San Francisco Looks Towards Denver for the Future

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If you were to create a list of cities experimenting with the ideals of New Urbanism, you probably wouldn't put Denver near the top. And yet from the perspective of at least some in the San Francisco Bay area, the queen city of the plains may deserve a higher ranking than we might at first give it. The San Francisco Chronicle recently examined two new high-density developments in the Denver area, Lakewood's Belmar development and the new Stapleton district. Of the two, Stapleton is perhaps the more interesting.

From 1929 until 1995, this site six miles east of downtown Denver [the Stapleton district] was the regional airport. But after voters in 1989 agreed to build a larger airport on the city's outskirts, civic organizations began debating how to weave the freed land back into the established neighborhoods nearby.

The result: a 150-page plan released in 1995 that proclaimed its goal was "to promote diverse and successful communities rather than isolated, single-use developments" as well as "retail services and employment opportunities within walking distance of home."

These ideals draw on New Urbanism, a planning theory that presents itself as an alternative to typical suburbia's pod-like spread of housing tracts, shopping centers and office parks. Mix things together, New Urbanists argue, and you can reduce sprawl and automobile use while nurturing a sense of community.

Forest City not only agreed to the goals, it hired Berkeley planner Calthorpe --- a founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism --- to convert the 1995 vision into a development plan.

With real life, though, come compromises.


At Founders' Green --- the first "town center" that actually exists, though four are planned --- the grassy core billed as a community gathering place is isolated by a pair of one-way roads that create three-lane flows of traffic on either side. There are no stop signs to slow the stream of cars.

The one-way roads were Calthorpe's idea; traffic engineers had wanted a single six-lane thruway. But the planner lost the fight for stop signs.

"It's pulling teeth to do anything that isn't the standard suburban situation," Calthorpe said. "You don't win all the battles."

For now, despite the in-town address, Stapleton feels more like a suburb than a piece of central Denver. But it's an open-minded suburbia, one that isn't segregated by home price, and where (relatively) tall buildings and modern looks fit in. There's also a genuinely sophisticated network of parks and open spaces that preserve a sense of nature.

Denver and the surrounding suburbs have worked hard over the past few years to put themselves on the map when it comes to sustainable development and smart growth. And while the area still has far to go, the efforts at Belmar and the Stapleton may represent the beginning of an effort to redirect the region's growth inward, rather than outward into the surrounding sprawl. Whether this strategy will ultimately prove successful remains an open question, but it still feels good to see other cities acknowledge our efforts.

(Photograph: The edge of a high density mixed-use development near Denver, taken from the author's personal collection.)