Just hours after Walmart's withdrawal from the 9th and Colorado project, developer Jeff Fuqua doggedly went back to work studying other options, stressing his commitment to redeveloping the former University of Colorado Hospital site in east Denver.

"I feel very confident we'll build this project," Fuqua said Wednesday. "It will look a little different, but it will get done — and quickly. We would like to start demolition in the spring."

The face of the project at East Ninth Avenue and Colorado Boulevard will likely take on a new look now that Walmart has pulled out.
The face of the project at East Ninth Avenue and Colorado Boulevard will likely take on a new look now that Walmart has pulled out. (Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post)

For that to happen, Fuqua said he must find another large retailer or two to replace Walmart, as well as do some "creative structuring" that might include more of a residential component and the conversion of the nurses' dorm into a 120-room hotel.

Ron Throupe, professor at the University of Denver's Burns School of Real Estate and Construction Management, said Fuqua faces formidable odds.

"There's a limited group for that large of a space," Throupe said. "Who is that going to be? Target? Maybe a grocery store? They may have to carve it up into multiple pieces.

"It's a huge setback for the developer. (Walmart is) a top-quality tenant. He's going to be scurrying around trying to see what other likely users are out there, and he needs to act as quickly as he can."

Asked whether the 28-acre project will still include a big-box retailer, Fuqua said: "A large retail sales-tax generator is essential, or a couple of them. No tenant is going to be a replacement for Walmart in terms of sales tax. It's going to take a combination of other tenants — multiple retailers, perhaps, to get this done."

While saying he couldn't estimate how much time will be lost by Walmart's Tuesday exit, Fuqua noted, "The rest of the project is wrapped up."

Fuqua said Walmart's decision to pull out of the project was the company's alone.

"It was their decision," he said. "The reason they chose to leave was this project is under the guidance of a very complicated general development plan, design guidelines and zoning, and it makes it very difficult to develop.

"Walmart was happy with that initially. But as we went through the neighborhood meetings, it became more and more strenuous in terms of design and financial structure to stay in the deal. They thought that now was the time to bail out, that it was going to be too complicated and too expensive."

For nearly four months, neighbors mounted a spirited, vocal campaign against Walmart, packing auditoriums to criticize the giant discounter's employment practices and accusing Walmart of destroying small, local businesses. They said a 119,000-square-foot Walmart — even with underground parking — would increase traffic, noise and crime.

"I want to see this site developed," Eric Lezotte, a resident of the Mayfair neighborhood, said at Tuesday night's public meeting. "Empty lots don't do anything for the community. But I'm kind of anti-Walmart. To put a low-price, big-box store in there just didn't seem like a good fit at all — or very representative of what the community wanted."

The neighbors got their wish.

In a statement, Do It Right at 9th, a volunteer community group formerly known as Stop Walmart Colorado, said: "We couldn't be more pleased. We are proud of the role played by concerned neighbors in communicating to City Council representatives that Walmart was not the right way to go at 9th and Colorado. It is a real victory for 'the little guy.'

"Councilwomen (Mary Beth) Susman and (Jeanne) Robb were so responsive and helpful. We are deeply grateful. Now we can get down to working with the developer, the city and CU on a plan that works for the surrounding neighborhoods and is truly beneficial for all of east Denver."

On Sept. 21, Susman and Robb announced they would not support tax-increment financing, or TIF, for the project. They cited neighborhood opposition to Walmart as well as the proposed project's imbalance of retail over residential.

Fuqua planned to seek TIF to pay for demolition and infrastructure, and the councilwomen's announcement sent him back to the drawing board. Then Walmart pulled out.

"We're vigorously working on a new plan and a new financial structure," Fuqua said Wednesday. "I think we know what the mix is going to be."

Asked whether the project would now include more residential units, Fuqua said, "It's possible."

The project has always included preservation of the nurses' dorm and quad, and Fuqua said he has been talking to hotel operators about converting the dorm. "It's a part of the site we haven't focused much on," he said.

Over the past several months, Fuqua said he has had contact with 200 retail firms interested in being part of the project. "We even got calls this morning," he said.

"In the development business, this is very common — there are starts and stops and changes," he added. "It's the nature of our business."

Fuqua said it would take a year to demolish existing structures on the site and a year to build.

John Mossman: 303-954-1479, jmossman@denverpost.com