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City looks to build a subterranean parking garage to sprout growth in southwest downtown

Going underground

A parking garage might be built under this block south of Vermijo Avenue. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • A parking garage might be built under this block south of Vermijo Avenue.

In a move that could jump-start development in the long-dormant Southwest Urban Renewal Area, the city received bids Friday, July 1, for the design of an underground parking garage adjacent to the planned U.S. Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame.

The garage would lie beneath a high-rise containing 1 million square feet of space to be built by Nor'wood Development Group, which Nor'wood president Chris Jenkins calls "just the beginning" of development in the area.

There's no money in the 2016 city budget for the garage design or the garage itself, so officials are expected later this month to seek City Council approval to amend the budget so a design consultant can be hired, parking enterprise manager Greg Warnke says. Warnke said he doesn't know how much the design contract for the garage and its construction would cost, and hopes the bids shed light on that.

"We're looking at what it's going to take, what it's going to cost. Is it feasible?" he says. "We might say this isn't the best way to go. If we find that we can't afford it, we go from there."

But time is running out. Downtown boosters and the city want the garage to open in time to provide museum parking. The museum's planned early 2018 opening has been pushed back, but Warnke says it would take up to two years to design and build the garage, calling into question whether it can be done in time.

City Council approval isn't automatic, as Council President Merv Bennett says: "I need more information before I would say I would or wouldn't" support the garage project. "I don't know what the long-term implications are of that," including the financing arrangement. But because he supports the museum project, Bennett says he probably would support funding a study to provide more information about the garage.

The 910-stall facility would be built east of the museum site beneath 3.55 acres on the southeast corner of Vermijo Avenue and Sierra Madre Street, now a mishmash of warehouses. The property is owned by an entity controlled by Nor'wood, the region's biggest developer. The 400-foot by 400-foot garage would go under an entire city block. (Nor'wood has committed to donate 1.7 acres for the neighboring museum project.)

Nor'wood is the master developer of the roughly 100-acre industrial district, labeled the Southwest Urban Renewal Area in 2001. Development, anchored by America the Beautiful Park, has never gotten traction. But now, Nor'wood plans this "vertical development" above the garage, according to specifications of the design contract.

That would require a building 10 to 15 stories tall and add to the city's downtown skyline. The 13-story South Tower of the Plaza of the Rockies building, for example, contains 280,000 square feet, while the Palmer Center that abuts The Antlers Hotel is 15 stories and contains about 1.2 million square feet.

Chris Jenkins tells the Independent via email the parking structure would be the product of a public, nonprofit and private partnership that will "work together on a collective vision to transform the neighborhood and eliminate blight," the goal of urban renewal.

He adds that Nor'wood is working with the city, county, other property owners, Urban Renewal Authority, Downtown Partnership and museum organizers "to transform the area around the Olympic Museum into a thriving mixed-use neighborhood, with opportunities to live, work, stay and play."

Jenkins calls the 1 million square feet of development over the garage "just the beginning. We are diligently working to bring new apartments, offices, hospitality, restaurants and retail shops to an area of downtown that has been forgotten by most. This vision builds on the work that began nearly 20 years ago with creation of America the Beautiful Park and continues today with the U.S. Olympic Museum."

Warnke says the issue of who would own the garage has been "briefly discussed," but no decision has been made. One option would be for Nor'wood to transfer title of a "condominium interest" to the city for the underground garage and any above-ground space required by the parking structure, at no cost to the city, Jenkins says, though he, too, says the issue is undecided.

The garage design has two phases. The first includes drafting up to 30 percent of the preliminary design, putting together construction bid documents, conducting "public input meetings," preparing project cost estimates and aligning the project with the Nor'wood team. The preliminary design will determine surrounding traffic flows, construction and operational costs, and security measures, among other things, according to bid documents.

The second phase includes completing the design, assisting the city in evaluating construction bids and providing "construction observation" in monitoring quality and change orders.

The structural design would take into account the foundation required to support the high-rise building, as well as what's necessary to control cracking and waterproofing the garage. Warnke says a geotechnical study of the site will determine drainage requirements. One potential bidder raised the question of "dewatering," noting, "This is a big item that could impact the fee inconsistently between the teams depending on what level of dewatering is assumed." The city responded by telling bidders to "assume that this garage is going to require some form of dewatering, based on its location and level of excavation."

Besides not knowing the potential design and construction cost, Warnke says the city doesn't know what the alternative might be if no bids are realistic. "This is more of an exploratory venture," he says. "We want to find out if we can make this happen. If it doesn't happen there, we would look for another site. It might be an above-ground garage. We just don't know."

Warnke declined to even ballpark the costs, but says that whatever the price, it likely would be funded with debt repaid with parking revenues.

The garage project was shaped by a $35,000 study completed last year and funded with parking revenues. It was conducted by Anderson Mason Dale Architects of Denver, the museum's architect of record.

Warnke says the study "was basically the start of investigating that whole area to see what was needed, what was planned, how the city could participate, if we do choose to participate. It was an exploratory venture to find out what's going on in that area. There was no price tag because we really haven't landed on what's going to be built."

The study outlines various scenarios for a garage, ranging in price from $43 million to $60 million for different capacities, with the largest having 1,880 spaces. It also notes that the only parking structure in the study area is a 428-space, county-owned garage at Vermijo and Sahwatch Street next to the Pikes Peak Center, which is "only about half full during weekdays."

Based on broad assumptions, the study concludes, "We estimate that the debt service on a typical parking space for one of the above studies will likely be substantially higher than can be supported by parking revenues alone. ... Therefore, the development of below-grade parking for any of the above studies will likely rely heavily on outside funding sources."

Warnke didn't say what those sources might be, but one is state money awarded through the Regional Tourism Act. Of the $120.5 million over 30 years, roughly $50 million can be used for infrastructure. Another could be an increase in parking rates at the city's 2,400 meters and three downtown garages, the largest of which has 1,666 spaces. But Warnke dismisses that idea. "I have no notion of that at this point," he says. "We're working on the basis of our current operation and what it's financially able to do."

Warnke says the city hopes to award a design contract by July 29, assuming City Council approves amending the parking enterprise's $4.4 million budget. (The enterprise has $6.9 million in unappropriated money, called a fund balance.)

Warnke says it would take 12 to 18 months to build the garage as now planned.

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