
"There is not much to criticize in the plan. It is what’s not in the plan that’s a problem," said southwest Denver neighborhood activist Larry Ambrose. "The planning process for this site will serve as a precedent for future development in the southwest quadrant. It should be done correctly."
The 90-page plan recommends that eight of the campus' iconic structures, including its bell tower-topped administration building and chapel, be preserved or reused in some way.
But critics said that the document needs stronger language to ensure those assets are protected.
Some asked that the a historic district designation be sought up front.
"To preserve something, you have to do it before it’s changed. It will be impossible to preserve the important parts of the campus if they have already been developed," Ambrose said.
In a Monday letter to Historic Denver, the developer pledged to find short- and long-term historic preservation solutions for the campus' keys structures.
"The commitment has always been there," said Mark Witkiewicz, a partner at the developer group. "We have always said, in all of the steering committee meetings, that those buildings would be preserved."
The campus, among the highest points in the city, was purchased by the Sisters of Loretto in 1888 and became a Catholic boarding school. Loretto Heights College for women operated for 70 years before closing in the late 1980s because of falling enrollment. Teikyo University owned the property until it sold to Westside Investment Partners in summer 2018.
A covenant agreement protects the administration building and chapel from being torn down, Witkiewicz said.
The developer has said it's seeking historic landmark designations from the National Park Service for some of the facilities — a status that would make the site eligible for tax breaks that could help pay for the projects.
Westside Investment Partners also plans to apply for historic preservation easements, pending a review of those plans by its financial advisors, Witkiewicz said.
The Sisters of Loretto have been given several options for how they would like to protect a cemetery on the campus where scores of sisters are buried, he added.
Other goals of the plan include the creation of new community gathering spaces and infrastructure upgrades — from improved streets and intersections to better bicycle routes and trail connections.
It limits building heights to five stories or less on most of the plan area, with buildings up to eight stories high allowed in a relatively small, central spot.
Critics also expressed concerns that the campus' transformation will lead to gentrification.
"We elected you to hold developers accountable to those you represent. You have given the power to corporations,” Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan, president of Harvey Park Community Organization, told the council. “Stop the scam of having developers, bond investors, and special district management companies benefiting from pushing black, brown, indigenous people out."
The surrounding communities are predominantly Latino.
Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca was the sole council member to vote against the plan's passage after raising questions about the inclusion of Hispanic and Latino residents in the public input process.
Councilwoman Jamie Torres, who voted "yes" on the plan, noted that the city "needs to create an entirely different mechanism for community engagement" that's more inclusive.
Councilman Christopher Herndon was absent from the vote.
The developer needs more approvals from the city before construction begins, Witkiewicz said.
Residents can also make comments during the historic preservation and large development review processes.
"There are a lot of opportunities for (public) input still," he said.