‘Fairfax Square’ To Include Townhomes, Micro-units, Restaurants, Retail
By Cara DeGette, Editor, GPHN
For the past several months, Denver-based developer HM Capital has quietly bought up almost all of the east side of the block of Fairfax between 28th and 29th Avenues. The developer is moving forward with plans to demolish the existing structures for a two-story residential and commercial project called Fairfax Square.
Current plans include 20-22 townhomes on the south end of the block and 20-25 “micro” units on the north end of the block. Two restaurant sites would also be built, along with commercial space, retail stores and possibly a small park planned in the middle of the block. The current zoning allows for that type of development on the block.
That side of Fairfax currently includes the Cake Crumbs commissary, a former church and parking lot, two residences, the A&A Fish Market and Restaurant, and an empty retail building.
“We’re excited about the project, and have closed on 98 percent of the properties,” said Ben Maxwell, the principal of HM Capital, in a late-October interview with Greater Park Hill News. All but one of the homes has been purchased, and Maxwell said he is hopeful that he will be able to buy it as well.
The developer hopes to secure all building permits within six to seven months and begin construction next year.
“Our intention is to build a high quality project,” he said. “We think it’s a great opportunity, and a great neighborhood.”
In addition, HM Capital has purchased the former gas station on the west side of Fairfax Street, which currently houses the CrossFit 1098 gym. Maxwell said he has met with Denver City Councilman Chris Herndon and asked about the possibility of swapping the former Xcel electric substation next door to the gym for future development. In exchange, the developer would include a park area across the street, within its Fairfax Square project.
Denver Parks & Recreation officials last year indicated that they planned to convert the abandoned Xcel substation, which the city now owns, into a small neighborhood park. Nearby residents have asked that a dog park or a public swimming pool be built there.
However, if the land swap were to happen, Maxwell said that former substation – as well as the Crossfit building – would be developed as Phase 3 of the Fairfax Square project.
The remaining west side of the business block currently includes the offices of Greater Park Hill Community, Inc. (GPHC), Bikes Together (formerly the Bike Depot), a liquor store, barber shop, music shop and convenience store. The building on the northwest corner of 29th and Fairfax, was recently purchased by another buyer, who plans to open a brewery there.
Concerns over gentrification
The Fairfax business block has been viewed as run down for several years. Existing businesses have struggled to stay afloat. Illicit drug use has been reported as common on the block.
However, the scope of the proposed development – and the lack of community notification or input – is drawing criticism.
Also of concern is the impact the project would have on the surrounding neighborhood – and the potential that gentrification would force out several businesses owned and operated by African-Americans.
In an interview, Maxwell said he wants to complement the existing culture of the neighborhood – and “not take it upmarket.” However, he indicated that the micro-units – which are tiny apartments – will be less than 400 square feet. They will rent for between $800-$1,000 per month. Rental prices for the townhomes and the retail spaces have not yet been determined, he said.
Maxwell said he also envisions a high-end neighborhood market – “almost like a Tony’s or a Marczyk’s” – on the block. Given that area of Park Hill is currently a food desert, with difficult access to affordable and fresh food, Maxwell said that a more traditional “old-school mom-and-pop grocery store” might also be considered.
‘We like it just like it is’
HM Capital initially tried to purchase the entire west side of Fairfax Street as well, with little luck. The GPHC office is the hub for the registered neighborhood organization, and it includes a community room where monthly meetings are held, as well as a food pantry that has experienced a dramatic increase in demand in recent years.
Other than the nonprofit Bikes Together next door. the remaining buildings on the block are owned and managed by Dean Brown, Sr. and his son, Dean Brown, Jr.
“We’re not selling,” Dean Brown, Sr. told Greater Park Hill News. “We want to keep it in the family. We like it just like it is.”
In October, the Browns expressed concern that likely higher rents for the new retail spaces would certainly have an impact on their properties. Envisioning the tiny-size, high-rent residential micro-units, Dean Brown, Jr. noted, “I’d have to step outside just to change my mind.”
Father and son noted they provide affordable rents to their retail tenants on Fairfax. Brown, Jr. said it’s highly likely that gentrification of the block will translate to a sharp spike in property taxes for the entire block.
“We know we’re leasing below market; we’re not making a killing, but we haven’t had to take a loss either,” Brown, Jr. said. “We’ve been blessed, and we pass the blessing on. But if taxes go up, then we’ll have to deal with that.”
“The neighborhood itself will change . . . there will be a lot more traffic,” noted Dean Brown, Sr.
The councilman kept quiet
The zoning for the block is E-MS-2, meaning that the developers will not have to seek any variances or city approval for their plans for two-story structures. Maxwell, of HM Capital, said that immediate neighbors have been notified of the proposed demolition of the former church building on Fairfax. The surrounding residents, however, have not yet been formally notified of the development.
Maxwell has met twice – first on July 16 and again on Aug. 22 – with Denver City Councilman Herndon, to talk about the project. Maxwell said he asked Herndon to keep quiet about the plans for the time being, until he was able to close on all the properties.
The councilman indeed did keep quiet about the plans. In a late October newspaper interview, Herndon indicated that he instead urged the developers to reach out to GPHC, noting that community input is “really important.”
“When I met with the property owners, my main question was, ‘will this be something that will continue to help the community?’ I believe there are good intentions to make sure to serve the community,” he said.
‘We never heard back’
Herndon’s neglecting to notify his constituents about the plan has drawn criticism from neighborhood leaders.
“It would be nice, since our councilperson had been notified and involved, if he had come to us and said, ‘this development is happening, and as your councilman I want to make sure this is meeting the needs of the surrounding community’,” said Tracey MacDermott, the president of GPHC, Inc.
“Chris Herndon didn’t bother to tell us,” she continued. “This is a much larger-scale development than what’s ever been there – why wouldn’t that warrant a major community conversation? Don’t you think it would be a good idea to ask the existing neighbors, do you want 50-100 new residential and commercial neighbors moving in? What is the impact on the surrounding neighborhood? Who is going to absorb the burden of parking?
“It doesn’t mean this development is a bad thing, but let’s have community engagement,” she said.
Particularly frustrating, MacDermott said, was that she, along with GPHC Executive Director Rebecca Born and another board member, met with Herndon at the end of March. The primary reason for the meeting, she said, was to ask for his help in ending the food desert in north and northeast Park Hill. Specifically, they asked for his help to entice – perhaps with tax or other available incentives – an affordable grocery store to the neighborhood.
“He said he would follow up and we never heard back. The next thing we knew about is this huge development,” MacDermott said.
In the October interview, Herndon said he doesn’t recall that specific request. Generally, he said, he is always looking at development opportunities that would benefit his district.
Maybe January, probably February
Born said the first that GPHC heard about Fairfax Square was when the developer inquired whether the registered neighborhood association might be interested in selling its offices.
HM Capital’s Maxwell said the intent was to announce the plans via the Greater Park Hill News, as well as to hold neighborhood meetings. No meetings have been scheduled as of press time. Maxwell said he plans to present information at an upcoming GPHC community meeting – either in January or more likely, in February.
“We want to be a positive addition to the neighborhood,” said Maxwell, who noted he previously lived in north Park Hill. When he lived in the neighborhood, he said, “we had to drive to everything … there was no neighborhood center, no gathering place.”
“We want people to commit to the neighborhood, and we’re willing to invest money in it and bring in businesses and serve the community.”
The Developer’s Project Statement
Fairfax Square, located in the central portion of the Greater Park Hill neighborhood, is an exciting opportunity to explore a vision of an inclusive neighborhood hub. The goal of this neighborhood center is to provide thriving business opportunities while embracing the cultural and economic diversity of the community.
Along with Blueprint Denver, this site promotes the return to communities with residential, retail and commercial areas. Ideally, with the integration of these aspects of daily life, the people of this neighborhood are able to walk or take transit for their daily errands and drive with shorter and less frequent car trips.