About two decades ago, Canadian developer Rhys Duggan happened to be driving around downtown Denver, Colo. when he spotted a prime riverfront site occupied by an amusement park — Elitch Gardens.
Duggan, who moved to the state capital from Vancouver in 1998, was immediately struck by the similarities with B.C.’s Expo 86 site, which left his home town with a legacy in terms of the built environment.
“There were a lot of commonalities between the two sites,” recalls Duggan, now president and CEO of Revesco Properties. “Both sites were downtown, adjacent to a sports stadium, on the water and really underutilized.
“The similarities were kind of uncanny.”
Duggan, a graduate of B.C.’s Simon Fraser University who has been involved in commercial real estate since 1996, was struck by the potential for urban development on the 62-acre site on the South Platte River.
“My interest (in developing the site) was sparked way back 21 years ago,” says Duggan. “Five years ago, we really started digging into this. We managed to purchase the property four years ago.”
Revesco is in the midst of planning a dense, mixed-use downtown urban neighbourhood called The River Mile that will eventually occupy the Elitch Gardens site.
The River Mile is an opportunity to reclaim the (South Platte) river for the residents
— Rhys Duggan
Envisaged to be constructed over a 25-year period, the development would be built along a one-mile stretch of the river between Speer Boulevard and the Auraria Parkway.
A key element is to “unlock” the downtown waterfront, says Duggan, who began his career in commercial real estate as a project manager with the Larco Group of Companies in Vancouver.
“Denver, like a lot of U.S. cities, has essentially turned its back on its urban rivers,” he says.
“If you understand the history of the development of these cities, there is a reason for that — most of these rivers were industrial sewers.
“Urban areas are now reclaiming their rivers. The River Mile is an opportunity to reclaim the (South Platte) river for the residents of downtown and to really turn it into an amenity.”
A second key element, Duggan says, is leveraging the region’s investment in light-rail transit. Two transit stops service the Elitch Gardens site.
“I like to say that Denver is in the second inning of its light-rail game, compared to other major U.S. metropolitan areas,” he says. “So, that’s a really big component.”
The third “leg of the stool” is taking a fresh look at how streets are designed.
“I think a lot of U.S. cities have largely been designed around the single-occupancy vehicle,” Duggan says. “I think it is time to change that (in Denver) with a real focus on multi-modal transportation.”
In undertaking the project, Revesco has enlisted the expertise of both U.S. and Canadian consultants— the Vancouver office of Canadian design giant DIALOG as well as three Denver-based firms, Shears Adkins Rockmore Architects, landscape architects Wenk Associates, and civil engineers Calibre.
DIALOG has partnered on master plan development with Shears Adkins Rockmore, which is providing on-the-ground services.
“I brought DIALOG in because I wanted a fresh set of eyes,” Duggan says. “I think Canada is doing great things in terms of vertical development and transit-oriented development.”
DIALOG also played an “instrumental role” in the rezoning of the site, he says.
On the construction side, Duggan was in Toronto a few months ago touring some PCL tower sites.
“We are doing some fairly conceptual pricing with them,” he says.
Revesco is also getting input from U.S-based Turner Construction.
The River Mile site was rezoned late last year to accommodate mixed-use development — including residential uses mostly located on the river’s edge, office uses on the backside of the site, and ancillary uses such as retail facilities and restaurants.
“We’re planning about 14 million built square feet,” Duggan says. “That might be seven million square feet of office space, six million square feet of residential and one million square feet of ancillary uses.”
Plans also call for a variety of public spaces and amenities.
Currently, Revesco is working with the city on detailed plans for roads, sewers, watermains and other infrastructure on the site.
The site, which currently includes 17 acres of surface parking lots, will be developed in phases. Revesco will build a parking structure to replace the current surface lots.
“That will open up a lot of the acreage for phase one development while we keep the Elitch Gardens amusement park in operation,” Duggan said.
A firm timeline has not yet been set for a start on vertical building construction.
As part of its efforts to help revitalize the South Platte River, Revesco has released about 3,000 rainbow trout into the river.
“It’s been amazing to see what has happened there,” says Duggan, who has a photo on his phone of a 25-inch trout that was pulled out of the river. “The river has been brought back to life for fly fishing.”