Montbello FreshLo – Cover Story in Colorado Real Estate Journal

Posted on: June 5, 2024

By the People. Less magic than hard work, FreshLo demonstrates community development done right.

SOURCE: Colorado Real Estate Journal
WORDS: Sean Vincent O’Keefe


Donna Garnett cares about her community and, like all good developers, she’s looking for a return on investment. As the CEO of the Montbello Organizing Committee, Garnett caps more than 50 years of community organization with a crowning accomplishment known as FreshLo. Conceived as a community hub, FreshLo will be a not-for-profit mixed-use development synthesized from relentless determination and the goodness of people’s hearts.

“About 10 years ago, a group of people got tired of waiting for someone else to rescue our community. So, we decided to do it ourselves,” begins Garnett, who joined the Montbello Organizing Committee as an early board member in 2014. Though community organizing, grant writing, fundraising and process management have been a life’s work for Garnett, she’s quick to credit the project’s many partners. As infill development ought to, at FreshLo, the program started with the purpose, and the purpose started with the people. “It began with a planning grant from the Kresge Foundation that was matched by The Denver Foundation and The Colorado Health Foundation. With this financial support in 2018, we started talking to the community to find out what people needed, wanted, and were worried about.”

As it turns out, Montbello’s biggest concerns happened to coincide with its biggest opportunity. The news was that RTD was closing the local Park-n-Ride, which would leave a vacant lot paved in pockmarks and loose gravel amid Mon- tello’s small commercial concentration. Though the Park-n-Ride wasn’t used much, many in Montbello fondly recalled the site’s former purpose as a community grocery store. “Through the public engagement process, across about 3,000 people rose a shared vision to take back this site as an important place in our community,” says Garnett. “It became apparent that people wanted affordable housing. This is a food desert, so we needed that grocery store back. People also wanted access to mental health services, arts education, and performance space for community cultural celebrations.”

It was a tall order, one that involved many partnerships.

Beyond the three mentioned, more than 30 other funding partners are credited on MOC’s FreshLo web page. Likewise, in getting it all done, following a collaborative impact model for decision-making, MOC prioritizes hometown relationships and strategic expertise over a streamlined organization chart. FreshLo’s organization chart would fill a banquet hall.

“We partnered with two architects, Roybal Corp. and Van Meter Williams Pollack, and two builders, Gilmore Construction and Alliance Construction Solutions, to form a well-rounded team,” says Garnett of MOC’s principled stewardship. Other key partners include FLO Development Services and tax credit consultant S.B. Clark Cos. “We’ll never make a profit, no matter what we develop. All the gains here will be for the people of Montbello.”

The task of attempting to meet the program’s many inlets of interest fell to the double-sided design team led by Mike Roybal of the Roybal Corp. and Brett Jacques of VMWP. Roybal’s years of experience with Garnett on previous community development efforts was complemented by VMWP’s acute affordable housing expertise. Sorting out MOC’s complicated community wish list into achievable chunks was the first order of business between the design practitioners. “The community was the primary focus here. In this case, community-driven meant working with dozens of local voices,” says Roybal of the intense collaboration with local owner-invested participants that come to the table as bankers, lawyers, nurses, artists and schoolteachers rather than design or construction professionals.

“The original program tried to fit everything into one building, which just wasn’t feasible in the original budget and market conditions,” joins Jacques. In breaking up the project into three phases – mixed-use affordable housing, grocery and retail, and arts and performance – FreshLo takes a pragmatic approach to dreaming big by delivering the program in bite-sized chunks. Phase 1, now under construction, is unpacking 97 units of affordable housing in one-, two- and three-bedroom configurations aimed at people making 30% to 70% of area median income. Resident units begin on level 2 of the six-story building, which features a sprawling outdoor amenity deck that will be a focal point of resident engagement. Activating the streetscape, a series of commercial uses will occupy level 1, including a small-business incubator, coffee shop, MOC’s offices, and a 3,000-square-foot mental health facility operated by partnership investor WellPower.

Animating the site with needed, accessible altruism is a start. However, both Roybal and Jacques emphasize the need for the building’s design to embrace an ethos of community consciousness as well. Irregular massing and balconies across all facades join multidimensional, purposeful places populating level 1 to embrace human scale while putting eyes and activity on the street. The level-2 amenity deck faces south, bathing a collection of play structures, grill tops, garden beds and lounge areas for residents in sunlight that streams into the indoor fitness center.

Simpler than it sounds, the challenge of bringing Montbello’s dream to life has also been assigned to a two-headed construction partnership, composed of Gilmore Construction and Alliance Construction Solutions.

Arnulfo Serrano, project manager for Alliance, is honored to be part of the process. He shares his sincere appreciation for the chance to work on a community development or- chestrated for and by the people.

“I’m so glad I have this as my project,” says Serrano when asked what makes this one special. “I have 12 or 13 different ownership-level voices, two architects, and a construction partner sitting with me at the OAC [owner/architect/contractor] meetings, and some don’t speak construction. They may be barbers or musicians, but they are super smart people. When you explain something, they listen, learn and ask questions until they get it.”

Sorting out the situation at the site, which is just about three blocks north of Interstate 70 off Peoria, one of the first things the construction team uncovered was the tangled mess of existing and abandoned utility infrastructure sitting just below the surface. Project leaders had to work through the physical and jurisdictional complexities of either relocating or working around the existing utilities while making a concerted effort to rid the site of what was abandoned by the site’s forebearers.

Now that Phase 1, the mixed-purpose multifamily project, is coming out of the ground, Serrano is rewarded by being able to walk MOC’s many participants and investors through the shell of the emerging space.

“As we’re doing tours, these people’s eyes light up,” he says of the barber and banker who have never built anything. While guys like Serrano have been walking construction sites for 20 years, the man on the street who doesn’t create the fabric of place for a living has no idea what it’s like to bring a building from the design desk to reality. Fortunately for Serrano, Roybal, Jacques, the barber, and the banker, Garnett and many others at MOC know what they are doing. “Rather than having outsiders come in and decide for us, we were determined to do things differently,” says Garnett as the program starts to come together.


“Once we convinced the RTD to sell us the Park-n-Ride in February of 2020, we began the arduous task of raising money to get design services underway by 2022. We had secured a partnership with a grocer and low-income housing tax credits by early 2023.” Looking forward, the second phase of the project involves the renovation of an adjacent strip mall that MOC purchased. That building will house the mission-driven, non- profit grocery store that takes roughly half of the 14,000 sf of space, with the other half occupied by local businesses. Distinctly, Phase 2 draws funding through New Market Tax Credits derived from program-related investments of several participating foundations. The third phase will be de- voted to arts education, performance and culturally based community gathering. Garnett shares that MOC is already deeply engaged with many arts entities across metro Denver.

“FreshLo comes from the hearts and desires of people who love this community, people who want to be able to stay here as we age,” finishes Garnett. “This is not where we are stopping. This is a 10-year plan. I hope that FreshLo will be an example that it is possible to accomplish what you set out to do. It’s about $90 million. We’re still $10 [million] to $12 million away. We have broken this down into phases to secure phase-appropriate funding and tax credits, and we’ve partnered with a bunch of people who care.”


WORDS: Sean Vincent O’Keefe
SOURCE: Colorado Real Estate Journal


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