From an illegal pot grow to Lyft: Steam on the Platte’s tenants shift as Denver neighborhood undergoes major face-lift

Sunday, 12 November 2017, 09:44:30 AM. Sun Valley, flush with bond money and $30 million in federal grant funding, is set to undergo a face-lift unlike any other Denver neighborhood. The mixed-use Steam on the Platte project shows the p…

Looking to cement a physical presence in an urban market where its app already lives in countless phones, Lyft didn’t want to open its first Denver permanent driver-support center in just any old place.

“It was really important to me that we locate close to the heart of Denver, close to most of our drivers,” said Gabe Cohen, general manager for the tech-based ride hailing company’s Rocky Mountain region.

Convenient access to highways and thoroughfares was a must. But for Cohen, a Denver native, locating somewhere at the forefront of the city’s growth, where innovation and inclusiveness were embraced, also mattered.

He found what he was looking for in a previously abandoned warehouse at the corner of West 14th Avenue and Zuni Street. There, in a three-story, red-brick building that housed an illegal pot grow, developers believe they have created something that will serve as a means of commercial propulsion for the city’s next revitalization frontier: the Sun Valley neighborhood. 

Renovated over the past two years, the building, at 1401 Zuni St., is the first piece of Steam on the Platte. The $65 million, mixed-use project is expected to bring in a restaurant and/or brewery, new condos and additional office space in what eventually will be five buildings on 3.2 acres nestled between the reinvigorated South Platte River and Interstate 25.

Named for the still-cooking steam plant to its south that evokes memories of the property’s heavy industrial past, the project from partners Urban Ventures and White Construction Group aims to use its century-old architecture to attract tech and creative industry companies — the way reuse projects have helped bring business to Denver’s once dilapidated Lower Downtown and River North neighborhoods.

Led by architect Mike Moore, with Tres Birds Workshop, the building embraces its past with raw, exposed ceilings, naked brick in places and unique features such as a main staircase that wraps around a giant, hydraulic, rag-baling press. The press, which was the centerpiece of the building in the 1930s, was used to bundle old clothing that was then shipped to needy places around the world.

“This is for companies that don’t want to be on the 30th-umpteenth floor in the Central Business District,” said Urban Ventures president Susan Powers, who came upon the property during a bike ride a few years ago. “I think this is a catalytic site for Sun Valley. This is kind of the new growth neighborhood for downtown.”

The 65,000-square-foot building is now home to Lyft, software company Nimbl and architecture firm Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative. They and another four or five future building mates should bring needed commercial activity to an impoverished neighborhood that can be awfully sleepy when the Denver Broncos aren’t playing at nearby Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

In addition to housing corporate staff, Lyft’s 4,400-square-foot space at Steam will be a service center for existing drivers and an on-boarding hub for new ones. Locating the driver hub in Sun Valley was made more exciting for Cohen by plans for creation of the Sun Valley EcoDistrict. Construction of that new vision for a long-neglected neighborhood, which includes building 750 new units of city-owned, mixed-income housing, should get underway soon thanks, in part, to a $30 million federal grant.

“We’re planning to be a good neighbor to that project. There is a lot we can do for workforce development,” Cohen said. “We will be servicing thousands of drivers out of this hub. (It) can be a great source of energy.”

Sun Valley is Denver’s poorest community. Eighty-three percent of its people live in poverty, according to the Denver Housing Authority. Fifty-five percent of its 1,500 or so residents are school-age kids, and 21 percent are immigrants.

DHA officials are taking Steam’s opening as a positive sign of things to come as it and its nonprofit master development partner, the Sun Valley EcoDistrict Trust, move forward with a five-year, $240 million multifaceted neighborhood rebuild they hope will draw equal or greater private-sector development.

“It’s actually a huge step for what we envision as the transformation of the Sun Valley EcoDistrict,” said Ryan Tobin, the agency’s real estate director. “For the better part of 50 years, we have seen disinvestment in the neighborhood. Now, we are seeing a neighborhood-scale redevelopment that we think will be the springboard for another 10 to 20 years of investment.”

DHA will break ground on the first slate of housing and infrastructure improvements next summer, Tobin said, with additional housing phases through 2023. Development density there should triple, with resources such as an after-school education center also being added.

The area got another financial boost on Election Day, when Denver voters approved a $937 million bond package that included money for realigning and making multimodal improvements to 13th Street through the neighborhood and for the creation of a new park that will embrace and bring activity to the banks of the Platte. Those improvements were included as long-term goals in the 2013 Decatur-Federal Station Area Plan that was passed by the City Council at about the same time that the Regional Transportation District’s West Rail Line opened and connected Sun Valley to inner Denver.

Lyft isn’t the only transit-minded entity settling into the neighborhood. The Colorado Department of Transportation could move into its new combined central and Region 1 headquarters building near West 14th Avenue and Federal Boulevard as early as spring, spokeswoman Amy Ford said. The five-story building, built on a former parking lot that CDOT last year purchased from the Metropolitan Football Stadium District for $6 million, will bring an estimated 800 employees into the area. CDOT was attracted to Sun Valley by many of the same amenities the Steam team is using to sell its project to tenants: Easy access to I-25, Colfax Avenue, light rail, and the Lakewood Gulch and South Platte River bike trails.

“The community is such a historic, vibrant community as it is,” Ford said. “We’re excited to be part of a broader transformation.”

Tim White, founder and president of White Construction Group, views Steam as just the first wave of projects in what he expects to be a popular area between the Auraria higher-education campus to the east, the river to the west, and the tangle of roadways where Colfax flies over I-25 to the north. The next project on tap for Steam is updating an existing 6,000-square-foot, barrel-roofed structure there that could house a restaurant or brewery with a riverside patio.

Reed Silberman may qualify as a Sun Valley pioneer. He opened his Ink Monstr graphic design and large-format printing business in a warehouse at 2721 W. Holden Place in 2012 after a year of intensive renovations.

Silberman is also the president of the Sun Valley Community Coalition and has volunteered for numerous advisory boards and stakeholder groups concerned with the future of the neighborhood in recent years.

For Silberman, a key aspect of the EcoDistrict plans is making it mixed-income and replacing the existing government housing there in waves, so that low-income residents are not forced to leave their neighborhood just as it is seeing new life breathed into it.

Silberman said Steam is a great fit for the neighborhood and should help attract people to the area that have never been to Sun Valley before. That in turn will trigger more interest and investment and, he hopes, bring in sorely needed amenities such as grocery stores and laundromats.

“Here we really have the opportunity to have a clean slate and build something that I think meets the needs and wants of the people who live in the neighborhood and attract new people into the neighborhood,” he said. “I believe it is going to be one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in Denver.”

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