Loretto Heights

Loretto Heights' iconic administration building. 

A 125-year-old school campus has made its way onto a long list of Denver properties slated for redevelopment.

Plans to revamp Loretto Heights, 72 acres on a hilltop in the Harvey Park South neighborhood, advanced just after midnight on Tuesday when the City Council approved the creation of a series of special districts to help finance the project.

The effort took another step forward later that morning, when the Land Use, Transportation & Infrastructure Committee referred to the full council a redevelopment plan for the campus and more than 200 acres surrounding it.

The site was home to Loretto Heights Academy, a Catholic boarding school for girls that opened in the late 1800s, and evolved into a series of educational facilities over more than a century, eventually becoming Colorado Heights University.

Westside Investment Partners, which owns the property, envisions a “mixed use, mixed income multi-generation development" that preserves some of the campus's character while providing a new community center, said Mark Witkiewicz, a partner at the developer group.

“If you close your eyes and you fast forward 20 or 50 years, you want to open your eyes back up and know that this was a college campus at one point in time," he told the committee on Tuesday.

The plan recommends that eight of the campus' iconic structures be preserved or reused in some way.

The developer is negotiating an agreement that would place a historic easement on some of those buildings, such as the campus's chapel and its bell tower-topped administration building.

Westside Investment Partners is also 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.

"It is most important to me to preserve the buildings. And in order to preserve the buildings, I’m seeking the best financial tool to do it," Witkiewicz said. 

One of the 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. Developers have a funding plan for that $22 million project, Mark said.

The redevelopment plan emphasizes the need for other affordable housing projects, too. Its goals include the creation of new community gathering spaces and infrastructure upgrades — from improved streets and intersections to better bicycle routes. It proposes a maximum building height of five stories or less on most of the plan area.

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.

The last classes took place there in 2017, Witkiewicz. Its buildings are now vacant.

Also among the campus' historic assets are a cemetery where dozens of the sisters are buried and the May Bonfils Stanton Theater. A feasibility study by Denver-based Keen Independent Research has explored what it would take to restore the 1,000-seat theater to a functioning performance arts venue.

The developer says nearly $100 million is needed to fund the public improvements that will make community's vision for the campus a reality.

The six Loretto Heights metropolitan districts will be able to borrow money to pay for those upgrades and repay that debt with property taxes from home and business owners who will occupy the new spaces. Altogether, the creation of the districts clears the way for up to 90 mills in additional taxes to be levied on those property owners.

Westside Investment Partners has also applied for an urban renewal designation. That status could clear the way for tax increment financing, enabling the developer to use more future tax revenue generated on the campus to help fund the improvement projects.

During a public hearing late Monday night, some area residents urged the council to vote down the special districts, saying it's unfair for taxpayers to bankroll the infrastructure.

"Developers should pay their own way," said Jim Gibson of Loretto Heights Community Initiative, a group that formed amid the redevelopment effort.

Gibson and other residents also reiterated a concern that's become common with urban renewal projects in Denver: that surrounding property values will rise as a result, and untenable rents will force out making neighboring residents and businesses.

Councilman Kevin Flynn said that special districts have commonly been used to pay for infrastructure and utility needs for other Denver-area developments.

"This is an opportunity to get something done right, not only in southwest Denver, but in the city," he said. "We have an iconic site."

Flynn heads the steering committee that drafted the redevelopment plan. He has been criticized for receiving campaign contributions from the developer, reports to 9News.

Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca cast the sole "no" vote against approving the districts, without explaining why. Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval was present for most of the meeting, but was absent for the vote.

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