Denver is filling to the brim with dead offices. Offices that were once useful during the downtown boom are now sitting empty as the city grapples with one of the worst housing crises in the nation. Vacancies are at a record high, with more than 20% of downtown offices sitting empty. According to data by Avison Young, that is higher than previous years, including 2020, which averaged ~13%. Zillow estimates Colorado’s capital is missing 70,000 units, yet more people are choosing to live downtown. Nearly 1,500 units were occupied by new tenants in the last year in Downtown Denver and Center City, according to the Downtown Denver Partnership. As the need increases for more market-rate apartments in the downtown area, conversations are starting around converting dead office space into residential units.
A team at KEPHART spent our R&D Day to developing a plan and researching the feasibility and associated risks of determining whether and when a building could be a viable conversion option for reuse. Conversions, otherwise known as Adaptive Reuse, in Denver, are inevitable, but the timing is uncertain. The city of Denver has recognized the need for more housing and has formed an Adaptive Reuse Office within the past year, led by Jennifer Ramsay.
Ramsay notes that “higher office vacancy rates are a concern, and we have serious housing shortages in the city, especially affordable housing. So the potential here is to capitalize on those existing assets, instead of just letting downtown falter and all those investments go to waste. In the effort of creating a Central Neighborhood District, we are looking to balance current office, residential, and retail uses to give that more vibrant, interesting, and sustainable community feel.”
To understand what existing assets would be potential adaptive reuse projects, the City of Denver commissioned a study using an algorithm by Gensler (click here for the full report) to evaluate the compatibility of 30 underutilized office buildings, hoping to start a conversation with the community. Sixteen buildings came out as top candidates for reuse.
From our group’s discussion with Ramsay, an evaluation of the study, and several site visits, our team determined what should be considered opportunities and challenges in adaptive reuse from office buildings to residential.
As Denver grapples with one of the worst housing crises in the nation, the concept of adaptive reuse is emerging as a potential solution. Despite challenges like city regulations, cost considerations, and complex building systems, the potential for turning these dead office spaces into vibrant residential units presents a promising path toward addressing housing while breathing new life into the city’s urban landscape. Adaptive reuse is poised to be vital in shaping Denver’s future. It’s not a question of if this trend will happen but rather how and when to engage with it.