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Planning for the Future: Denver and Beyond

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by Worldchanging Denver local blogger, Nathan Acks:

In 1986 Denver adopted a development plan - the Downtown Denver Area Plan - intended to guide its growth over the following decades. From a perspective twenty years after the fact the historic plan (available here as a hefty 90MB PDF) seems somewhat misguided at times, particularly in its emphasis on increasing vehicle access to the downtown area by widening existing roads and building new ones. In other ways the plan seems farsighted for the time. Recognizing that there was no hope that Denver's roads could accommodate the anticipated increase in traffic, the '86 plan also proposed significant increases in public transit. Whatever your feelings about these choices, it's hard to deny that the document had a significant impact on Denver's growth in subsequent years; comparing the figure titled "A Vision: Downtown of the Future" (page 14) with a current map of the metropolis shows far more similarities than differences.

Now city planners have gathered to once again write the future of the downtown area. The new Downtown Denver Area Plan (which is different than, but complementary to, the Greenprint Denver initiative) still focuses on zoning, transit, and building regulations, but now includes an element completely lacking from the plan adopted twenty years ago - a deeper consideration of the impact of development on the environment. As The Denver Post reports, the new plan includes some significant departures intended to address these concerns.

[Denver architect David] Tryba suggested narrowing major thoroughfares such as Broadway; putting more emphasis on quality design; re-evaluating the Planned Urban Developments in the Central Platte Valley; and increasing the budget for an integrated public-works, planning and urban-design office.

Tryba and others also suggested putting more emphasis on environmental aspects of the plan.

"Green needs to be more than green space and color," said David Wise of the Commons Design Review Board Inc. "Transit also needs to be green with no diesel added."

Wise said it is critical to create a strong transit district in the area surrounded by the Consolidated Main Line railroad and 16th, 18th and Wynkoop streets.

Worldchanging readers will be particularly interested in Chapter 3 of the proposal, which outlines plans with respect to mass transit, pedestrians, bicycles, and regional "green" leadership.

These changes - particularly the drive to de-emphasize cars as a mode of transportation Downtown - are intended to craft a city core that is at once both denser and more livable. Until recently these two requirements would have been seen to be mutually exclusive, but the rise of mix-used development and the growth of light rail service seems to have changed planners' thinking. The recently approved FasTracks program to expand rail service outside in the Denver Metro area is encouraging surrounding communities to reevaluate their growth patterns as well, often along similar lines as Denver itself. There is more resistance, but also more opportunities, in these areas. As The Denver Post reports in Golden, a city west of Denver,

When a new mixed-use development was proposed at the end of the light-rail line that will connect Golden with downtown Denver, outspoken critics focused on one element - the development's density.

p>"Golden historically hasn't had any developments denser than 20 or 22 units to the acre, but that's suburban-type density," said Michael O'Hara, the architect in charge of the project. "The planning commission agreed that, to limit sprawl and infrastructure costs, it would approve 54 units to the acre.

"Everyone understood it was better to have a dense project," said O'Hara, managing principal at KTGY Group's Denver office. "It was a more effective use of the land."

As metro Denver's FasTracks transit project prepares to bring rail service to metro cities over the next nine years, discussions like Golden's are becoming more common.


Faced with the prospect of developing the land around new rail stations into so-called transit-oriented developments (or TODs), metro cities are working to understand the concept and sell it to their residents.

"Voters mandated FasTracks and its significant investment in infrastructure, and density goes along with it," O'Hara said. "Cities have to provide access to that investment to the greatest number of people."

Arvada, which is closer to Denver than Golden but located northwest of the city, is having similar discussions within its community.
People like [Arvada Mayor Ken] Fellman are prepared for the challenge. He and members of Arvada's City Council are committed to changing the zoning around transit stops to allow taller buildings.

"Once we take public input, I'm not sure how it will play," he admitted.

Fellman anticipates resistance from people who worry that height will block their views, congest their streets or generally change the face of their community.

Yet by its very nature, the train stations planned for Arvada Ridge and Olde Town will change the neighborhoods, Fellman said.

To maximize it, the city will have to create the critical mass necessary to support rail service.

Based on current thinking, the best way to do that is with a dense, mixed-use development that provides housing, retail, offices and other services that attract commuters.

"We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to plan correctly, or we can screw it up big time," Fellman said. "People will either look back and say, 'They were really smart,' or "Oh, my goodness. What were they thinking?"'

More significant opposition has been mounted by communities north of Denver like Thornton, where residents have begun a petition to stop construction of a FasTracks station located near a local middle school (1, 2, 3). These issues are complicated by FasTracks' recent financial troubles (1, 2, 3), as well as a proposal to use diesel, rather than electric, trains on all of the lines to help offset the project's cost. Despite these issues, the efforts of Denver and the surrounding communities to create a denser, more livable metroplex - and in doing so slow down or possibly even halt the city's sprawling advance into the plains - seems to be off to a good start.

(Graphic: The view envisioned down Colfax avenue, from the Downtown Denver Area Plan website.)

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