NIGHT & DAY: Mountain town developer East West Partners takes on projects in Denver
DENVER – At first glance, Breckenridge and the one-time industrial ghetto of Denver’s Central Platte Valley would seem as different as night and day, work and play, football and ballet. But for East West Partners, the two are flip sides of the same coin.With roots in the mountains, first at Beaver Creek and later in Summit County, East West Partners has become known for its high-end, amenity-driven real estate developments along Interstate 70 in mountain communities. Lately, its corporate bigwigs have taken a shining to downtown Denver. But the two locales, according to Mark Smith, a partner in East West, are not as different as one might think.Smith has marketing smarts. As a vice president for Vail Associates in the early 1980s, long before the firm morphed into Vail Resorts, he helped brand the spanking-new resort of Beaver Creek by creating a somewhat artificial “Vail Valley.” The trick worked. People understood immediately where this new ski resort, the last major resort built in Colorado, was located.In 1986, he joined forces with Harry Frampton, his former boss at Vail Associates, to tackle real estate development. They saw opportunity at Beaver Creek in catering to the high-end market, and then applied the same basic formula to other projects from Eagle to Breckenridge.There’s a gentleness to their projects, as well as thoughtfulness. These are places of white-barked aspen trees and thick, green grass. Even the newer projects in Breckenridge – Main Street Junction and Main Street Station – have a strong attachment to the natural world.So, in 1998, when Smith set out for Denver, many were surprised. Most shocking was what Smith, as development boss, and East West Partners were getting into – an area known as the Central Platte Valley. It is gritty to Summit County’s pristine, but East West now has $32 million-worth of land in the city’s former railyards.It was just what Mark Smith needed for a mid-career shift.Leaving a home abutting the national forest, Smith took up residence overlooking a duo of railroad tracks that bustles with 40 trains a day. “The more I got into it, the more I was intrigued,” Smith said. “I’m to the point of life that if it isn’t fun and challenging, I don’t want to mess with it anymore.”The challenge is to convert industrial grime into residential polish. In doing this, there is work, but also some pre-existing attractions.From Vail Valley’s Aspens to Colorado’s RootsThe land itself is at the heart of Colorado history. Located just a few blocks from where Denver’s first inhabitants set up their tents in 1858, this was Denver’s first neighborhood. Then, after railroads arrived in the 1870s, it became Denver’s first transportation hub. Union Station, located only two blocks from the East West project, was Colorado’s equivalent of DIA during the rail era.West of the train station were 25 railroad tracks that serviced ware-houses, foundries, and machine shops. This was Denver’s workshop, its pantry, its boiler room and more.Then, Denver decentralized. People and their commerce moved to the suburbs.Even by the 1950s, Denver’s core was losing its vitality. Meanwhile, midnight polluters stopped along the viaducts that spanned the railyards, draining their unwanted vats of chemicals. “This was Denver’s dumping ground for 100 years,” says Smith.Resurgence came slowly. Wrecking balls swung freely even into the 1980s, leveling 20 percent of the red-bricked Victorian buildings in Lower Downtown. But even as Denver’s oil-based economy sputtered in the mid-1980s, city leaders charted a deliberate and phased comeback. Under the mayoral leadership first of Federico Pea and then Wellington Webb, the old viaducts that cobwebbed this industrial district were replaced. The sewage lagoon of the South Platte River was scoured and gussied up. Along its banks, a network of bicycle and pedestrian paths were laid, connecting to the metropolitan area’s 150-mile network. Public investments have totaled $476 million.The pump thus primed, private investments surged. The old warehouse district of Lower Downtown became LoDo, Colorado’s liveliest entertainment district.Coors Field was built after a partnership, once again of public and private interests, landed a Major League Baseball franchise. The Pepsi Center, home to the Colorado Avalanche and the Denver Nuggets, followed, as did a new stadium for the Denver Broncos. Investment in sporting venues has approached $1 billion. All are within a half-mile of the East West property.Other attractions are also nearby – the Elitch Gardens amusement park, outdoor goods retailer REI, Tattered Cover bookstore, and just off the 16th Street Mall, the nation’s second-largest theatrical complex under one roof.”The reason we’re here is because this stuff is here,” Smith said.
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