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How a Denver Native Came to Own Downtown's Most Buzzed-About Parcels

Paradise Land Co.'s Richard "Buzz" Geller Talks Parking Lots, Long Holds and His Vision for Denver
February 28, 2018
Pictured: Richard "Buzz" Geller

Richard "Buzz" Geller of Paradise Land Co. is not one of those Denver real estate professionals who arrived in 2013 and started capitalizing on the city’s growth.

The man who owns some of the highest-profile development sites in downtown Denver is a true local, having grown up in Denver before earning his degree in finance from the University of Colorado, and then eventually going into business in the city he knows best.

But real estate wasn’t always his focus. While working as an account executive at Merrill Lynch, he met a business partner with whom he went into the dry cleaning business, running Paradise Cleaners, a Denver staple.

That dry cleaning business would set him on the path that led to ownership of 10 parking lots at the peak of Geller’s property ownership. And while parking lots may not sound like the most exciting investment, the location of these lots ensured that some 25 years after making the first acquisition, Geller’s land would be sought after by developers from across the country.

In 1988, as plans for the Colorado Convention Center were being discussed, Geller and his partner made their way down to a public viewing of the plans that was being held near the convention center’s eventual location at 14th and Stout streets.

They wanted to find out more about the project because they were hoping to bring the national dry cleaners convention to Denver, Geller said. They discovered that the convention center would be too small a venue to meet the needs of the annual gathering of dry cleaning professionals, but learned something else that would have a longer-reaching impact - no parking was planned for the convention center.

The reason, Geller said, was that there was an abundance of surface parking lots surrounding the structure. Sure enough, he laid eyes on one at Colfax Ave. and Welton St. And it was for sale.

"I made a phone call inquiring about it and at that time, they were giving guarantees. Parking lot companies would guarantee a certain amount of revenue," Geller said.

He soon discovered that the revenue from the parking lot would cover the debt he would incur from purchasing it, and jumped on the deal.

He and his partner continued to buy downtown parking lots until 2002, when they had collected 10 different pieces of land right in the path of the development boom that was to sweep the city a decade later.

It was clear that with the convention center would come a major need for hotels, Geller said. He saw the development potential from the start, given the location of the lots and the downtown zoning that would enable tall, dense structures to be built there someday.

It took years for land developers to come calling. In the mid- to late-1980s, Denver was in the throes of an oil and gas bust that rattled the office market and stifled growth in the central business district, where energy companies reigned supreme. And in the early 2000s, the dot-com bubble burst, sending more ripple effects through the American economy.

But in the aftermath of the Great Recession, Denver’s turn from cow-town to big city picked up speed in a big way, and now, Geller finds himself smack-dab in the middle of some of the city’s most talked-about development deals, though those negotiations have had their fits and starts.

Geller’s properties are, in many cases, the target of developers with big dreams, which makes projects harder to get done. But their locations make it all but inevitable that they’ll be developed into buildings that are meaningful for Denver, although questions about timing and eventual use remain for many of them.

The parcel gaining the most recent headlines, and the piece Geller says is in the “crosshairs of downtown Denver,” is at 17th and California streets.

Greenwich Realty Capital, a New York-based company, has been working on plans to develop the parcel for at least a year, sources say, but earlier this month news broke that the developer had submitted its plans for an 81-story tower on the site, a behemoth that would dwarf the building currently holding the title of Colorado’s tallest - Republic Plaza, the 56-story building at 370 17th St.

As proposed, the tower would bring new retail and residential space, as well as a hotel, to downtown Denver, but the project must first receive approval from the city’s various departments, including planning and public works.

And of course, the land still needs to be acquired from Geller.

The parcel was under contract for the last several months, but that is no longer the case, according to Geller. An attorney for Greenwich Realty Capital told the Denver Post this week that it would be back under contract soon, but Geller now has his doubts about the project going forward under the current developer, although he believes that the uses laid out in Greenwich’s plan are the right ones for that parcel.

"My views on the site and need for housing [and a] hotel haven't changed, and I do think this project will go forward but not with the purchaser who had it under contract. It just won't be as big and unrealistic," Geller told CoStar News this week.

Greenwich also intends to buy a second sliver of land on the southwestern edge of Geller’s property to get the project done, according to plans filed with the Denver Department of Community Planning and Development.

Geller also owns a lot at 19th and Arapahoe streets, where a development team last year announced that it would build two towers totaling 800 condominium units. When news of the proposal first surfaced in 2017, Florida-based developer Renzo Renzi was leading the charge, but he has since reportedly bowed out of the project.

But the development group, represented locally by Kevin Geraghty, still has a contract on the land, Geller said, and such a large condo project would be met with a high level of demand in a city that has seen little new condo development in recent years.

Another of Geller’s lots, at 13th Street and Tremont Place, is also under contract by a developer who intends to build condos there, and at a more affordable rate than the luxury product that has cropped up elsewhere in Denver. The units will be smaller, although not micro-units, Geller said.

Geller started selling his lots a few years ago, and on one of the first to go, along Speer Blvd. between 13th and 14th avenues, Legacy Partners is building TriVista on Speer, a 322-unit luxury apartment complex scheduled to deliver next spring.

Another, at 12th St. and Glenarm, Geller sold to Choice Hotels for $7 million in 2015. There was talk at the time about building a hotel there, but the parking lot still remains.

On at least one of his lots, Geller has plans of his own, although those plans have gone through a few iterations over the years.

Along Speer, between Market and Larimer streets, Geller owns a lot that straddles Cherry Creek, and before the recession, he had plans in the works to develop a 34-story luxury condo tower there. But as he was working out the details with the Lower Downtown Design Review Board, the recession put a stop to the project, along with almost every other development plan in the works.

Then early in 2017, he and Texas-based Hines worked on plans for a W Hotel and condos with a sky bridge across the creek.

But once again, Geller is shifting gears on that piece of land. The lot is technically for sale, but he has plans of his own that aren’t quite ready for the public yet, he said.

The downtown zoning that is in effect for most of Geller’s lots means that they are likely to end up dense, something in which he wholeheartedly believes.

"To be a great city, you have to have a large number of people living in the central business district," he said.

He points to the Spire, a Nichols Partnership condo tower that was completed amid the recession in November 2009, as an example of how downtown living can work.

"When somebody does something like that, it means that others will follow. When that went over, that simply proved the case that people will live downtown, and little by little that's what's happening," Geller said.

New residential, either condo or apartments, make up the majority of what’s been proposed for his sites, which feeds into his idea of what the city should be.

"Fill the city, as far as I’m concerned, with as many people as we can, and I think it will become one of the great cities in America and everybody will be happy to come to Denver," Geller said.

Molly Armbrister, Denver Market Reporter  CoStar Group   
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