Denver investing $9.3 million into redesign of Loretto Heights campus theater

Denver will pay an architecture firm just shy of $9.3 million over the next three years to lead the design and engineering work that will turn a midcentury theater on the Loretto Heights campus in southwest Denver into the centerpiece of the city’s next cultural hub.

The City Council on Monday unanimously approved the contract with Perkins Eastman Architects. The firm has a studio that specializes in working on theaters on college campuses. It’s the first piece of a multi-phase effort that would see the city take over the theater and a neighboring library building on the campus and turn them into cultural amenities for a part of the city that officials say has never seen a public investment of this scale.

The funding was provided by a $30 million bond approved by voters as part of the city RISE bond package in 2021.

Councilman Kevin Flynn, whose District 2 includes the Loretto Heights campus, called Monday’s contract “the start … of the single largest city investment to ever take place in southwest Denver and that is the restoration, renovation and reopening of the May Bonfils (Stanton) Performing Arts Center.”

Flynn’s experience with the performing arts, starting at a 10-year-old with a part in “The Music Man,” helped give him the confidence to be a council member in the first place, he said Monday. He looks forward to the children in southwest Denver having the same opportunities once the theater reopens.

With design work starting as soon as next month, construction on the property is expected to begin in late 2024 and wrap up in late 2026, according to officials with Denver Arts & Venues which is steering the effort.

Mark Najarian, the project manager for Art & Venues, said the architecture firm will be tasked with a design that improves accessibility, renovates restrooms, installs new theater seating and updates all building systems in the theater and library, both of which were built in the early 1960s. Designing an adjoining parking structure on the hilltop property is also part of the contract.

“Everything needs to be updated from a code and functionality perspective,” Najarian said.

The theater has been closed for five years since Teikyo, the Japanese university that last ran Loretto Heights as a college campus, shut down there and sold the property to Westside Investment Partners for $15.75 million. Westside is now redeveloping the landmark campus, a former Catholic school, into a mixed-use development with dense housing along South Federal Boulevard. Part of the development agreement Westside has with the city involves donating the Bonfils theater and land to the city, Flynn said.

Westside is also the owner of the Park Hill Golf Club in northeast Denver, a property with a development future in the hands of city voters in the April 4 election in the form of Referred Question 2O.

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With the city seeking to acquire the library building and fold it into plans for a broader culture hub, the total project is now in need of another $40 million in funding, according to Arts & Venues. A capital campaign is underway to raise between $10 and $15 million of that and the agency plans to dip into its budget to contribute another $5 to $10 million.

Ginger White Brunetti, who leads Arts & Venues, told a council committee earlier this month that the city hasn’t opened a theater like the one on the Loretto Heights campus since the 1990s and hasn’t created a campus like the one planned there since the performing arts complex downtown was first built in the 1970s.

“We believe very strongly that this project helps advance culture equity and access in the city of Denver,” she said.

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