Adaptive Reuse Of Older Industrial Structures


Guest Writer: Bob Hagedorn

In the early 1970s Union Pacific began developing surplus land south of I­70 to just north of the Morris Heights neighborhood that they had title to from its Congressional land grant to build a railroad across Colorado. It was Aurora’s first major industrial development with land zoned for warehouses and distribution centers, taking advantage of the interstate and adjacent rail lines. It was also the beginning of the end of Aurora as simply being the “Gateway to the Rockies,” and becoming Colorado’s third largest city.

Now, more than 40 years later, there are vacancies among these aging business parks, as industrial development has spread dramatically to the north, northeast and east of this area.

While there are zoning considerations, these vacant warehouse and distribution centers can offer opportunities to entrepreneurs looking for large indoor spaces. In other words, to repurpose some of these vacant spaces through what’s called “adaptive reuse.”

Among potential uses include locations for breweries, distilleries and even wineries, as many Aurora residents have already discovered. Dry Dock North, off an industrial area of Tower Road, has a building not unlike those farther to the west that just doesn’t brew great beers, but also has a tap room and restaurant, and special event space for large gatherings.

In addition, empty warehouses and “big box” stores are being converted into affordable housing. The Terner Housing Center at the University of California, Berkeley, is a leader in looking at innovative ways to expand affordable apartment developments, including the repurposing of former commercial and retail spaces.

While the Terner Center is studying ways to expand affordable housing, their research is also applicable to innovative commercial opportunities. In a November 2021 report from the Terner Center, Adaptive Reuse Challenges and Opportunities in California, authors David Garcia and Elliot Kwon wrote:

“Residential buildings on commercially zoned land can take multiple forms, such as a new development on an empty lot, a teardown replaced with new construction, or an adaptive reuse approach where parts of the original building are preserved. While adaptive reuse can refer to different types of redevelopment, in general, the term is used to distinguish projects that satisfy the following four criteria: (1) existence of a structure to be reused, (2) functional and/or economic obsolescence of the existing building, (3) change of use, and (4) economic viability of the new project.”

While these four criteria are referencing potential residential adaptive reuse, they’re equally applicable to adapting existing buildings for reuse as retail or very different commercial purposes than what they were originally used for. Whether there are historic features of interest in these buildings or not, adaptive reuse can encourage the use of existing structures rather than tearing them down and starting over from scratch, a more environmentally­ friendly approach.

“As a Realtor with a background in Industrial Design, I think that all space has potential. Whether it be a parking lot, unused offices, empty industrial space, or unused warehouse space, it all can be reimaged and redesigned for more useful purposes,” said local Aurora Real Estate Broker Lawrence Childress. “Just because there may initially be a lack of imagination as to what can be done with space, it does not mean that fresh and innovative ideas can’t work,” Childress added.


Bob Hagedorn is a former legislator, twice-elected to both the Colorado House of Representatives and State Senate. He currently serves on various boards, including the Aurora Economic Opportunity Coalition.

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