Entrepreneurs and real estate developers are taking urban agriculture to new heights at a Mile High
It was 8:15 Tuesday morning and the greenhouse was just waking up for the day.
Spurred by an electrical panel that serves as its brain, its roof vents had popped open, letting in the cool, morning air.
Meanwhile, the human staff of Altius Farms was already busy doing its work. Moving among rows of aeroponic growing towers the pickers plucked leafy greens, herbs and edible flowers like Genovese basil and red Russian kale, washed them and packed them in coolers.
Within hours the harvest would be distributed to some of Altius’ three dozen odd regular and seasonal customers in the Denver area including top restaurants and grocers like Choice Market and Marczyk Fine Foods.
“If you grew this in California and transported it here, it wouldn’t taste nearly this strong,” Altius co-founder and CEO Sally Herbert said, holding up a particularly spicy variety of mustard leaf. “After 1,500 miles in and out of cold storage, the flavor degrades. The nutrient density degrades, too. As much as 80 percent.”
All of the work, mechanical and mammal, was taking place far from Colorado’s agriculture heartlands on the Eastern Plains and Western Slope. Altius is farming in the heart of Denver at 2500 Lawrence St. Its 7,000-square-foot greenhouse sits atop (and helps supply) chic sushi restaurant Uchi and is the visual centerpiece of sustainability-focused condo project S*Park.
The greenhouse is a shimmering glass example of the growing urban farming trend that is now setting down deeper roots in Denver, both in new projects like the soon-to-be-completed Lakehouse tower near Sloan’s Lake and in historic city anchors like Larimer Square.
S*Park was a Denver Housing Authority property before Westfield Co. bought the land it sits on and two other parcels for $7 million. Part of the deal required Westfield to preserve a community garden on the property. The company has done that. Herbert, formerly in the Air Force Reserve, is looking for a fellow veteran to tend to that outdoor plot which was planted earlier this summer. Westfield has also gone beyond that directive by bringing in Altius as one of the marquee tenants in the 91-unit community.
Westfield partner Jonathan Alpert said the goal at S*Park was to find tenant businesses that matched with its sustainable design and mission. Other businesses on the block include a juice bar, a yoga studio and a forthcoming bakery.
Altius plays more than one role there.
The development is dotted with metal tubs residents can use as their own garden beds, with Herbert and crew offering help with cultivation techniques. Altius is establishing a community-supported agriculture or CSA program where S*Park residents and people from across the metro area can subscribe and share in some of what’s harvested as long as they are willing to come pick it up.
“I think all of the communities we build and are involved in are focused on what’s next,” Alpert said. “That was always the goal, to make it easy for people to live this lifestyle in the heart of the city.”
For Christi Turner, S*Park’s focus on sustainability is no fringe perk. Turner, who is renting a studio unit owned by a friend, is the founder of Scraps, a bike-powered compost pick-up service focused on the heart of Denver. S*Park provides her with easy access to her customers and proximity to like-minded businesses like Altius. She hopes to establish a compost drop-off point for her staff on the property.
“It’s hard to grow food in the city. It’s hard to find space, it’s hard to afford space. At the same time, it’s incumbent upon us to figure out solutions,” Turner said. “You throw in vertical gardening that does not require soil … how cool to have that be the showpiece of where you live?”
The 196 condos in the 12-story Lakehouse tower are on pace to be ready for move-ins this fall, but a rooftop farm there is already growing salad-ready produce. The 3,000-square-foot patch on the building’s second-story terrace uses traditional, soil-based methods to grow peas, tomatoes, greens and a host of other veggies, according to Quint Redmond, co-owner of Agriburbia Development.
The Keenesburg-based company has been working with Lakehouse developer Nava Real Estate Development to cultivate the project for four years, consulting on designs from the earliest stages, Redmond said. Where Altius is a startup — S*Park is its first urban farm, though another, larger project is in the works, Herbert said — Agriburbia has been involved in urban farming for a decade, working on projects across the U.S. and other countries. Redmond believes Lakehouse, where a rooftop farm was part of the plan from the beginning, is the first project of its kind in the country.
“It’s not designed to feed everybody in the building. It’s designed to educate everybody. It’s designed to be part of a broader wellness program,” Redmond said. “The main thing was to get food growing on a brand new building and to make it part of the culture. It was a joyous occasion when we harvested radishes there last week.”
Urban farming has already risen to prominence in some coastal cities, aided, in the case of trend standard-bearer San Francisco, at least by tax subsidies. But real estate trend watchers expect it to goes mainstream across the country as people get more in tune with where their food comes from and demand more fresh, healthy options.
In a trends report published in November, researchers with global real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield wrote, “We expect indoor cropping operations to be a major growth industry in the years ahead.” Projects mentioned in the report include a 26-tower indoor garden at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport supplying herbs, greens and more to airport restaurants that serve upward of 10,000 people every day. Indoor farming options are viewed as particularly positive because of their low water use, and year-round production, per the report.
In Denver, Cushman & Wakefield broker Joey Trinkle is on the lookout for industrial space to accommodate Castle Rock company Farmbox Foods. Farmbox converts old shipping containers into self-contained mobile hydroponic and aquaponic farms. It wants access to rail so it can send it products to any metro area where it might find clients, Trinkle said.
With competition for industrial space in Denver fierce right now, Trinkle said he isn’t aware of many other urban farming startups looking for space. The big players in the industrial market from a food perspective remain online retailers looking to speed grocery delivery to customers and meal-in-a-box delivery companies like Blue Apron.
“I think we may start to see more sort cues of that sort of thing shifting into Denver,” he said, “but none that I am familiar with at this point.”
One of the most storied blocks in Denver — historic Larimer Square — is embracing urban farming. Earlier this summer, property manager Urban Villages cordoned off the roof of the block’s six-story parking garage on Market Street, built garden boxes and planted 100 plus varieties of plants including more than 50 types of vegetable. It eliminated more than 90 money-making parking spaces in the process.
The company partnered with Larimer Square owner Jeff Hermanson in 2018 to unveil controversial plans to build new, tall buildings along the square, with aims to bring affordable housing and a hotel to the block. Those plans, which would require City Council sign off because Larimer Square is a protected historic district, are up in the air but rooftop gardens, also part of that initial proposal, was something Urban Villages CEO Grant McCargo decided could not wait.
“We’re in a global food crisis. The world doesn’t know it,” said McCargo, who also heads up Urban Villages sister company Bio-Logical Capital and recently helped bring the eco-friendly Slow Food Nations festival to the square.
McCargo said the challenges brought on by climate change mean people need to be growing food everywhere, including on rooftops downtown. “This is not a for-profit venture up here,” he said. “This is for our education so we can plan for the reimagination (of Larimer Square.)”
The operation is being managed by Mike Spade, a New York City native who previously worked on a rooftop farm atop a hospital building at his alma mater, Stony Brook University. The roof is open for public tours on weekdays, with Saturdays being added soon, Spade said. He is exploring additional possibilities for public education and agrotourism on the roof. All food grown there is being given away.
Urban agriculture is not a new concept in Denver. The nonprofit Denver Urban Gardens manages dozens of community gardens across the metro area where people can rent plots. In the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, GrowHaus is nearing its 10-year anniversary. That nonprofit operates a hydroponic and aquaponic farm to stock its fresh food market (where prices are set on a sliding scale) and fill subscription food boxes as it strives to support a community-driven, neighborhood-based food system that is accessible to people of all income levels.
But things are clearly growing too new levels. Earlier this year, the nonprofit Focus Points Family Resource Center was awarded a $100,000 state grant to plan future community gardens in the Elyria-Swansea and Globevilleneighborhoods. Colorado State University is preparing to build a food and agriculture innovation center as part of its three-building campus at the National Western Complex. While it could never replace traditional farming and rural food production in Colorado or elsewhere, Tom Vilsack, the former U.S. secretary of agriculture and Iowa governor now advising CSU on its National Western project, said urban farming does have a role to play in the future.
In part, “it provides opportunities for community development, it provides business opportunities and opportunities for job growth,” Vilsack said.
Kayla Birdsong, executive director of GrowHaus, is all for more locally grown produce. With more people moving into Denver all the time, there are that many more people who need, fresh healthy food. But as entrepreneurs and for-profit businesses get in on the act — each of which competes with her nonprofit organization — she hopes they’ll operators will continue to look for ways to give back, whether it be donating extra food or providing jobs in the neighborhood like GrowHaus does.
“There is a responsibility in the business community that is in it for profit to very intentionally map out their road to contributing to their communities directly and ensuring that they are actively working towards equitable food access, especially in neighborhoods that struggle so much with food insecurity every day,” she said.