Enticingly empty parking spaces wrap a blocky building from which a forlorn light shines dimly through papered-over windows. Green-on-white signs on the front door read:
“We love you and hope to be back soon!”
While it looks like just an abandoned plot of central Denver real estate, neighbors of what was once Capitol Hill’s Whole Foods made clear at a community meeting Tuesday night that for them, the 50,000-square-foot site represents many hopes and fears.
Site owner Doug Antonoff appeared at the Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods special meeting to present what he said was his late father’s mixed-use vision for revitalizing the site and perhaps enticing Whole Foods, which was bought by Amazon last year, to bring some type of store back. Gary Antonoff, a real estate developer also remembered for his contributions to Denver’s civic life, died late last month.
Doug Antonoff said Whole Foods has 13 years left on its lease on the property and has not yet indicated its intentions. No one from Whole Foods was at the meeting. Whole Foods did not return a call from Denverite seeking comment.
Whole Foods closed the store at 900 E. 11th Ave. almost a year ago and said it was transferring about 75 employees to the new Whole Foods at Denver Union Station. The Union Station branch at the base of a luxury apartment complex is the Austin, Texas-based company’s flagship store in the Rocky Mountain region and the second-largest in Colorado, after Boulder.
Antonoff & Co. Brokerage wants to request a zoning change for the site that would allow it to develop a five-story building with ground-floor retail and four residential levels. The current building, which neighbors estimated is at least 45 years old, is one story and current zoning allows for up to three.
In today’s market, “there’s no way we would get a grocer in a three-story building and make it economically viable,” Doug Antonoff said. He added he could not guarantee Whole Foods or any other grocer would move into his proposed development, but that he would pursue any tenant neighbors favored.
Several neighbors spoke of the departed Whole Foods as offering food for the soul along with organic meat and heirloom potatoes for the table.
“I used to go there two to three times a day. I liked all the cashiers. That’s how I met people in the neighborhood,” Gigia Kolouch said during the generally cordial hour and a half meeting that drew about 100 people.
Some recoiled at the thought of scores of new apartments in a dense neighborhood of a range of houses and multi-family complexes. But Ryan Keeney drew applause when he said, “One of Capitol Hill’s greatest strengths is the diversity of its buildings.
“You need this density to support all of our wonderful neighborhood retail. It’s critical for the walkability of our neighborhood.”
Steve Weil, who said he has been a Capitol Hill resident since childhood, urged Antonoff to respect the neighborhood’s character by, for example, ensuring any new development was set back from the street.
“In a historic setting, the key concept is what is in keeping with the neighborhood,” he said.
Parking came up. As did the need for services for people experiencing homelessness and for affordable housing. Erinn Rogowski wanted to know if luxury apartments were planned, saying she feared that would push all rents up.
“I just want to know that I’m not going to have to move to a different neighborhood or a different city because of something like this coming in,” she said.
Antonoff and his real estate consultant Steven Ferris stressed they did not yet have plans. Their first step was Tuesday’s meeting to gauge whether they would have public support when they went to City Council with their zoning request.
City Council member Wayne New sat at the front table with Antonoff and Ferris and told neighbors their opinion counted.
Any zoning change is “not going to be something the City Council is going to ram down anybody’s throat,” he said.
The meeting ended with Brad Cameron, co-chair of CHUN’s zoning committee, calling for a show of hands to gauge support for a zoning change. Those in opposition had a slight edge.
“If they want to get a rezoning, they’re going to have to take more time to talk to people,” said Cameron, who also sits on the CHUN board and is its delegate for the area surrounding the Whole Foods site.