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Big changes are underway on The Hill, as Boulder residents have called a campus-adjacent neighborhood for decades.
At the University Hill Plaza, bounded to the south by Pleasant Street, to the east by Broadway and the north by University Avenue, construction activity has commenced on the project that will demolish the plaza and replace the businesses there with a 189-room hotel.
The hotel will also include 9,000 feet of ground-flood retail. Developed by Denver-based Nichols Partnership, it’s planned to be complete in July 2023.
The project has been in the works for the better part of a decade. In 2014, the city council made revitalizing the Hill commercial district a priority. Despite the success of some businesses in the area and the popularity of the community among University of Colorado Boulder students, it struggled compared with other Boulder commercial areas. The Hill’s vacancy rates and occupancy costs were among the highest in the city, and the area lacked a commercial anchor. The coming and going of students throughout the year made it hard for businesses to attract customers consistently. The city wanted to arrest that turnover and bring more stability to the district.
“While there are businesses on the Hill that really love being on the Hill, there were also a lot that continued to churn,” Assistant City Manager Yvette Bowden said. “The Hill as a commercial district has struggled, and that was tied in large part to the ebbs and flows of the population of the student body. We wanted to make it more viable and broad and explore catalytic redevelopment opportunities that make it more economically viable over time and create the kind of vibrancy we want in the community.”
In 2016, the council approved plans to develop a hotel and parking garage on the site of the current project — these plans, from a different developer, eventually fell through. The parking garage was dropped from subsequent plans.
The current project was brought before the city by Nichols Partnership in 2019.
“With all projects, you are dealing with a combination of factors such as whether or not it’s the right time, the level of interest and the constraints,” said Bowden, who also is director of community vitality for the city. “This is a complicated site, and that makes things more thoughtful and costly. At this point, we were quite fortunate that Nichols Partnership came through with these plans.”
At the same time, another project was also taking off. CU Boulder and developer Holland Development Co. are building a 234-room hotel with 32,000 square feet of conference and event space directly kitty-corner from the Hill hotel, at the northeast corner of Broadway and University Avenue. That hotel is also slated to be finished in 2023.
Although the two projects are similarly sized and in close proximity, the hope is that they will have a symbiotic relationship, especially with the ability of the Hill hotel to house attendees of conferences at the CU hotel.
“There’s a great synergy in having a conference center and hotel and then having another hotel across the street,” said Elaine McLaughlin, principal planner for Boulder. “There’s greater opportunity to house people who are hosting conferences, and that helps to draw folks in and stimulate business activity along 13th Street.”
As exciting as the project is for the city and developers, it’s a tough blow for the businesses in the plaza that are being displaced. Many of them have been staples for university students and Boulderites for decades, such as The Fitter, Cosmo’s Pizza, Bova’s Market and Grill, Dot’s Diner and Santiago’s Burritos.
The Cosmo’s on the Hill slowed down during the COVID-19 pandemic, both because that location didn’t deliver and because of staffing shortages, said Tertia Bongo, general manager for Cosmo’s. Even so, it was still important. That was Cosmo’s original location. Having a shop on the Hill was great for brand awareness for college students. It still offered easy access to late-night food for students, partiers and concert-goers.
But Bongo and her staff knew the hotel had been in the works for a long time.
“When [the plaza building] finally sold, we knew this could be coming,” Bongo said. “It sucks to take this stuff out to replace it with something that’s commercial instead of mom-and-pop small businesses, but that building needed a lot of work and did need something new and fresh. Maybe it will be nice to have that.”
That didn’t make it any easier when the time finally came to close down the restaurant. Its last day open was Oct. 10. Over the week after the last day, employees cleaned up and moved out. No employee of Cosmo’s on the Hill lost their job because of this location closing; they all moved to other locations.
Still, it was hard, Bongo said, to see things like old menus on the walls as they ripped up wallpaper, to see where employees had written their names on the walls. The hardest part was ripping apart the bar.
“It’s definitely unfortunate,” Bongo said. “Everyone is kind of bummed. It’s definitely sad. I made a lot of memories up there. Made a lot of friends up there. This has put more stress on our other shops during busy hours. We’re all a little bummed. It’s definitely a hardship, but we do have these two locations left [in Boulder].”
Now, all 19 of the businesses that had been in the plaza have closed up and moved out. Construction activity began Wednesday.
The city and Nichols Partnership were not insensitive to the fact that the project was displacing existing businesses, many of them local and student staples. As part of Nichols’ negotiations with the city during the planning process, the developer agreed to provide financial relocation assistance to the plaza tenants. City staff also worked with the displaced businesses to provide information on available commercial spaces in Boulder and connect them with local brokers.
“Our businesses are part of the community,” Bowden said. “They were involved through our outreach as this project was considered. Along the way, we did a lot of outreach, as did the developer. [Those businesses] were involved all the way through the project. They got relocation assistance. It’s been a dynamic conversation. We are pleased we were able to get that relocation assistance.”
According to a heads-up document sent to the City Council in July, the amount of relocation assistance funds provided by Nichols totaled $200,000, which was disbursed to plaza tenants based on their leased square footage.
That document also broke down the current status of those 19 displaced businesses:
Of course, numerous Hill staples will remain as ever: the Fox Theater, Half Fast Subs, The Sink, Illegal Pete’s and more will coexist alongside the new hotel in a changed commercial district. The hope is that the hotel and the people it brings in will help those companies continue to thrive.
“We hope this hotel and convention center are going to help diversify and anchor the success of these businesses,” Bowden said. “We hope this will catalyze the other businesses.”
Cosmo’s is one of the businesses that hasn’t yet signed another lease on the Hill. Bongo said that the restaurant definitely wants to reopen another shop in the area, but will wait for the right time and the right location. In the meantime, she said that she wants the public to be aware that many of the displaced businesses were successful — and that their customers should continue to patronize them.
“The biggest thing to emphasize is that we are not going out of business,” Bongo said. “We are not willingly closing. None of these businesses failed.”
While the displaced businesses try to move forward, ground is breaking on the hotel, and demolition on the plaza building will soon commence. Less than two years from now, the Hill, campus and the Broadway corridor will have a radically different character. The coming hotels on the Hill and campus will provide a unified visual character, meeting space, lodging and hopefully new consumers who will bring capital to the commercial district.
“I’m excited for the Hill,” Bowden said. “This is going to be a great destination. This is going to help the city and the university. The community can gather there. We can enjoy this space into the future and help bring success to the district.”
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