A rendering of the River Mile project, on the site of the current Elitch Gardens Theme & Water Park. Photo courtesy of Revesco Properties Inc.
Inside One of the Largest Redevelopments in Denver’s History
Beginning in the summer of 2016, a relatively unknown developer with ties to one of the world’s wealthiest men started to quietly approach architects and politicians to discuss what could become the most ambitious private urban redevelopment plan attempted in Denver.
No one at the time could have predicted the audaciousness of the project Rhys Duggan was proposing, nor the impact it might have on his adopted city, but the scope soon became clear to those who attended the meetings. Atop the ground upon which Elitch Gardens Theme & Water Park currently sits, Duggan hoped to create an entirely new neighborhood named the River Mile, a multi-billion-dollar project along the South Platte River that would include parks, condominiums, and potentially skyline-transforming towers. The redevelopment of 62 prime acres adjacent to a prospering city’s downtown does not happen often. Yet, the opportunity had now presented itself in Denver.
The idea that a developer like Duggan could have a hand in reshaping the largest and most important city in the Rocky Mountain West would have seemed unlikely just a few years ago. The owner of a boutique real estate firm called Revesco Properties, Duggan dealt mostly with smaller-scale commercial properties—suburban strip malls with supermarket anchors, for example—which were entirely different from what was being proposed with the central Denver project.
The Mile High City has a history of redevelopments that have transformed the city’s fabric within the past several decades. The $3.4 billion Stapleton redevelopment northeast of downtown was built on the site of the former international airport of the same name; the Lowry redevelopment grew out of an old U.S. Air Force base. The River Mile is something of an anomaly—the result of a 2015 agreement among Duggan, billionaire Stanley Kroenke, and Vancouver-based Second City Real Estate to purchase Elitch Gardens and, most important, the land on which it stands. The $140 million land deal gave the trio arguably the city’s most desirable piece of available property: a massive, contiguous site at an enviable location downtown.
Over the next 25 years, the developers’ plan suggests the River Mile could add between 12 million and 15 million square feet of commercial and residential property to the city—which equates to 20 percent of the available space that currently exists downtown, Duggan says—and accommodate 15,000 residents while reconnecting the city to its long-neglected waterway. The neighborhood would implement limits on parking spaces and would include trails, parks, shops, and European-style pedestrian-friendly streets. There would be office spaces, a school, a recreation center, restaurants, and a food market. A fraction of the apartments and condominiums would be sold or rented below market rate. A portion of the South Platte River, traditionally among the state’s most polluted rivers, would also be redeveloped into an epicenter for outdoor recreation. Throughout it all, the apparent but unstated goal of the project would be nothing less than transforming Denver’s city center for the future. In time, Duggan would also position himself as one of the most significant players in the city’s lucrative real estate market.
A Canadian by birth and a Coloradan for the past 21 years, 53-year-old Duggan has the soft-spoken, warm demeanor of a priest at confession. He generally eschews personal publicity (he initially declined an interview for this story, then agreed but would not have his photograph taken), a trait rival developers say has less to do with hubris or coyness and more to do with his partnership with media-averse Kroenke, who is worth a reported $9.7 billion and whom Duggan calls “Mr. Kroenke.”
Developer Rhys Duggan. Photo courtesy of Joanne Davidson
In many ways, Duggan exists in a carefully cultivated world that inoculates him from divulging much about his personal life while simultaneously allowing him to maintain his role as the face of transformational development within Denver. With his fashionable eyeglasses, casual dress, and finger-swept brown hair, he carries himself with confidence that doesn’t cross into arrogance. “He’s got this distinguished coastal vibe about him,” says one person who has met with Duggan but requested anonymity because their conversation was private. “He’s not a suit-and-tie kind of guy. He definitely knows how he wants to present things.” When political allies, colleagues, and rival developers describe Duggan, it’s mostly in generic terms; he’s something of a cipher, which may be one of the reasons a secretive billionaire like Kroenke was interested in working with him.
Duggan speaks about the River Mile not as a cluster of grand towers and river-based recreation but as a road map for a city undergoing an era of unprecedented growth. Since 2010, Denver’s population has expanded nearly 20 percent, adding roughly 1,000 residents per month, which makes it among the nation’s fastest-growing cities. With that growth have come debates over housing and transportation and how best to manage the two. Duggan occasionally falls into developer-speak—visual “porosity,” “river activation,” and “human scale” are among his pet phrases—but the words seem to come from a genuine affinity for the process of development rather than the rote promotion of an idea, though he is definitely skilled in the marketing and selling of his project as well.
One day earlier this winter, Duggan was sitting in his LoHi office, inside a three-story metal, glass, and concrete structure Revesco Properties owns. The building was a rehabilitation project of sorts for Duggan, who purchased the once-empty triangle of land in 2016 for a reported $750,000 after years of being frustrated with the property’s inactivity in an otherwise blossoming neighborhood. As he saw it, Duggan had aligned Revesco’s core concept—focusing “exclusively on well-located yet often underperforming real estate assets”—and created a diamond for the neighborhood.
A wall in Duggan’s corner office was lined with maps and architectural renderings of the River Mile, which will be situated, roughly, between the Auraria Parkway and I-25 interchange and Confluence Park along the South Platte; the first major construction phase is scheduled to begin sometime late this year. (The five-story, 90,000-square-foot Meow Wolf building, near Empower Field at Mile High, is the first official building within the neighborhood and is projected to open in 2021.) Once completed, the River Mile will help form a contiguous link within the Central Platte Valley. The River Mile will, in turn, foster connections between redevelopment projects farther south and west in the Sun Valley neighborhood and all the way north to the public-private redevelopment of the National Western Complex, near I-70.
Planning for the development has already consumed nearly four years of Duggan’s life and is projected for completion around 2045. Many of the concepts being proposed—tall, thin towers and small city blocks—draw inspiration from Vancouver, which is not far from where Duggan grew up, attended college, and took his first job as a mayoral liaison for the municipality of West Vancouver, a wealthy suburb where he organized public meetings, met constituents, and later became the primary contact between the city and First Nations tribes in the area. “Rhys never had experience within the public sphere, yet he could go out there and speak to anyone and make them feel like their concerns were being taken seriously,” says Mark Sager, the former West Vancouver mayor. “He was a natural at his job. It’s like that Rudyard Kipling poem says: He can walk with kings without losing the common touch. Rhys can sell a vision like his Denver project to the public, but he can also work with someone like Stan Kroenke. He is absolutely brilliant.”
Even with his connection to Kroenke, Forbes’ 49th-wealthiest person in the world, Duggan today finds himself in a unique position. He is perhaps the most important developer at the moment in Denver, yet he is virtually unknown in the city he hopes to radically transform over the next quarter century. “Before River Mile, I had never heard of Rhys,” says Albus Brooks, the former Denver City Council president whose district encompasses the development. “I think he likes it that way, working quietly without a lot of attention. He’s geeky, but in the coolest way possible. He doesn’t want the spotlight; he just wants to do the work.”
For the past 25 years, Duggan has been buying, selling, managing, and building real estate in Canada and the United States. From 2006 to 2011, he was president and chief executive of New Providence Development Company, where he was in charge of remaking the western edge of New Providence, the most populous island in the Bahamas and home to Nassau, the Bahamian capital. (New Providence Development Company executives did not return emailed messages seeking comment, nor did Bahamian journalists who covered Duggan and his island projects.) In 2013, two years before inking the Elitch Gardens deal with his partners, Duggan founded Revesco, a firm with offices in Denver and Vancouver that has commercial and residential holdings in both countries. According to the company’s website, Revesco has 13 employees and invests in or manages more than a dozen properties between Westminster and Castle Rock.
Duggan thinks of central Denver “like a giant doughnut,” with the River Mile as the piece that will fill the hole in the middle. Duggan was around 30 years old when he arrived here in 1998 to take a job with the Colorado-based Southwestern Investment Group, a gig that followed a brief stint with a Canadian developer. On weekends, as a new Denver resident, Duggan would hop on his motorcycle and scope out the city. “There was an energy here, and it was young,” he says. LoDo had just undergone its transformation, with Coors Field as an anchor for bars and restaurants; Elitch Gardens had moved to its land in 1994; and the Pepsi Center opened five years later. The South Platte River, though, was a different story. “Like a lot of American cities, the river was a dumping ground,” Duggan says. To underscore his point, he sometimes shows off a photo of a junkyard along the South Platte—taken decades ago—with flattened, rusting vehicles piled behind a chain-link fence. “This city turned its back on the water,” he says. “Today, one of our key metrics is how many people we can get down to the river.”
For years, the South Platte has been among Colorado’s most polluted waterways, with elevated E. coli levels that pose a health risk. Just this past June, the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment recommended releasing fish that were caught in the section of the South Platte that flows through the city. Past warnings have encouraged people to stay out of the water.
A rendering shows the River Mile project’s scope and proximity to the Pepsi Center and Empower Field at Mile High. Photo courtesy of Revesco Properties Inc.
In a sense, then, the River Mile is Denver’s attempt to undo some of the sins of its past. Rezoning on the land was approved by the City Council in December 2018, but before construction can begin—the first plot, near the Speer Boulevard Platte River Bridge next to the Pepsi Center, is slated to include mixed-use development topped by parking garages—Revesco needs to work out a complicated list of infrastructure requirements with the city that include sewer systems, drainage, and street layout, much of which will be paid for through an estimated more than $600 million in metro-district taxes to be footed by the neighborhood’s future occupants. As part of an extensive rehabilitation, the South Platte will be dredged and deepened up to eight additional feet to ease flooding concerns in the area and then lined, in parts, with new vegetation. The portion of the river project adjacent to the River Mile will require scooping out tens of thousands of tons of silt and sand, with the help of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, at an estimated cost of nearly $50 to $60 million.
“What you have here are basically the best practices of urban design and planning that we have today,” says Thomas J. Campanella, an associate professor of urban planning and the director of undergraduate studies at Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art and Planning. “As far as what we’ve seen, you’ve got a project created within Denver’s existing footprint that isn’t leapfrogging onto greenfield sites, which is always good. There’s a de-emphasis on the automobile to create a walkable, urban district. There’s sustainability. This is the way Denver should expand: up and not out.”
While the overall cost will stretch into the billions of dollars, Duggan talks about the River Mile like a parent who’s trying to downplay a child’s perfect grades in elementary school: enthusiastic, but cautious. “It appears that the River Mile likely will not deliver in time to benefit from the current growth cycle, already the longest economic expansion period in U.S. history,” Cara Stamp, a research analyst for the global real estate firm Avison Young, wrote in Colorado Real Estate Journal last year. “However, given the changes in Denver in the last 10 years, Revesco feels confident in playing the long game with the project, knowing it has the ability to transform the city if done correctly.”
Duggan doesn’t like the idea that the River Mile could be considered a savior in a city desperately in need of square footage and affordable housing, both of which the development so far has promised in large quantities. “If I seem like I’m tempering things, that’s because I am,” he says. “It’s pretty easy to draw renderings of things and get people impressed, but this neighborhood isn’t going up overnight. We have a long-term vision, and I want the public to see what we create first, then have them make a decision based on that.”
Duggan may be the face of the River Mile—leading and attending, by his estimation, more than 250 public and private meetings over the past two years—but it’s no secret Kroenke has loomed large over the project, though he has never publicly talked about it. Not only is the River Mile set up perfectly to take advantage of Denver’s growth, but it’s also adjacent to the Pepsi Center, one of Kroenke’s many holdings in the city and home to Kroenke’s Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, and Colorado Mammoth indoor lacrosse team.
A former Walmart board member and the son-in-law of company co-founder Bud Walton, Kroenke has buttressed his twin loves—sports and real estate development—to create a multibillion-dollar empire. Kroenke has traditionally preferred to work in the shadows, most recently in growth epicenters like Colorado and Southern California. One of his corporate affiliates picked up Denver’s Writer Square in 2016 for $96 million. And late last year, the business news site BusinessDen reported that an entity associated with Kroenke Sports & Entertainment’s chief financial officer purchased the 98,794-square-foot Belleview Promenade retail center in Greenwood Village for $49 million.
In the past, Kroenke has used his sports venues as anchors for larger developments, and Duggan has made it clear that the River Mile could jump-start development on Kroenke’s roughly 50 acres of Pepsi Center parking lots. In 2010, construction was completed on LA Live, the $2.5 billion Philip Anschutz–backed entertainment complex in downtown Los Angeles that connects to Kroenke’s Staples Center—home of the Los Angeles Lakers, the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Los Angeles Kings. In Commerce City, Kroenke has proposed a 250-acre mixed-used project called Victory Crossing Park adjacent to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, which he built in 2007 and is home to his Colorado Rapids soccer team.
While the River Mile ensures Kroenke will influence Denver’s future, it isn’t even his most ambitious current project. Fewer than 10 miles from LA Live, he’s spearheaded construction of the 70,240-seat SoFi Stadium, where Kroenke’s Los Angeles Rams will share space next year with the Los Angeles Chargers. While the franchises’ owners have squabbled over issues surrounding joint tenancy at the stadium, Kroenke has invested a reported $1.6 billion in personal equity into the project and watched costs balloon from $2.6 billion to nearly $5 billion in just three years. In addition to the stadium, the area will be home to a development that will include office buildings, shops, restaurants, residential units, a hotel, and parks atop a property that’s three and a half times the size of Disneyland Park. (Last year, Forbes put the entirety of Kroenke Sports & Entertainment’s franchises at $8.4 billion, the most for any single sports entity in the world.)
Given his myriad projects, it makes sense that Kroenke would want a steward to handle the River Mile, though his decision to work with Duggan has surprised developers. “Rhys came out of nowhere and managed to land the best development site in Denver with one of the richest people in the world,” says one executive who’s familiar with Revesco and requested anonymity in order to speak openly about him. “There are three or four companies in Denver that you go to for a project that size. Revesco is not one of them.” (A spokesperson for Kroenke Sports & Entertainment did not respond to a message seeking comment.)
Perhaps most intriguing to those who deal with massive real-estate transactions in the city is that the River Mile does not appear to be a simple investment play by Kroenke. So far, there’s been no mention of selling off parcels to other developers, which theoretically would result in a quick profit and far fewer headaches. “We are the developer of this site,” Duggan says. For reference, the 19.5-acre, $500 million Union Station redevelopment required coordination from two of the city’s most prestigious developers—Continuum Partners and East West Partners—to complete.
Duggan has called Kroenke “not your typical bank loan, not your typical hedge fund investor” and seems mildly perturbed at the suggestion that his company doesn’t have the experience or team to lead the project. “It’s not like I don’t have supervision,” he said. “Having the right partner is key in something like this, and Mr. Kroenke and I are both happy with how things have worked out. Mr. Kroenke thinks on a large scale, but he also understands Denver. That has been integral.”
Before the River Mile deal, in January 2014 Duggan had an interaction with Kroenke’s team—in which he sold the Shoppes at Castle Rock to the mogul for $19.9 million—though that’s as far as Duggan will go toward explaining perhaps the seed of the relationship between the two. “I feel fortunate to have Mr. Kroenke as a partner,” Duggan says, declining to discuss who approached whom about the Elitch Gardens purchase and who came up with the River Mile plan. As for their business arrangement, Duggan refers to Kroenke as the project’s “equity partner” and has also described the billionaire in a media report as a “silent partner” in the operation.
Given Kroenke’s history of avoiding the public, it’s clear Duggan fills a specific role. When he pulled his St. Louis Rams out of his home state of Missouri in 2016, Kroenke was labeled Benedict Arnold—a financial mercenary and a traitor to his people—and now is mired in a series of lawsuits, totaling more than a billion dollars, over his handling of the move. “With Rhys, you don’t have a Donald Trump–like figure talking about how he’s going to make this be the best thing ever,” says the executive who has worked on several developments in Denver. “The most important thing is that Rhys isn’t a billionaire boogeyman, like Stan would be if he were front and center.”
Around the time of the Elitch Gardens purchase, Duggan met with Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and delivered a message: There might be a new plan for the site of the park. Hang tight.
“My initial reaction was to be concerned,” the mayor remembers of their meeting, which Hancock describes as a “brief discussion.” The amusement park had been a downtown staple since relocating from northwest Denver, its 220-foot Tower of Doom a conspicuous marker in photos of the city.
As the months passed and Duggan began revealing his vision for the River Mile, Hancock says he quickly became interested in the project as an attractive challenge to try to create an entire neighborhood out of what had been a tangle of railroad tracks 30 years earlier. Of course, a successful development could also be a way to cement legacies for the politicians who took it on.
That Revesco and Duggan essentially had been smaller players within city development circles didn’t worry Hancock, who got to know Duggan during what became increasingly frequent talks. “He seems to be concerned about what’s best for Denver,” Hancock says. Revesco moved quickly to secure amendments to the city’s Downtown Area Plan, which sets guidelines and ambitions for the city’s future development and had never before imagined anything but an amusement park for the Elitch Gardens site. By June 2018, the City Council unanimously approved the amendments. In exchange for affordability, the city eliminated a 200-foot height cap on Duggan’s buildings at the site, essentially giving Revesco unlimited vertical access in parts of the development. Duggan is currently working with City Council members and planners to plot a complicated infrastructure and land-use grid.
In December 2018, the council voted unanimously to approve rezoning on the site, securing an agreement from Revesco that 15 percent of the River Mile’s 8,000-or-so planned residences would fall below market rates—which Duggan often calls “the most comprehensive affordable housing plan in the city.” The approval—which came two years after the project was formally proposed within the city—cleared the way for additional mapping and infrastructure plans before construction could begin.
“Everybody won,” says Brooks, the former councilman. The affordable housing agreement “showed that economic and racial diversity was important to everyone at the table, and both sides were willing to work to that goal. Because of that work, we’re going to have a more inclusive, thriving Denver.”
Multiple developers and real estate consultants who have worked with the city in the past say the River Mile project is notable for the expediency with which it moved through city approval and for the virtually nonexistent opposition to the plan, despite its size and the increasing divide among residents over commercial and residential development within Denver. At the time of the rezoning approval, it was obvious to anyone watching that the 2019 election would be a contentious one, pitting pro-development politicians like Hancock and Brooks against those who want a more measured approach to growth within the city. Among the most formidable challengers was Candi CdeBaca, the 33-year-old community activist and democratic socialist who ran for Brooks’ District 9 City Council seat and built support as she promised to take on what she saw as Hancock’s pro-development status quo in the city.
In the lead-up to the city election in the spring, Duggan donated thousands of dollars to campaigns, including Hancock’s and Brooks’, according to publicly filed campaign finance documents. In runoffs six months after the rezoning approval, three challengers unseated council incumbents, including Brooks, who lost to CdeBaca and eventually was named a vice president of business development and strategy with Milender White, a development and construction firm with offices in Colorado and Southern California. Hancock won re-election after a runoff against Jamie Giellis.
CdeBaca now says the city should have held off on its River Mile rezoning approval, knowing the council was in the midst of a contentious election cycle and development was one of the key issues. “River Mile moved really fast, and I believe the rezoning was done at a time so it could bypass the new people who were likely going to win council seats,” CdeBaca says. The previous council “knew there would be a challenge to Kroenke and Revesco,” she adds.
Four months after the June election, CdeBaca and Duggan met to discuss the River Mile. One of her complaints about the development, she says, is that the city didn’t go far enough in its demands to create affordable housing within the site. “It wasn’t a real conversation with Rhys, because I know when I’m getting played,” she says. “Developers have a way of managing the conversation so they don’t have to talk about the issues that matter. This is not a Revesco-driven development, and everyone knows that. This is a Kroenke development, for sure, and we have to start asking more questions about the people who are shaping our city and who has control over how Denver is unfolding. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.” Both Duggan and Hancock declined to discuss CdeBaca’s criticisms, but the pair defended the approval process. “It’s not happening overnight,” Duggan said. “In terms of timing, this is a long-term vision.”
Duggan stood inside a third-floor event space in the Denver REI flagship store one night this past December and waited to start another meeting. Out one window, through the darkness, the flashing red and blue lights from Elitch’s Big Wheel were visible in the distance. People drifted in and out of conversations and perused renderings of the South Platte area that leaned atop easels along one wall and showed river-based concepts like removing the dam at Confluence Park and creating walkable access to the river’s banks. There was a video screen at the front of the room and dozens of chairs lined up in the middle. Photography of the boards and audio recordings of the event were prohibited.
Over the next hour, Duggan and his team of architects and hydrology experts talked to 100 or so “stakeholders”—city officials and those who work or operate businesses nearby. He is a true believer in all the ways he thinks a good development can change lives and make a city prosper. “Imagine what this site will be 50 to 100 years from now,” he told the group. “What are we missing? What are you seeing? What are you excited about?” He wants big ideas, he told the attendees.
Duggan—as he always does in places like this—both sells and downplays his development. There were drawings of a “yoga lawn” and a climbing wall and talk of “green ribbons” of public space. He told the crowd that the water quality along the River Mile is “not perfect, but it sustains wildlife,” then broke into a story about how he’s stocked the river four times with rainbow trout and they lived. Duggan still gets pictures texted to him by people who catch his fish, he says. “River Mile can be a catalyst for change in this city,” he promised, “but it can’t solve all the problems.”
Wide shots of Elitch Gardens elitch gardens; elitches; amusement park; fun; kevinjbeaty; denver; colorado; denverite
Thank you so much for such a great article Robert Sanchez of 5280 Magazine!! This is the perfect background to understand the history of how this came about the the thought leaders in charge of the transformation. I secretly wish they would keep some playful memories of Elitch Gardens but I don’t think that’s likely. I’m excited to continue digging into this development and learning more about the Scandinavian influences I have heard it has.
If you’re curious about purchasing a long term investment property to take advantage of the future attraction this will bring to nearby inexpensive neighborhoods lets connect and chat!