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  • Writer's pictureLeslie James

Adaptive Reuse - Commercial to Residential in Denver?

Despite the nationwide eviction ban helping some folks weather the COVID storm and grassroots efforts to increase housing density, Denver housing inventory is still in short supply.

Meanwhile, due to COVID, the office vacancy rate is the highest it’s been in almost 10 years, with more than 2 million square feet of office space on the market to sublet.

With unclear timetables for vaccinations for the general public, getting folks back into a physical office may take years. And many may choose to not ever go back.

So with so many commercial spaces sitting vacant, what are we to do?!? The first thing that comes to mind for me is adaptive reuse.

What is adaptive reuse?

Adaptive reuse is a form of historic preservation in which an old building is modified to be used for a purpose other than what it was original designed.

This happens frequently in residential projects when an old industrial site like a flour mill or a garment factory is then turned into trendy lofts. This also occurs in commercial projects when an industrial facility is turned into a retail store, as shown above, or a firehouse is turned into a restaurant.

In many examples of adaptive reuse, the buildings themselves are saved, but the interior design aesthetic is shifted to more modern finishes. My favorite projects are the ones in which they also keep a solid tie to the interiors that came before, like in Denver's adaptive reuse of Union Station. Aren't those light fixtures and mouldings just spectacular?

An interior view of the Great Hall at Denver's Union Station
The Great Hall of Denver's Union Station (Creative Commons: Amy Aletheia Cahill)

When is adaptive reuse appropriate?

As this chart from CommercialSearch shows, most of the adaptive reuse projects across the U.S. have occurred in the last 40 years.

It's taken several decades, and in many cases almost a century, for there to be enough historic buildings to be worth repurposing (due to reduction in manufacturing near urban cores, population shifts, etc.).

"Experts predict that 90 percent of real-estate development in the next decade will focus on the renovation and reuse of existing structures. It’s easy to see why: Adaptive reuse projects are generally faster, more cost-effective, and more sustainable to construct than new buildings." -- Sarah Jones, Redshift

Adaptive reuse projects typically occur more frequently in cities with higher density, more historic buildings, and lots of industrial spaces. In their research, Commercial Search ranked Colorado 24th and Denver 20th as locations where buildings have been adaptively reused as office spaces. It can also go hand-in-hand with urban infill to provide more residential and commercial space within the same geographic footprint.

I consider adaptive reuse to be a great step toward sustainability by reducing the environmental and community impact of new construction. Fewer materials end up in the landfill, fewer new materials are needed, and local communities preserve more of their history -- a win-win all around.

So to answer the question, adaptive reuse is appropriate whenever historic buildings are sitting vacant and folks are looking for a sustainable way to encourage re-development.

What adaptive reuse is happening in Denver?

In my own neighborhood, several churches have been converted into residential homes. And just a bit further North, along the newly opened 39th Ave Greenway (check it out if you haven't already!), is one of Denver's more ambitious adaptive reuse projects: Denver Rock Drill.

It got underway back in 2018 and was supposed to have a great mix of retail, food and beverage and residential tenants. I first noticed the building several years ago based on its interesting graffiti (and proximity to the tracks) when taking the A-line to the airport.

But unfortunately it seems that they have parted ways with their developer and the project itself is on hold. Similarly, I haven't heard anything about the Rossonian hotel redevelopment in over a year.

While there hasn't been any PR to tie these pauses to COVID specifically, commercial developers are probably starting to second guess whether it's a good time to be investing in communal spaces with large footprints and corresponding overhead.

With several interesting adaptive reuse projects already on hold and office space sitting vacant, it makes me wonder whether we, as a City, could take more of a people-first approach. Instead of focusing on mixed use development in trending (read: gentrifying) areas, could we instead use the principals of adaptive reuse to house those already in our community?

Adaptive reuse: a path forward for housing the homeless

A quick google search reveals that others are thinking the same way I do. Dwell calls out reconstruction of vacant hotels and offices in urban corridors as a way to solve America's affordable housing crisis. This could possibly even extend into big-box stores in more suburban environments.

Carla Bruni with US/ICOMOS details an example in Athens, Greece, where refugees have successfully, albeit illegally, taken over an abandoned hotel from the 2004 Olympics and built a thriving cooperative living arrangement.

The Cascade Alliance helped 56 families get off the streets by rehabbing a former orphanage into low-cost apartments.

It seems that Denver might have started moving in that direction with developments like Warren Residences and Pancratia Hall but only time will tell if we can move fast enough.

Pancratia Hall is an example of adaptive reuse for social good by creating affordable housing
Pancratia Hall (Loretto Heights) is being turned into affordable housing. (Alayna Alvarez, Colorado Politics)


Working on adaptive reuse project in Colorado? I'd be honored to help you find some of the right architectural and design elements for your space. Contact Denver Squared to get started!

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