Mayor Michael Hancock likes to refer to the area along the the University of Colorado A-Line train route in north and east Denver as the “Corridor of Opportunity.” With a high concentration of undeveloped land there, Hancock and city officials believe the spaces along the 22.8 miles of RTD track connecting downtown and Denver International Airport represent one of the best commercial investments opportunities in the world.
Property along the corridor, particularly in the River North neighborhood, is getting mighty expensive these days. Thanks to the foresight of a local nonprofit, an island of permanently affordable housing soon will be established amid that roiling real estate sea.
The Urban Land Conservancy announced today it is partnering with Medici Communities to build 65 apartments on 1.5 acres at the corner of 36th and Walnut streets. A block from RTD’s 38th & Blake Station, the Walnut Street Lofts will be reserved for people making 30 percen to 60 percent of the area’s median income when it welcomes its first tenants in late 2019, offering rents ranging from $400 for a one-bedroom, to $1,200 for a three-bedroom.
“ULC is thrilled to partner with Medici to bring the only affordable housing option to RiNo’s 38th and Blake Station area,” Debra Bustos, the Conservancy’s vice president of real estate, said in a news release.
Aaron Miripol, ULC’s president and CEO, credited Bustos for taking the lead on purchasing the property for $1.7 million in 2011. It’s an example of “land banking,” a key strategy for the organization in which it swoops in and buys land along transportation corridors before major development begins and prices explode. The purchase price breaks down to less than $30 per square foot, Miripol said, while he is seeing properties selling for $200 per square foot in the area today.
The Colorado Housing and Finance Authority awarded Medici $1,198,115 in low-income housing tax credits to help finance the estimated $17 million project. Medici previously worked with ULC to build the 50-unit Evans Station Lofts in southwest Denver in 2013. Features of that affordable housing project, including community space for nonprofit organizations and artists, a computer lab and rooftop deck, will be echoed on Walnut, ULC said. One difference is the Conservancy sold Medici the land for the Evans project, but it is maintaining a 99-year, automatically renewing land lease on Walnut Street and selling Medici development rights. That means for 198 years ULC will control what happens on the land.
“Whatever happens in the future, it’s going to remain affordable,” Miripol said. “We going to ensure it remains a community resource. It will last multiple generations.”
“This is a great (transit-oriented development) location, and it will provide affordable access to jobs across metro Denver to people who can’t afford or don’t want to pay for a car,” Medici principal and Walnut Station project leader Josh Russell said. “When you reduce the cost of housing and transportation for a moderate-income household, you have a chance to make a really positive impact and set the table for long-term self sufficiency.”
Colorado development firm McWinney is chipping in $1.5 million toward the Walnut Street project. The company owns an adjacent property and is putting up the money to earn a height variance for whatever it builds there from the city of Denver. Under the guidelines of a plan unanimously approved by the City Council last year, developers who build affordable housing or pay cash in lieu of affordable units can earn approval to construct buildings up to 16 stories tall on the blocks nearest the 38th & Blake Station.
“We have been working on a zoning incentive package for two years with stakeholders that increases density at the station, in exchange for affordable housing and community serving businesses,” City Council President Albus Brooks said in a news release. “We hope this will be a model for the rest of our city.”
The Urban Land Conservancy has invested in 28 projects in the metro area since it was founded in 2003. That includes a 156-unit affordable apartment project near the 40th and Colorado train station, also in the “Corridor of Opportunity.” Miripol said the nonprofit still has 20-plus acres in its bank to continue its mission of benefiting urban communities.
Jeff Allen is president of the Cole Neighborhood Association. His group represents Denver’s Cole neighborhood, just across the train tracks from RiNo and the Walnut Street project. The association endorsed the project and wrote a letter supporting Medici’s application for low-income housing tax credits to finance it.
“We recognize that there is a critical need for affordable housing all over Denver but especially close to light rail or commuter rail stations,” Allen said.