The Big Squeeze

Denver needs to make room for 100,000 more people. So where will they go?

Sorting through a stack of planning documents and books on a shelf in her office, Denver city planner Ellen Ittelson pulls out a faded booklet with yellowed pages. It's a Denver planning-department primer from the 1940s, and the main topic is how to remake the city's streets to accommodate cars. "The entire theory of planning for street traffic has changed since the advent of the automobile," it reads. "We can remedy these faults by making streets sufficiently wide to carry traffic."

Since the end of World War II, Denver has guided its development based on the notion that everyone would drive everywhere. Now that traffic congestion has become the number-one complaint of city residents, however, Ittelson believes Denver must turn away from this model. "It took us a long time to get into the mess we're in, and it will take a long time get out of it," she says.

A good starting point is the intersection of University Boulevard and Interstate 25 where, seven years from now, a major light-rail station serving thousands of commuters will open as part of the planned light-rail line down I-25. Ittelson hopes to see new high-rise apartment buildings with stores on the ground floor grow up around the station. She wants these apartment buildings to form the center of an urban neighborhood where people will be able to go to the grocery store, head for the movies and travel to the office without ever getting into a car. "Right now in our society we don't have the choice not to use a car," she says. "We want to give people the opportunity to have a choice for each trip they make."

But dense development near light-rail stations may be just the beginning. After decades of losing population to the suburbs, Denver is growing again, and the city is increasingly shouldering intense development pressure. In fact, the Denver Regional Council of Governments predicts that Denver will add more than 100,000 residents in the next twenty years -- and many in city government believe the number could be twice that.

Adding to the pressure is the possibility that Coloradans, angered by sprawl, will approve Amendment 24, the "responsible growth" amendment on November 7. Under that proposal, voters in cities and counties throughout the state would have to approve local comprehensive plans designating where new development could take place. The expectation is that suburban voters would frown on bulldozing open space at the edge of their communities, meaning more development would be funneled into areas that are already urbanized.

Now officials who spent years trying to find ways to keep the middle class in the city are faced with a startling new problem: how to accommodate thousands of new residents without destroying existing neighborhoods.

To answer that question, Denver has quietly begun work on an overhaul of its land-use and transportation plan that will eventually lead to a rezoning of much of the city. If Ittelson, who is coordinating the effort, and others have their way, the plan will encourage dense new residential construction along busy transit routes such as Colfax and Broadway, as well as around the light-rail stations like the planned one at University and I-25. If they're packed in in this way, Ittelson is betting, a large number of these new residents can be convinced to use bus and rail lines to get around instead of cars.

But Ellen Ittelson's grand vision is Gerard Zschoche's nightmare.

Zschoche, who is the president of the Washington Park East Neighborhood Association, believes that bringing hundreds of new people to the area around University and I-25 would be a disaster. "We're so choked with pollution and traffic already, and they want to bring more people in," he says. "That's the last thing we need."

He predicts that most of those new residents will choose to drive anyway, even though they may live across the street from the rail line. Once the word gets out, he says, Washington Park residents will resist the idea.

But they may not have much of a choice. Denver has already hired the firm of Fregonese and Calthorpe to write the new land-use and transportation plan. Both those names have celebrity status in the planning world, and both men are forceful advocates of pedestrian-oriented construction around bus and rail lines. John Fregonese is the former director of Portland, Oregon's regional planning agency, which supervises that city's famous urban-growth boundary. Peter Calthorpe is the California architect who is one of the fathers of "new urbanism."

Beginning in January, the city will hold a series of public meetings around town so residents can discuss how they want Denver to change. Although city officials will listen to what they say, Fregonese and Calthorpe will ultimately write the plan and submit it to the Denver City Council in the spring of 2002.

Denver City Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt, who co-chairs the council's land-use committee, hopes that city residents will be willing to accept a development model that's radically different from what's in place today. But she fears they may adopt a "not in my backyard" mentality and refuse to help reform the city's zoning. "When you try and make a huge change, it's very difficult," she says. "We're in an environment where people are so freaked out by change and growth, they just say no. They're trying to hold on to what they have."

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