Wrecking ball or food hall? Denver and Xcel weigh future of old Zuni power plant.

Wrecking ball or food hall? Denver and Xcel weigh future of old Zuni power plant.

The century-old power plant along the South Platte River that buttresses downtown Denver faces the prospect of demolition, but its neighbors in Lincoln Park and Sun Valley would instead prefer to see it transformed into a community space.

Whether that’s a viable plan remains to be seen. The city has the option to buy the Zuni Generating Station at Zuni Street and West 13th Avenue from Xcel Energy, which has paused its demolition plans, and take over the cleanup of the station built in 1900. Any discussions to undertake such a purchase are in nascent stages.

Originally known as the LaCombe Power Plant, it served the Denver area with electricity and steam heat until it was retired in 2015, Xcel spokesperson Michelle Aguayo said. The Zuni plant’s last steam unit was replaced by a new boiler at Xcel’s Denver Steam Plant at 19th and Wewatta streets.

In January 2021, Xcel received approval from the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to decommission, dismantle and demolish the Zuni plant, as well as to remediate and restore the plant site, according to Alice Jackson, president of Xcel Energy–Colorado. The budget for the project sat at $22 million.

Conversations around reuse of the property began before the plant was decommissioned, said Susan Powers, president of real estate development company Urban Ventures LLC. She pointed to an idea by Adam Schlegel, one of the brothers who first launched Snooze A.M. Eatery in Denver, to create a food campus within the space.

In December 2021, Jackson of Xcel said the company paused the demolition of the structures that October. In a letter to Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore, Jackson and regional vice president Hollie Velasquez Horvath added that Xcel is open to possibly selling the site to the city, although Denver would take full responsibility for its environmental condition and cleanup.

Xcel’s potential need for more electrical infrastructure — whether at the site of the Zuni plant or another area — would also have to be taken into consideration, they wrote. The Minneapolis-based company has two active plants in Denver – a steam plant and a natural gas-fired power plant.

Aguayo said the pause is still in place today as Xcel, the state’s largest utility, is “engaged with both the city and community on the best path forward for the site.”

However, Powers said she worries about Xcel’s ongoing work remediating the building for asbestos.

“We don’t know what’s going on inside,” she said. “The work they’re doing – the concern is that it will affect the structure of the building.”

The coronavirus pandemic slowed the momentum around community efforts.

“Today, our goal is to preserve the building,” Powers said. “I’ll be happy with whatever it is, as long as it’s something that supports the community.”

“What we don’t want there are substations,” or high-voltage electric system facilities, she added.

Over the past few decades, Denverites have increasingly tried to keep the city’s history alive by saving its historic spaces, including buildings, parks, cemeteries, bridges and districts. Colorado’s capital city has 58 historic districts and 358 individual historic landmarks, as of July 5.

Other U.S. cities have reimagined old plants, including Plant Riverside District in Savannah, Ga., Seaholm Power Plant in Austin, Texas, and Gas Works Park in Seattle, Wash.

“The city believes the Zuni plant on the north side of 13th Avenue could be a good candidate for adaptive reuse in the future, but no specific uses have been identified to date,” Laura Swartz, communications director for Denver’s Community Planning and Development, said.

In October 2021, Historic Denver’s former Executive Director Annie Levinsky cited concerns about the move to demolish the site in a letter sent to Mayor Michael Hancock.

“The plant’s location along the South Platte River tells an important story about Denver’s growth and development, its early infrastructure and the sinews that tied the central city together,” she wrote. “The century-old structures are very likely eligible for landmark designation, and certainly worthy of the public dialogue that comes from community engagement and an exploration of alternatives to demolition.”

Levinsky argued that the money put toward demolition “could be much better spent creating something of value for the community.”

After Councilwoman Jamie Torres, who represents District 3, was approached by community members in late 2021, she and nine other council members also sent a note that November to Xcel requesting a pause.

“Residents of Sun Valley and neighboring areas lived with the impacts of a variety of pollutants into the South Platte River, flood risk, and disinvestment,” they wrote. “The discontinued active use of the Xcel Zuni Generating Station has opened the potential to transform those impacts.”

Although the Zuni plant is technically in Lincoln Park, Sun Valley residents “very much identify with it,” Torres said in a telephone interview. “Everything west of the highway is their backyard.”

Community members would like, “as much as possible, to keep the structure intact, and perhaps adaptively reuse it,” she said. One idea proposed is to transform it into a public market. “They’ve been watching their whole neighborhood undergo some major transformation.”

Councilwoman Torres said she doesn’t know where the city stands on the proposal of a sale. “There is a lot to discuss with this,” she added.

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