Feature

The Future of Denver

The Mile High City is consistently hailed as one of the best places to live in the United States—and who are we to argue? But with an additional 1.5 million people expected to move to the Front Range by 2035, our treasured lifestyle may be at risk. We dug through reams of city-planning documents, talked to dozens of Coloradans, and put together a vision for the future of our city. Now, it's time to make this vision a reality.

December 2009
  • Round the Clock
    How downtown is morphing from an office and club district into a full-time mixed-use neighborhood.
  • Taking a Different Tack
    The new zoning code offers a streamlined approach to neighborhood renovation.
  • All Aboard
    New live-work developments keep the car in the garage.
  • The Finished Line
    FasTracks' expanding budget is worrisome, but not completing the rail system would come at a far greater cost.
  • Back to the Future
    Forget the exurbs; the hottest spot for redevelopment is right here in the city.
  • Get Smart
    Why the Colorado Paradox must be addressed.
  • Servicing the Suburbs
    How better collaboration between Denver and its neighbors will save money in the long run.
  • Easy Streets
    Building boulevards for people—not just for cars.
  • Streetcars Desired
    Reviving the old trolley lines would reconnect Denver's core neighborhoods.
  • Working on the Railroad
    The high-speed mountain train has always seemed like a long shot, but we need it now more than ever.

Round the Clock

How downtown is morphing from an office and club district into a full-time mixed-use neighborhood.

Twenty-five years ago, living in downtown Denver was a high-risk activity reserved for the hipsters and homeless; businesses were veritably walled off in the central district, and the whole place shut down by dusk. Today, downtown has become one of the most vibrant areas in the city, boasting Coors Field and the Pepsi Center, cultural facilities such as the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and the Museum of Contemporary Art, more than 25 million square feet of office space, and a legion of hip, new high-rise buildings like the SugarCube at 16th and Blake. Downtown is now home to 10,000 residents—a number that's expected to more than double by 2030—and more than 110,000 workers. "Residential downtown living is no longer an experiment, or bohemian chic," says Brad Buchanan, a principal and architect with the Buchanan Yonushewski Group. "It's become a visible and exceptional lifestyle choice."

The city isn't done yet. A series of public and private proposals—including the Denver Downtown Area Plan, Blueprint Denver, and the Denver Multi-Modal Access Plan—call for higher-density housing, more shopping and offices, improved transportation, and making downtown streets more inviting for pedestrians and bicyclists. In other words, the kind of place where you can work, play—and live.

Taking a Different Tack

The new zoning code offers a streamlined approach to neighborhood renovation.

Whether it's the contractor building a monstrous duplex that kills the view from your bedroom window, the restaurateur applying to add a patio, or the neighbor wanting to build a carriage house in his backyard, nothing fires up homeowners like the issue of zoning. Little surprise, then, that the new zoning code (www.newcodedenver.org) has some folks worried.

Peter Park, Denver's manager of community planning and development, wants to reassure them. "We're not looking to change Park Hill and have 30-story high-rises replace single-family homes," Park says. "We want to maintain [neighborhoods'] same general character."

Park says the new zoning parameters will guide builders looking to redevelop "areas of change," including neighborhoods such as Stapleton, Lowry, and downtown. Most Denverites' surroundings will still look the same; there will just be simpler rules for when people or businesses want to renovate their properties. Laws governing carriage houses on urban lots will finally be clarified, as will the construction of traditional mixed-use buildings with apartments above storefronts.

Simplification is the key. "As we're climbing out of the Great Recession, the last thing to challenge desirable growth should be the regulatory aspect," Park says. "Zoning should be a clear piece of the puzzle."

All Aboard

New live-work developments keep the car in the garage.

With the revival of urban living comes the rise of transit-oriented developments. TODs combine housing complexes with transportation—in Denver's case, light-rail stations—to create mixed-use spaces where people can rely less heavily on automobiles yet still easily get downtown to work. About three-fourths of the 58 FasTracks stations in the metro area are slated to have TODs. "We're trying to increase the possibility that you don't need to get into your car," says Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper. Smart TODs blend into a traditional neighborhood: The tallest buildings—along with offices and retail stores—sit closest to the transit stop, and structures gradually get shorter until they become single-family homes.

The Finished Line

FasTracks' expanding budget is worrisome, but not completing the rail system would come at a far greater cost.

Admittedly, the economists behind FasTracks screwed up. In 2004, they projected that six light-rail and commuter lines would cost $4.7 billion, and voters approved the funds for it. Unfortunately, the Great Recession crushed the FasTracks financial model, construction costs soared, and now RTD is short a whopping $2.3 billion to finish the project. The agency can either postpone the last lines to be built (the Northwest Rail Corridor, the North Metro line, and the I-225 line), or go back to the voters and ask for another tax increase.

Which is a shame, since the light-rail system has been a stunning success for the region, with ridership far outpacing original projections. Coloradans, it turns out, like public transportation, and aborting some planned lines shouldn't be an option. RTD needs to ask the voters for absolution and request an additional .02 to .04 percent in the existing sales tax—a mere 2 to 4 cents on every $10. Even amid the recession, voters seem to grasp the long-term wisdom of finishing the system: A January poll conducted by the Kenney Group showed that 63 percent of likely voters would support such a tax bump. Let's get building.

Back to the Future

Forget the exurbs; the hottest spot for redevelopment is right here in the city.

The past decade has seen an explosion of infill growth, as vacant spaces like onetime industrial areas and railroad yards have been converted for retail and residential use. Stapleton and Lowry were built on the site of the old airport and Air Force base, respectively, and have become two of Denver's most desirable neighborhoods.

The textbook example of redevelopment, though, is the Central Platte Valley, which sprouted on Union Station's old rail yards. "Before, the downtown world ended at 15th and Wynkoop," says Ken Schroeppel, an urban planner at Matrix Design Group and the founder of DenverInfill.com, a local urban planning website. "The whole area was all roads, trucks, and rail yards. You had to go all the way around it to get to 16th and Platte."

Today, the area has been revitalized. The Glass House and Riverfront Park, among others, have popped up along the South Platte, a rail yard was converted into the popular Commons Park, and four pedestrian bridges now span the river or I-25 to connect downtown to Highland. Most impressive: The crowds of people swarming—and paying big bucks—to live in the nascent 'hood.

Get Smart

Why the Colorado Paradox must be addressed.

Coloradans rank third in college degrees per capita in the United States, yet we're among the bottom 10 states for K-12 spending. This is the Colorado Paradox: We're highly educated adults who seem to have little interest in educating our children.

The problem is that most of our citizens' education isn't homegrown. Many of those B.A.'s and graduate degrees belong to members of the non-native "creative class"—the innovators, thinkers, and doers—who've settled in Colorado, attracted by geography and lifestyle. "The biggest challenge we face is that a lot of cities have awakened to the ferocious battle for the creative class," says Henry Beer, a designer at CommArts Design Inc. "The holy grail is how well we attract and retain these people."

Beer sees education as the key. "Education is like infrastructure—like roads," he says. "Smart people move to someplace where the schools are good." And when the schools aren't succeeding—DPS, for example, only graduates about 50 percent of its students—we risk losing a lot of smart people to the suburbs and other states.

And we aren't just losing the brainiacs. Businesses are less likely to open branches or headquarters in areas that don't graduate highly skilled workers, and, down the road, we'll end up spending more on social services—such as jails or rehabilitation programs—for the uneducated. "When I talked to a former sheriff, he said the police department has a good idea of what crime is going to be in the future based on fifth-grade achievement levels," says James Mejia, the CEO of the Denver Preschool Program. "Paying for education is enlightened self-interest."

Servicing the Suburbs

How better collaboration between Denver and its neighbors will save money in the long run.

Essential services such as police, fire, water, and street maintenance are expensive: The city of Denver spends more than $400 million annually on public safety alone. But since Denver's expenditure footprint is limited to its current boundaries, the younger suburbs are often forced to duplicate the same pricey services for their citizens.

To address this, Denver and Glendale have created a novel arrangement: collaboration. In 2006, Denver absorbed Glendale's fire department, adding $1.8 million annually to Denver's coffers while saving Glendale about $800,000 each year. Glendale used part of these funds to help build the rugby stadium at Infinity Park that, Mayor Hickenlooper says, "now benefits Denver and the whole area."

Hickenlooper says this type of collaboration will save money in the long term, but not without challenges. Englewood, for example, has different valves on its fire hydrants than Denver. Still, the mayor remains confident. "Over the next 30 or 40 or 50 years," he says, "we'll figure out how we can do more services on a regional level." Accomplishing that will transform the Front Range from a disparate collection of towns into a more cohesive, efficient community.

Easy Streets

Building boulevards for people—not just for cars.

Loaded with speeding and swerving cars, city streets can be difficult to navigate for mere humans—biking can be downright terrifying, while walking can feel like a game of Frogger. "We need to make the pedestrian the priority," says Matrix Design's Ken Schroeppel. "We've spent the last 50 years giving the automobile the priority at the expense of pedestrians and bikes."

Some folks get it: Property owners on downtown's 14th Street recently announced a $14 million streetscaping project, which will use Better Denver Bond funds to widen sidewalks, plant 200 trees, and add a dedicated bike lane—changes that will make the self-dubbed "Ambassador Street" more pedestrian-friendly.

In the end, 14th Street will look more like the walkable, retail-happy Highland neighborhood. Even Highland, though, has room for improvement. Here are a few things the neighborhood is doing right—and a couple it can improve.

Pro-pedestrian:

  1. Wider sidewalks: So walkers can enjoy the streetscape.
  2. More Trees: Pleasant physical barriers stem pollution.
  3. Two-way streets: Force cars to slow down.

Needs work:

  1. Bulb-outs: Provide shorter crossing distances.
  2. Bike lanes: Cyclists are safest in dedicated lanes.

Streetcars Desired

Reviving the old trolley lines would reconnect Denver's core neighborhoods.

During the first half of the 20th century, the Denver Tramway Corporation operated one of the nation's most comprehensive streetcar systems, linking urban neighborhoods to downtown on a half-mile grid. Major streets such as Broadway, Colfax, 15th, and Larimer had lines, and streetcars were largely responsible for development of surrounding neighborhoods such as Highland, Wash Park, and Park Hill.

Trolley lines were torn out after World War II to make way for cars and buses, but today, a new streetcar system—some are calling it "NexTracks"—could build on the success of the light-rail system. "FasTracks is a metro commuter system," says Ken Schroeppel, an urban planner with Matrix Design Group. "It brings the suburbs into Denver and back. But that's only half of the transit puzzle—the other half is serving a dense urban core." A streetcar system could run through dense urban areas—Capitol Hill, Colfax, Broadway, Cherry Creek, and downtown—to serve the areas where people live, work, and shop.

The trolley lines also could encourage new retail and residential growth. "If you build a freeway, the exits might have some economic development, but there's nothing in between," says John Desmond, vice president of urban planning and environment for the Downtown Denver Partnership. "But if you build a streetcar that stops every few blocks, you'll develop activity on the whole corridor."

Denver has taken tentative steps toward a streetcar revival. In July, the Public Works department hired an urban planning firm to conduct a feasibility study on a Colfax line. Early guesses peg a first Denver line at around $11 million to $15 million per mile, but it's possible that we'd be able to secure some federal funding. Portland's new streetcar system is a good model: Since it started running in 2001, the city has seen a $3.5 billion economic impact, a 40 percent jump in commercial and residential density along the line, and a decline in car use.

Working on the Railroad

The high-speed mountain train has always seemed like a long shot, but we need it now more than ever.

Weekend traffic on I-70 is absolutely brutal. To avoid hours of sitting on the road, skiers need to leave Denver by 6 a.m. and start for home by 1 p.m., which spoils the reason they headed for the hills in the first place. "It's no fun to have the mountains if there's no way up there," says Colorado state Senator Chris Romer, who set off a firestorm last year when he suggested the possibility of congestion-based pricing or economic incentives for travelers on I-70. "We're already taxed on the roads; we're taxed on our time."

While Romer was advocating a short-term solution to a long-term problem—every hour-long closure of I-70 costs the state $800,000, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation—the idea of a high-speed railroad is gaining momentum. The Rocky Mountain Rail Authority (RMRA), a consortium of 52 local governments, recently completed a $1.25 million feasibility study on the possibility of high-speed rail lines on the I-70 and I-25 corridors, from Cheyenne to Trinidad and DIA to Grand Junction.

That expansive area is proving to be too costly, because west of Eagle County, north of Fort Collins, and south of Pueblo, there just aren't enough people to ride the train. "The high-speed rail needs to be cost-effective and pay for itself," says Harry Dale, the chairman of the RMRA. "It has to make an operating profit, and it has to go fast in order to charge competitive fares."

Cost estimates range from $3 billion to $36 billion, depending on the length of the constructed lines and whether the trains are electric or magnetic levitation. Much of that funding would likely come from the federal government; Dale estimates the state and private groups would only need to pay for 20 to 40 percent of the total price tag.

Another concern is freight railroads, which were obstinate when RTD was trying to negotiate space for FasTracks. If the freight lines blocked the rail authority from building a pedestrian line up the Santa Fe corridor, for example, the north-south rail line might have to swing out east, along E-470.

Even with the "yeah-buts," Dale remains optimistic. "We need more high-speed rail to compete with the car and the plane," he says. A ticket from Denver to Vail, he estimates, could cost as little as $30—well worth paying if you could actually ski the whole day on your $97 lift ticket.