St. Francis gets go-ahead from Landmark for a project to house the poor in the Cheesman Park neighborhood

“We will be an active, good neighbor.”
4 min. read
Cheesman Park’s Warren Church. March 4, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Denver's Landmark Preservation Commission has unanimously approved changes a nonprofit that provides housing and other services for people experiencing homelessness needs to turn a historic Cheesman Park church building into housing for the working poor.

The commission hearing on Tuesday focused on the architectural details of the St. Francis Center's proposal for the Warren Church at 1630 E. 14th Ave. in the Wyman Historic District.

In comments to the board, St. Francis Executive Director Tom Luehrs offered a twist on the idea of preserving the character of the main sanctuary built in 1909 and fellowship hall added in 1952. He said his housing project safeguarded the church's legacy of serving the community. The church is next door to Warren Village, a nonprofit unconnected to St. Francis that since 1974 has provided transitional housing and help with education and job training to single-parent families that have experienced homelessness. Warren Village was founded by Warren Church members.

"We see the key way to help people get out of homelessness is to help them find housing," Luehrs said. "There's such a great need for people in our community who can't afford high rents to have something that's subsidized."

Tom Luehrs, director of the St. Francis Center, speaks during a Denver Landmark Preservation Commission meeting on Cheesman Park's Warren Church.

In an interview afterward, a church neighbor who had argued during the hearing against changes to the structure said he also had concerns about density and about who would be living in the 48-unit, dormitory-style housing that Luehrs is planning to build in the sanctuary and hall.

"I care about the safety of the neighborhood, my own and my neighbors," Chris Mast told Denverite.

Luehrs said he had heard concerns that the new neighbors might pose a threat. In an interview, Luehrs said he expected Warren residents to be people whom St. Francis has already supported, including with an employment center that has been headquartered at Warren since the structure was closed as a church by the Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Methodist Church in 2014. Luehrs said part of the inspiration for the project was watching people St. Francis had helped find employment struggle to keep the jobs because they did not have stable housing.

"You might be scared of people," Luehrs said. "But give them a chance and I think that they will prove that they will be invested in the neighborhood as well as in their own housing and jobs."

Luehrs said he has been working for months with people who live nearby on a good neighbor agreement that soon will be completed. He said it will ensure communications are open between the St. Francis housing, which will be staffed 24/7, and the neighborhood.

"We will be people that are trying to make sure the neighborhood is well looked after," Luehrs said. "We will be an active, good neighbor."

Ethan Hemming, president and CEO and Warren Village, said his transitional housing nonprofit was involved in the good neighbor agreement talks. He added that Warren Village was already treating St. Francis as a neighbor -- he has recommended his security company to Luehrs.

"We're already working together positively," Hemming said. "We're support of what St. Francis is doing and is trying to do in the neighborhood."

Mast, who spoke against the St. Francis's request to the landmark commission, said he has been following the good neighbor agreement process and hoped it would be constructive.

"I hope it works out. I really do," Mast said of the housing project. "I very, very much respect the need" for affordable housing.

Chris Mast speaks during a Denver Landmark Preservation Commission meeting on Cheesman Park's Warren Church.

The church site is zoned for the use Luehrs has proposed, and he said he will start renovating and construction in May. Luehrs said he expected the first residents to move in next February.

Residents will have private bedrooms and share kitchens, bathrooms and other common areas. The employment center, which Luehrs said has about 30 visitors a day, will move to another location.

The landmark commission considered only design issues. The main changes approved are to the fellowship hall, where half the roof will be demolished and a new roof with dormers will be added.

Landmark commission member Kathy Corbett said the design team from Shopworks, a Denver architecture firm, had avoided major changes to the sanctuary "out of respect for the historic nature of the church itself."

Fellow commission member Kelly Wemple said guidelines for the dormers, which create more living space, had been scrupulously followed.

Correction: This article was updated to correct an error by the reporter. This version corrects that the church is on 14th Ave.

A Denver Landmark Preservation Commission meeting on Cheesman Park's Warren Church.

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