Author: Roger Bardsley, AICP
I recently visited the city of Denver, CO and came away with a number of favorable impressions. I worked in the Denver metro area from 1980-1984 and Denver today is not the city I remember. First, a little background: The Denver metro area (as defined by the Denver Regional Council of Governments) is made up of nine counties and 47 municipalities with a population of over three million. The region uses a fairly consistent grid street pattern and addressing system that covers most of the area. No need to get lost if you can read a map. Second, most of the sewage is treated by the Metro Denver sewage treatment district, with the great majority handled at one plant in Commerce City (don’t ask about water). Storm sewer is likewise handled on a regional basis. The metro area is under one MPO and one Regional Council. Even better, transit is consolidated under a single district known as RTD. OK, so that gives the Denver region an advantage over most other fragmented and disorganized metropolitan areas, but still, what they have accomplished is remarkable. Here are the highlights:
Light Rail: When I worked there light rail was being discussed – lots of talk and lines on the map, but nothing concrete. In roughly the same time that Charlotte built one light rail line, Denver built nine, covering 85 miles, with a connection to the airport and all of the professional sports venues. That is an exaggeration since the line to the airport just opened last year, but it is still an impressive track record. Their downtown transit center is staggering, unbelievable or any other adjective you want to use. It is anchored by the late 19th Century Union Station, built of sandstone and over half a city block long. The station includes a 112-room hotel, plus bars and restaurants in the main hall. Outside is a play fountain for kids to run through during the summer.
Behind the station, underground, is the regional bus terminal. Just behind that, at street level, is the light rail terminal. Leading away from the front of Union Station is the 16th Street shuttle bus line that runs over one mile through the heart of downtown. 16th Street is a semi-mall (horses, bikes, and the shuttle bus are OK but private cars are prohibited). The mall has been in place since the early 80s and seems to work very well.
Some of us may remember the “mall” phase of downtown revitalization. Retail had left most downtowns in the U.S., headed for shopping centers and regional malls, and one fix was to eliminate auto traffic and turn main street into a pedestrian plaza. The thought was that people would enjoy walking down main street and the stores would return. As with most fads it is now thought of as a failure. Many communities tried this idea and many tore out the plazas in a few years when retail did not return. The failure of the downtown mall concept was not universal. Denver’s 16th street mall has ended up being a huge success. Likewise, the malls in Boulder, CO, Kalamazoo, MI and elsewhere are thriving. With the current back-to-the city movement in full swing, malls in other communities could probably work, but the failures of the 1980s have made many people gun shy.
Before we leave the topic of light rail I would like to comment on TOD, or Transportation Oriented Development. The area around Union Station is an absolute sea of cranes, helping to build apartments and condos. Union Station is located on the western edge of Lower Downtown (LoDo), formerly a warehouse district. While loft conversions fueled much of the housing boom of the last 10 years, new construction has taken off, making this area the hottest market in the metro area.
Greenways: Back in the early 70s, when the South Platte River through Denver was an industrial wasteland, several people envisioned a multi-use paved trail that would follow the river and bring recreation into the heart of the city. At the same time the river would be cleaned up and become a focal point for the city. The name Joe Shoemaker, a Republican, will ever be associated with the tremendous success of the Platte River Greenway. Other greenways followed, generally along tributaries of the Platte. The system is so vast now that I could not get an accurate figure on mileage. There are probably 200 miles of paved off-road paths (greenways) within open space areas. There are also many miles of paved trail and on-road bike lanes. The Chamber claims that the whole system is 850 miles in length. Unlike, for instance, Copenhagen, the trails seem to be primarily recreation-oriented, although my morning ride on the Cherry Creek Trail revealed many commuters who were in a hurry to get to work. The Cherry Creek Trail runs from Confluence Park northeast to Cherry Creek Reservoir, a distance of 20 miles. The downtown portion of the creek was channelized and lined with concrete walls at least 70 years ago. Within these constraints Denver has restored the creek to the extent possible, and it provides a pleasant experience that contrasts with nearby 6-lane Speer Boulevard.
I want to give a nod to REI, the Seattle-based outdoor store that has branches in many locations in North Carolina. Back in the late 80s they were looking for a new location for their Denver store. They chose the old power generating station on the Platte, overlooking Confluence Park where Cherry Creek comes into the Platte. In retrospect it seems like an obvious choice. You can test kayaks in the river and take bikes for a spin on the greenway, but then it was a leap of faith. There is no interstate access, the building required lots of renovation, and the downtown housing boom had not started. Today it is the second most iconic structure in downtown (after Union Station) and their customers walk, jog and bike to get there.
Why Denver: I recently looked at a map of the U.S. and realized that Denver is over 500 miles from any other metropolitan area. The closest cities are Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, Omaha and Kansas City – none of them in Colorado. Denver does not look over its shoulder at Charlotte, like some NC cities do. There is no one to look at, so Denver has had to invent its own future, and it has done a very good job. Being free of envy may be a liberating experience. I know that here in Greensboro we always wonder how we stack up against Greenville, SC or Winston-Salem, or Durham or Chattanooga and measure our success against other cities. We periodically send delegations to these places to see what they are doing well and perhaps try to copy it. That would be a pointless exercise in Denver.
Footnotes: The majority of the streets in downtown Denver are one-way. We know that the one-way movement started early, maybe in the 1940s and was in full swing by the 1960s. If you want to move cars, one-ways pairs work pretty well. You eliminate cross traffic left-turn movements and can dedicate 2-4 lanes to getting everybody going in the same direction. Unfortunately, as we now realize, rapid one-way vehicle movement has negative impacts on adjoining businesses and can affect pedestrian safety. So, in a progressive city like Denver, why are most of the streets one-way? One reason, I think, is that the block lengths are short so going around the block to get back to your destination is not that inconvenient. The other, which I just realized, is that the investment in signage and signals to support the one-way system is significant. You need to spend lots of money to undo and reinvent the system, so it doesn’t get done without a lot of pain. With no constituency pushing for two-way streets it is just too much trouble.