Denver's Urban Land Conservancy aims to put transit-oriented development to work for the greater good.
Denver is gentrifying.
In the 1980s, the Colorado state capital appeared—like so many other American cities—to be serving a sentence of death by parking lot. These days, it is looking more like the city whose street scene once put "the most wicked grin of joy in the world" on the face of Jack Kerouac.
Aaron Miripol feels a sense of urgency. As the president and CEO of the Urban Land Conservancy in Denver, he has spearheaded an unusual effort to develop real estate to fit community needs, in the form of affordable housing, libraries, schools, and more. As Denver revives, the squares on the board start to fill up.
At the Evans light rail station south of downtown, the Urban Land Conservancy worked with Medici Communities, a local developer, to construct 50 units of affordable housing on a parcel purchased in 2011. The mixed-use project won a design award from the Denver mayor's office last year.
"It's a working-class community," Mirapol says, "but five to ten years from now, what's it going to look like?"
The Urban Land Conservancy, which is a non-profit, was established in 2003 with seed money from oilman Sam Gary, but not staffed until 2007 (Miripol was the first employee; it now has 16). In some ways, it functions like a land bank. It buys vacant or blighted properties, fixes them up with environmental remediation or infrastructure improvements, and either flips them to a like-minded developer or issues a long-term ground lease.
But unlike a land bank, the ULC acquires parcels where it sees near-term potential. "We're not just buying things and waiting for whenever," Miripol told me. "Things happen at the sites that we buy, and there are good, public benefits."
Those include specific neighborhood needs, like grocery stores and non-profit facilities, and also affordable housing—Denver needs more than 30,000 units to ease its housing crunch, according to a city analysis.
For developers who build low-income housing, the ULC can be a crucial middleman. "They're able to hold down land while we finish getting the entitlements and credits lined up," explains Troy Gladwell, founder and principal at Medici. It's a less risky partnership for developers, because they don't need to invest in land while arranging financing. The Urban Land Conservancy, says Gladwell, "is one of the most innovative and forward-thinking programs in the country."
Though its practices resemble those of both land banks and community land trusts, the ULC is in other ways a new kind of real estate organization. For several years, it was the steward of the nation's first transit-oriented affordable housing fund—a kind of credit line for TOD projects. The ULC is part of a larger coalition called Mile High Connects that is devoted to increasing access to housing, employment, and services through public transit.
Most of the ULC's two-dozen-plus projects tie into the area's burgeoning transit network. Denver's FasTracks initiative, which voters approved in 2004, will add 122 miles of track, 18 miles of bus rapid transit, and 57 stations to the RTD network, making it the largest transit expansion in the country. Building dense, community-focused projects around these new stations is a one-time opportunity, Miripol believes.
With time comes development and high prices, and the window shrinks quickly. At a barren industrial area along Denver's East Line, a commuter rail corridor set to open in 2016, the Conservancy bought a foreclosed 1.4-acre property from a local bank, also in 2011. Working again with Medici, the group will build that plot into 170 units of affordable housing, non-profit space, and a new ULC office.
The price was $27 per square foot. Today, Miripol reckons, the land would likely sell for more than three times that. In two years, it will be just a stop from Denver's bustling Union Station area.
That's one place where Miripol has seen the ULC priced out. "I look at Union Station—which is incredible—and I think we, as an organization, missed an opportunity maybe seven or eight years ago where we could have gotten more affordable housing or more non-profit facility space. We could have gotten more." He has similar feelings even about the upcoming East Line commuter rail, or other sites on Denver's west side.
The problem, as ever, is money. In this, its most productive year, the Conservancy will end up spending about $13 million on six acquisitions. But in one of the nation's fastest-growing metros, it can be hard just to keep up.