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Photo by Rachel Woolf

Denver’s Planning Director Wants to Bring Beauty Into the Street

Laura Aldrete steps in as executive director of Denver’s Community Planning and Development Department in a time of unprecedented growth—and frustration. With a background in cultural anthropology and urban planning, the north Denver resident brings a global perspective to city-building—but will that be enough to ensure the kind of equity Denver seeks?

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You can call Laura Aldrete a lot of things: an athlete (a competitive high school soccer player, the 52-year-old still moves with grace); an adventurer (Aldrete spent her early 20s traveling and working in Central America and still backpacks here and internationally); a mom (her sons, Alex and Aristedes, are teenagers). But don’t call her a native. “I refuse to use that term,” the executive director of Denver’s Community Planning and Development (CPD) Department says. “I would never want to offend the Native American population by presuming I am the first here, that I am of this land. I also think that there is a presumption that if you are from here, you have more authority than whoever comes into our city, and we want people to come. Besides, everybody came from somewhere else, say, five generations ago. That attitude is disruptive to evolving us forward.”

Aldrete is sitting at a conference table in her office in the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building. It’s early January, just three months after she’d been sworn in to her new role, and she’s still getting used to the space. Only a few personal touches hang on the walls: a painting by her mother, a map of Denver, a small string of prayer flags. Taped discreetly behind Aldrete’s desk is a sheet with the names and photos of City Council members and districts. Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution by former New York City department of transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan sits in the middle of the table. Aldrete’s been meaning to read it, but first she’s getting caught up on her department.

CPD’s boilerplate says its mission is to “envision, enable and ensure a better Denver.” Translation: If it’s got to do with land use—whether that’s putting a building in the ground or taking one out of it—or city design, Aldrete’s office is involved. Which is why it’s a little surprising that for most of its 162-year history, Denver hasn’t had a cabinet-level Community Planning and Development department. In fact, CPD is among the youngest of the city’s 11 cabinet-level departments, having only been officially established in 2002.

Today CPD has 300 employees. Some ensure fire and building code compliance; others help residents navigate permitting processes, like those for adding an egress window or an accessory dwelling unit (such as a mother-in-law suite); and still others collaborate with citizens to help develop the vision for what Denver’s many neighborhoods and public pockets will become. Over the course of her 20-plus-year career, Aldrete has worked with many of CPD’s branches—as the city’s point person for the redevelopment of Stapleton, as assistant director of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, as the senior vice president of real estate at Denver International Airport, and as a planner and project manager for various private design firms. She’s particularly passionate about community engagement, though. “But for the community, [this department] doesn’t exist. There is a reason why community is the first word in our name,” she says. “Growth is going to continue. It’s not really a question of whether or not growth should happen. It will happen. It’s up to us as a city to give access to the citizens to participate in what that looks like.”

Those voices are sometimes raised, angry, and frustrated—understandably so. As Denver attempts to balance exponential growth with a desire to keep the city equitable, affordable, sustainable, and livable, the outcomes have not always been perfect. The city’s population has increased by nearly 20 percent over the course of the past decade, helping to boost median home prices from around $195,000 in 2010 to nearly $430,000 at the end of 2019. Meanwhile, a one-bedroom apartment that rented for $800 10 years ago goes for about $1,400 today. “The era that we’re living in is a defining moment. Great cities are measured by how they respond to the demands they come upon,” says Mayor Michael Hancock. “We’ve been on a record pace of development for the past seven to nine years, and we need to make sure we have a leader who is really directing the values of the city.” Hancock believes Aldrete is that leader.

The interior of Aldrete’s two-story West Highland bungalow looks nothing like what you might expect from someone whose working hours are permeated by terms like “zoning,” “setback,” and “window fenestration.” Art and curios fill the warm, bright space. Many of the paintings are her mother’s, a nurse with an artist’s heart; some of the collectibles come from Aldrete’s global travels in the ’90s; and still others are mementos from international backpacking vacations with her husband, John Plakorus, and their two sons. The most striking feature inside Aldrete’s home, however, is an enormous map of the world stretched across a wall in the dining room. “It’s actually wallpaper,” Aldrete says. “It’s prompted a lot of conversations around the dinner table.”

Born in Denver in 1968, Aldrete gained exposure to international travel at an early age. Her father, who had moved to Denver from Mexico City, was a researcher and professor of anesthesiology at the University of Colorado’s medical school. At the time, reprinting research was expensive, but her father was committed to making his findings accessible, so he translated them and found publishers in Mexico; he would travel extensively throughout Latin America and sometimes Europe sharing his work. He often took Aldrete, as well as her two brothers and her sister, with him. “We’d all travel, and my mom, as an artist, would walk us in the street and say, ‘Look at the architecture and think about how it’s addressing the street,’ ” Aldrete says as we walk near her house on a sunny, cool Saturday afternoon. “Maybe not in those words, but she’d say, ‘Think about how these places are bringing beauty into the street life, into the thing you do every day.’ Sometimes, in America, we simply miss that. We get very utilitarian.”

She pauses and points to a decidedly unlovely but very practical abode with a tiny porch and a large garage. A short metal fence surrounds the yard. It’s a prime example of post–World War II construction, when the garage became more important and the footprint of the porch— where you welcome visitors in off the street, where you sit and watch your neighbors walk by—slowly shrank. “You forget that art is what brings you joy and that sense of wonderment, even if you’re not conscious about it,” she says. “There’s something about its presence in your daily life—hopefully when you’re walking down the street—that makes you feel great about where you live. I’m not an artist, but I feel like that really drives how I think about cities and how we should think about our public spaces, which are our streets, our public realm. It should have beauty in it.”

As eloquent as Aldrete is about neighborhoods, they weren’t always her focus. When she started at the University of Colorado Boulder in 1986, she was pre-med, like her father, her uncle, and her two brothers, all of whom became doctors. Then her parents divorced and Aldrete found herself thinking very hard about what she really wanted to do with her life—and what she really wanted to do was to be an archeologist in Latin America.

So Aldrete left CU in her fourth year to study anthropology at a school outside of Mexico City. Before finishing her degree in anthropology at CU in 1991, she did archaeological field work with the National Science Foundation in Honduras. There, she helped dig through late classic Mayan ruins. By studying the disbursement patterns of things like feathers, shells, and ceramics—each specific to different regions or groups of people—the teams began to piece together the movements and trade routes of the Mayas. They could make out the city center, outlying settlements, and roads. They were, in a sense, rebuilding ancient cities.

The parallels to Aldrete’s current career are obvious, but it took the young student a few more years to recognize her desire to do something else. In the early ’90s, Aldrete was splitting time between dig sites in Honduras and the States and living out of a suitcase—appealing enough at 23, but Aldrete knew it wasn’t sustainable for her long term. Then she read an article about a housing project in India that had failed because the architects didn’t account for cultural context and put the bathroom next to the kitchen—a serious faux pas in India. “I read this article,” Aldrete says, “and it was acknowledging all the things I love about anthropology and archaeology—the people, the community.”

She was sold. She packed up and headed to the University of California, Los Angeles, one of the only schools in the country that offered graduate degrees in both urban planning and Latin American studies—but not before meeting John, an urban planner himself who was the teaching assistant for a course she took at the University of Colorado Denver. (“We didn’t start dating until later!” he says.) They moved back to Colorado after Aldrete finished graduate school in part to be near family when they started their own.

Aldrete’s stint as an archaeologist and her current vocation have strong ties to each other, but there’s another fundamental link that Aldrete finds satisfying. “There’s something about dirt,” she says. “I love dirt. I love when I see streets getting built. I like going out to see where the water line is going in and the building is coming up. So there’s some weird relationship between digging in the dirt for archaeological benefit and seeing things come out of the ground from a city standpoint. There’s some connection to earth for me that transcends whatever career I’m in.”

Four decades ago, Henry Cobb and I.M. Pei’s architecture firm transformed 12 milquetoast blocks of central Denver into a vibrant shopping, transit, and tourist destination. Today more than 55,000 people a day traverse the 16th Street Mall’s decorative granite stones, whose unique design was inspired by the pattern found on two Southwestern emblems: Navajo blankets and diamondback rattlesnakes. Unfortunately, the design did not take into account drainage and Colorado’s brutal freeze-thaw cycle, and the resulting cracked and broken pavers have become tripping hazards for those same 55,000 sets of feet (and that’s to say nothing of how slippery the granite becomes when it snows). Which is why, in 2018, the city determined it would renovate the mall over the next few years. Estimated cost? More than $100 million. The design phase for the 16th Street Mall’s reinvention has already started and will be complete in 2022—in the middle of Aldrete’s tenure.

It’s not every day that one gets to rethink a major city’s defining attraction, so Aldrete is understandably excited. To ensure the best possible outcome for the mall, CPD began with on-the-ground reporting. It took a close, measurable look at how people use the promenade by collecting data to help inform design choices. How many people cross over to be on the sunny side of the street? How many women versus men are on the street after the sun sets? Of course, urban design isn’t just about the science; the real art comes in the interpretation of that data.

CPD executive director Laura Aldrete, seen here walking on West 32nd Avenue, wants to elevate the dialogue about good design in Denver. Photo by Rachel Woolf

That’s where Councilwoman At-Large Robin Kniech anticipates Aldrete will face some of her biggest challenges during her tenure. “I think the department sometimes struggles when there is discretion,” Kniech says. “It’s easiest when there is a formula. Data can give you background on a place, but data cannot tell you what to do. No formula can tell you what we as a city need.” Right now, Denver is still developing its math—both for the 16th Street Mall and for its 78 neighborhoods—but the equation starts with the suite of planning documents adopted by City Council in mid-2019. Collectively dubbed Denveright, the plans include Denver’s Comprehensive Plan, an articulation of a 20-year vision for the city; Blueprint Denver, the city’s overall land use and transportation plan; Game Plan For A Healthy City, the long-range parks and recreation plan; and Denver Moves: Transit Plan and (related) Denver Moves: Pedestrians and Trails, both of which present the city’s goals for improving the way we all get around.

Three years in the making, the collection of plans not only establishes guiding principles for how Denver will grow, but also aims to give CPD the tools and authority it needs to pull them off. “This stuff doesn’t happen accidentally,” says Brad Buchanan, who preceded Aldrete as CPD executive director and oversaw the creation of the Denveright documents. “You have to be very, very intentional about the outcomes you want in a city.” For Denver, those outcomes are made clear in the Comprehensive Plan’s six guiding “vision elements”: 1) create a city that is equitable, affordable, and inclusive; 2) build strong and authentic neighborhoods; 3) connect Denver by safe, high-quality, multimodal transportation options; 4) build a robust, diverse economy; 5) forge a city that is sustainable and resilient to climate change; and 6) ensure Denver’s communities are safe, healthy, and active.

Simply articulating these goals took three years. Actualizing them will take another 20, but Aldrete and her team at CPD are the ones charting the initial course. Among Aldrete’s polestars: climate action and inclusivity. Denver City Council adopted a Green Buildings Ordinance in 2018 that included a requirement for new buildings over a certain size to have cool (solar-reflective) roofs; they also must take eco-conscious measures such as building a green roof, improving energy efficiency, installing solar panels, or paying into the city’s Green Fund. This year, CPD is offering to expedite five developments that volunteer to become green-building pilot projects. “We should be thinking every day, What is the one thing I am doing to address climate change in my practice as a human?” Aldrete says. (For instance, she generally carpools to and from work or rides her bike.) “If we don’t address climate change both as people and as a city, we have more troubles ahead.”

By inclusivity, Aldrete means equity, or the ability for all kinds of people—with varied socioeconomic situations—to be able to live in Denver. And the city does have a formula for that. Using metrics like poverty rates, access to grocery stores and parks, and childhood obesity and life expectancy, Denver’s Neighborhood Equity Index identifies what parts of the city are likely to need more resources and where residents are most likely to experience displacement. Topping that list currently are areas that include Montbello, East Colfax, Villa Park, Sun Valley, and West Colfax—all places that have been given planning priority by CPD. They’re among the first wave of neighborhoods to receive small-area plans—essentially, localized strategic development plans for small groups of similar ’hoods—through what’s called the Neighborhood Planning Initiative. These plans will help establish guidelines for things like building heights, density, transportation, and parks. As such, the process for developing them is often contentious.

So are citywide measures like allowing more accessory dwelling units, adjusting zoning to allow for higher-density housing, changing the number of unrelated individuals legally allowed to live at a property from two people to eight, and offering property tax relief to homeowners and small businesses, the latter of which are saddled with a 29 percent property tax. Currently, CPD and the city are having conversations about all of these paths toward keeping Denver equitable.

Together with the small-area plans, such potential adjustments reflect the city’s attempt to address another tricky issue: gentrification. “I remember growing up in Wheat Ridge; my grandmother lived in north Denver. We would come in and cruise Colfax and Sloan’s Lake, and it was sketchy and it was scary and there were gangs, which was part of the stupid appeal. But it was not a great neighborhood,” Aldrete says. “So is it good that we have awesome restaurants I want to walk down to and get a cup of coffee? Yes, that’s great. Are there unintended consequences? Yes. Are they great? No. But to think that we should do nothing is to say that there should be no growth. That there should be no change.” And that, Aldrete notes, is a dangerous proposition, because cities that don’t grow court death.

If you were one of the lucky people who got tickets to the Denver Art Museum’s sold-out Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature exhibition this past winter, an early audio tour stop would have landed you in front of “The Boulevard des Capucines.” Painted by the impressionist in the early 1870s, the bustling Paris scene shows pedestrians filtering onto a treelined street on a snowy day. No one thing about the painting is discrete; the blurred brushstrokes work together to portray the energy and motion of the city—a city that itself was in an era of great change and upheaval.

“It’s a huge, long moment in the history of the city of Paris,” historian Joan DeJean narrates. “You couldn’t live in any part of Paris and be far from major destruction, reconstruction, complete transformation of the city around you. …There’s a sense on the one hand that there are exciting new possibilities, that the city is creative, it’s renewing itself, it’s modern. But you’re losing something. You’re losing some of the beauties that made Paris Paris, in their eyes, and will Paris be the same? Paris is changing; what’s the future going to be? Some sense of excitement, but a sense of loss.”

Sound familiar? It certainly does to Aldrete, who recognizes Denver’s growth challenges as those to be expected of a relatively young city. She points to places she loves, like Mexico City or Rome, where thousands of years of urban living are layered on top of one another; in Rome, for example, ancient ruins might be situated next to an apartment with laundry drying out the window. “Cities are messy,” Aldrete says. “We as a city are lifelong learners, continually evolving, responding to the economy, how the digital age is changing us, not losing sight of our culture and our history, but also adding in and remixing. So there is never a stasis or complete resolution because we always have to evolve. Denver has been around for 150 years, and we are fit to be tied.”

Evolving doesn’t mean forgetting where we came from, she says. Recognizing the history and culture of a neighborhood is part of what makes it feel authentic. Aldrete is mindful of the full spectrum of that history and culture in north Denver. She cites the contributions of Italian, Irish, and Latino populations while noting that the perspectives of new arrivals are valid, too. She believes that a little conscientiousness can go a long way toward integrating the present without condemning the past. Says Aldrete: “Be thoughtful about how you think and phrase things.”

Design, both on a city scale—think transit, parks, and density—and at the neighborhood level, also can play a major role in integrating what was with what is, and elevating that conversation about what makes good design is a focus for Aldrete. “A bigger house doesn’t make good design. Or brick on the front,” she says. “I think about the spaces between buildings: the edge of that facade, the height of it, the setback, how it engages with the human walking by.” This might be the language of urban planning, but it’s one we’re all unconsciously fluent in as pedestrians. It’s why it feels more comfortable to stroll along, say, West 46th Avenue near Lowell Boulevard, with its canopy of 100-year-old trees and detached sidewalks buffering walkers from the road, than along some other nearby streets that are wider with fewer trees and smaller setbacks and where there’s not as much room between pedestrians and passing cars.

It’s also why slot homes feel so unwelcoming: Turned sideways on their lots, slot homes usually don’t have doors, porches, or many windows facing the street. It’s like looking at the cold shoulder of a house instead of its cheerful face. In commercial districts like the one along Tennyson Street, near where Aldrete lives, these multistory structures become dead spots on what is otherwise an active street. The city banned slot homes in 2018, and Aldrete’s interested in having additional conversations about how to regulate design—perhaps by using standards and guidelines or even review boards. Denver already has precedents for both. If you want to build something downtown, in LoDo, or in Cherry Creek North, for example, it has to be approved by the area’s review board or commission. Meanwhile, structures going up in Five Points, Capitol Hill, the Golden Triangle, and more than 20 other areas must abide by a set of established design guidelines that are distinct to each area. But most parts of the city don’t have these kinds of design requirements. Aldrete would like to at least consider similar measures throughout Denver in order to protect that sacred part of city building—where architecture brings beauty into the street. Along with ensuring inclusivity, it’s central to how she’ll judge her own success as director of CPD. “I’ll ask myself: Have we built a city for people at all socioeconomic stages?” she says. “If we don’t build a city for everybody, we’ll have minimized the opportunity for all people to meet each other in the street. I think it is human interaction across the board that gives a sense of meaning and value to people’s experience in a city.”

That experience in Denver—where people from different backgrounds can meet in the street—is already under threat. In recent years, the diversity of many of Denver’s central neighborhoods has dropped. For example, in 2010, about a third of Baker was Hispanic and Latino; by 2015, that was down to 21 percent. Similarly, the percentage of Whittier residents who were black dropped from 29 percent to 24 percent between 2010 and 2015. Socioeconomics are changing, too: In 2010, the median household income in Denver County was $45,415. By 2018, it was $68,069. A recent study carried out by the West Denver Renaissance Collaborative, an organization that works to address involuntary displacement, found that between 2015 and 2018, roughly 3,900 families had been displaced from their homes, often as a result of rising rents.

Aldrete with her son Aristedes and her husband in the dining room of their north Denver home. Photo by Rachel Woolf

Aldrete understands this all at a personal level. She’s seen her own neighborhood morph into one that is whiter, wealthier, and generally more homogenous in the 20-plus years she’s lived there. She’s watched her children observe the change and register it with a sense of loss. As a parent, that’s difficult. As a professional, it’s part of what drives her to want to be a part of finding solutions. “I don’t think you could say she’s too close to it,” says Susan Powers, a longtime acquaintance of Aldrete who now runs Urban Ventures, a development firm focused on building sustainable, diverse, and healthy communities. “Being close to it and seeing it and knowing the history of the neighborhoods is a huge advantage to the city. I think she cares deeply and wants to be a leader in making sure that this is a city for everyone.”

Hancock likes to remind Aldrete that she applied to be Denver’s executive director of Community Planning and Development once before; he made a quip about it at her swearing-in ceremony. Eight years ago, Aldrete was a senior planning supervisor for Parsons Brinckerhoff, a global design firm with an office in Denver. She’d already worked as the assistant director for the Denver Urban Renewal Authority and before that had been the city’s lead in the development of Stapleton, so she understood the challenges the city faced and the demands of the private sector. But, she says, it was clear to her in that first interview she wasn’t ready. She didn’t yet have the leadership skills. “I think there’s a lot more compassion and listening and learning that I have incorporated into leadership than I would have eight years ago,” she says. “I feel fortunate to have gained that insight.”

Some of the insight comes at the encouragement of a community of women—and some men—who helped her grow personally and professionally: Powers, former City Councilwomen Rosemary Rodriguez and Happy Haynes, and veteran lobbyist Maria Garcia Berry, to name a few. “Those women raised me and sometimes mothered me and sometimes told me to suck it up and sometimes let me fail so I could learn the lesson, but they always held me up and recognized the promise they saw in me,” she says. “I couldn’t have asked for anything more supportive, and it’s part of why I feel so committed to this city. This city has wrapped itself around me.”

The timing also worked out for Aldrete, who will likely only serve as director for three more years—until the next mayor appoints someone new. Her kids are older now, she notes, giving both her and John a little more freedom. Alex graduated from Wheat Ridge High School last year and has spent the past year traveling in a kind of gap-year exploration similar to his mother’s, and Aristedes is in his junior year at Wheat Ridge, busy with friends and rugby and normal teenage things. Even Chaco, the family’s Spanish water dog, is moving out of his puppy years. “It felt like a good time for me personally to try to step up and try to help the city,” Aldrete says.

We’re back in front of her house on a West Highland street that provides peeks at the snowcapped southern Front Range. Aldrete used to have a similar view from her front porch. A low-slung commercial building once sat across the street, allowing Aldrete and her family to see all the way to Pikes Peak. Eventually, the building was replaced by a few large, modern two-story homes, all constructed from similar blueprints, all eclipsing the mountainous view. In some circles, the grand sameness of these new abodes would draw criticism—derision even. Aldrete is more sanguine. “We can be critical, and yet, in 1926 we ordered houses from a Sears catalog,” she says. She points to a row of small homes farther down the road. They are easily the most modest homes in an area dotted with stately bungalows and new builds. “Who looked at those and said, These are great?” She pauses to squint into the sunshine at a dog pulling someone down the sidewalk. It’s Chaco and at the other end of the leash, John and Alex. Aldrete smiles at her family. “And that’s OK,” she says, looking back down the street. “That’s affordable housing.”

 

Editor’s note: This article appeared in the April issue of 5280, which went to press before COVID-19 became the biggest story in recent memory. As such, some events and dates listed may now be out of date. For more on how 5280 is shifting coverage during this time, read Editorial Director Geoff Van Dyke’s editor’s note.

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