Uplands finally breaks ground on contested farmland in Westminster

After a decade-long and at times bitter struggle to convert 234 acres of mostly farmland in southern Westminster into a new community, the Uplands is finally turning dirt.

“From the beginning, our vision was to create a model of sustainability and affordability, with plentiful missing middle housing. And above all, we were passionate about leading on water conservation, design innovation, and thoughtful placemaking,” said Jeff Handlin, president of Oread Capital & Development, during a groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday afternoon.

The “moderate” density community expects to provide 2,350 new housing units targeting middle-income buyers who are increasingly left on the sidelines in a housing market where the median price of a single-family home sold runs $650,000.

Besides market-rate single-family homes, the master-planned community will include for-sale courtyard cottages, townhomes and duplexes better priced to meet the needs of first-time buyers, growing families and older adults looking to downsize.

In a “new urbanism” nod to pre-war designs in Denver, Uplands will have alleyways and garages in the back, small parks throughout and local retailers, restaurants and office space concentrated in the center of the neighborhood.

Also on the drawing board are 300 deed-restricted rental units affordable to lower-income households, including seniors. The affordable component represents about 13% of the total number of units.

“I hope this project serves as an inspiration for other parts of the Denver metro area, as well as communities across our state,” Gov. Jared Polis said at the groundbreaking.

Polis, who has taken a more vocal stance to boost Colorado’s housing supply, said the lack of attainable housing forces people to live farther away from their jobs, creates hiring challenges for businesses, adds to traffic and pollution and puts the dream of homeownership out of reach for many.

“There’s no question that Colorado faces a housing crisis. We simply need more units that individuals and families can afford,” he said.

But Uplands faced considerable opposition for many years from the surrounding community. The land being developed, located primarily between Federal and Lowell boulevards and between 84th and 88th avenues, is on a high point with commanding views of the mountains to the west and downtown Denver to the south.

Those views, combined with the lack of open space and inadequate public investment in that part of Westminster, motivated some nearby residents to block development efforts and push for preservation.

Other concerns raised by opponents, who protested the groundbreaking, included Upland’s higher density and building heights compared to the surrounding community, the added traffic generated on nearby roads, Westminster’s limited water supply, and the small percentage of homes designated as affordable.

Handlin said an irony of the whole fight was that the land was slated to become a housing development in the early part of the last century. The owner at the time, Westminster University, offered free tuition to the children of people who bought lots, and it sold a good number.

The university, also known as Belleview College, had the unfortunate timing of switching to all-male enrollment right before World War I broke out and by 1917 it shut down. The Pillar of Fire church acquired the college building and surrounding land in 1920.

It held onto the undeveloped land for more than a century, renting it out to farmers who raised feed for livestock. All those acres became defacto open space, albeit privately owned, as the surrounding area was built out.

The church, which also runs a private school and the KPOF radio station at 910 AM, will continue to hold onto 100 acres. However, the majority of the church’s land was sold and the money was placed into an endowment.

It may be about 105 years behind schedule, but the new community comes at a time that the metro region desperately needs more new homes, Handlin said.

A groundbreaking ceremony was held to introduce a new master planned community in Westminster that will provide 2,350 homes on 234 acres near the corner of West 88th Avenue & Irving Street on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
A groundbreaking ceremony was held to introduce a new master-planned community in Westminster that will provide 2,350 homes on 234 acres near the corner of West 88th Avenue & Irving Street on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

YIMBY, a group of mostly millennials advocating for more housing supply, was key in helping sway the public narrative, he said. So too was the local school district.

As the surrounding neighborhoods grew older, nearby schools struggled with declining enrollments. Uplands not only held out the promise of a large property tax base but also housing options that teachers and staff could better afford.

But winning approval wasn’t easy, and the debate over the development, led by a group called Save the Farm, merged with other issues to create one of the most politically volatile periods in Westminster’s history earlier this decade.

“Uplands has listened, they knew what they were up against,” said Westminster Mayor Nancy McNally during the groundbreaking.

Uplands will use significantly less water than other new communities, thanks to more water-efficient fixtures, appliances and landscaping. A Village Center will include local small-scale commercial space, should promote walkability and reduce the number of trips otherwise needed on nearby thoroughfares.

Developers will donate 34 acres to the city to develop public parks and are setting aside six acres for dedicated view corridors and another seven acres for publicly-accessible pocket parks. Residents of the new community will be within a 10-minute walk of a park.

Ellen Buckley, front center, and residents of the area protest against the Uplands development in Westminster on Sept. 27, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
Ellen Buckley, front center, and residents of the area protest against the Uplands development in Westminster on Sept. 27, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

Among the land being set aside for the public is an area where drivers regularly stop to take in the views on the Lowell Boulevard side of the Pillar of Fire campus.

“This is the first time we have been on this field legally,” said Adams County Commissioner Steve O’Dorisio, who highlighted the public improvements the area will receive, including new parks, stormwater upgrades and better traffic lights.

Handlin said he and his partners were drawn to the area in 2013 because it sits along the U.S. 36 corridor, which he described as over-employed and underhoused. The land represented one of the largest and most strategic infill opportunities in the region.

And on Wednesday, rather than a tractor blade turning the soft soil, as had been the case for decades, he and other dignitaries pushed shovels into the ground.

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