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Allen Best, Special to the Daily

DENVER – The transformation from Lower Downtown Denver from abandoned dumping ground to crown jewel is taking time. It is not complete, even now. In the 1980s, the joke in Denver was, that you could fling a bowling ball down the 16th Street Mall after work hours without endangering anybody.

“Downtown Denver was a 9-to-5 place, Monday through Friday, and if you came down here after 5 o’clock or on the weekend, it was empty,” Ben Kelly, spokesman for the Downtown Denver Partnership, said.

Now, Denver’s core has become lively 16 hours a day.

But the goal all along was to create a 24-hour city, something with the vibrancy of Manhattan or Chicago’s Loop district. And that’s where East West Partners and other developers of the Central Platte Valley come in.

“People live in the core of great cities, and if this is going to ever become a great city, it needs residential,” Mark Smith, a partner in East West, said.

By most scorecards, Denver is doing well. Only a few hundred housing units were tracked in all of downtown and immediate areas in a 1980s survey. Now, there are 3,500. “That’s at least a good start on a 24-hour downtown,” Andrew Wallach, policy director for Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, said.

East West Partners is a large part of round-the-clock vision. Riverfront, its development, will double the residential component of downtown Denver eventually. The company has 850 lofts and condominiums completed or under construction. Ultimately, the partners plan 3,500 housing units.

Unit prices have ranged from $250,000 to $3 million. However, Smith suggests future phases may be engineered to hit a lower price. “Forty-five percent of the people who walk in our door are people looking for something less than $300,000,” he said. East West also plans some brownstone single-family homes.

Many buyers are eager to be rid of car traffic, a goal abetted by Riverfront’s proximity to downtown and public transportation. Some 20 to 25 percent of Riverfront buyers are mountain residents.

A string of parks is central to Riverfront’s attractiveness. East West’s 13 city blocks of property are laid out in a long north-south strip, sandwiched on the east by the railroad tracks. On the west are Interstate 25, the river, and closest of all, the string of parks that collectively cost $40 million.

This river corridor was possibly Denver’s greatest embarrassment a generation ago, if anyone thought about it at all. Now, it is one of Denver’s great prides. An admiring Audubon magazine noticed this transformation as did Sunset magazine, which this year called it the “West’s best urban waterway.” Before the cleanup and the federal Clean Water Act, teachers warned students against bodily contact with water from the river. Now, people can – and do – go kayaking in the river’s manufactured whitewater park at the confluence of Cherry Creek, just outside the REI store.

Smith credits Denver Mayor Webb with must of the transformation. “Webb has done a great job with parks. He understands urban,” Smith said. “That’s huge – because if the leadership doesn’t get it, it won’t happen.”

East West’s Harry Frampton echoes Smith’s comments. “To make cities work, you need great parks,” he said. “Because Denver has invested so much over the years in that park system, we thought it would be a great place to live.”

Looking out upon parks and the river, Riverfront looks over its shoulder at the skyscrapers of downtown Denver. Also nearby is a light-rail line that already connects Riverfront with the sporting stadiums and will soon connect to the Denver Tech Center. Planners are working to make Union Station the hub for a maze of buses and light rail that will eventually connect to Boulder and Denver International Airport.

A $9 million, 130-foot pedestrian bridge across railroad tracks connects Riverfront with Union Station and the 16th Street Mall. It is highlighted – literally – at night by a 200-foot-tall mast readily visible from Interstate 25.

In developing Riverfront, East West Partners hopes to avoid past mistakes. Beaver Creek real estate sales languished for several years as prospective buyers struggled to imagine the future from far-flung lodges. At Riverfront, building has been concentrated front and center. Development will spread laterally during the next 10 to 15 years. The existing cluster of buildings has 50,000 square feet of ground-level retail space. Already operating are a small grocery and a cafe.

Smith also is working on behalf of a public elementary school. A real estate transfer tax ultimately will funnel $1 million annually into community improvement projects. Frampton foresees a larger grocery store within two years.

Denver still is not a 24-hour city, and it may not be for another decade or two, speculates the Denver Downtown Partnership’s Kelly. When it does hit that level, Riverfront will be part of the story.

Editor’s Note

This is the second of a two-part series on East West Partners’ venture into downtown Denver, seemingly far afield from its beginning in the mountains of Summit and Eagle counties.

Today’s article outlines how East West Partners became part of

Denver’s metamorphosis from cow town to a first-class city.

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