The Congress for the New Urbanism is holding its annual conference in Denver June 10-14, complete with bus tours of our most well-known new-urbanist enclaves. But how do you judge walkable, neighborhood-based developments? Is it by the diversity (or lack thereof) of their residents, the number of parks nearby, their stumbling distance to a local watering hole? Over the next few days, we'll explore and judge -- oh yes, judge -- six of these developments and find out which is the most urban of the new urban.
In some ways, it's not fair to compare Highlands' Garden Village with other new-urbanist developments. Conceived in 1998 and built on the site of the former Elitch Gardens amusement park, it benefits from being in the middle of an already established, vibrant neighborhood with an existing street grid, businesses, multi-cultural population and old-urbanist pedigree. Comprising only 27 acres, it is also smaller than other new-urbanist developments, measuring three blocks long by two blocks deep.
The homes here include front porches, balconies or decks, while the Village itself was built with alleys, garages behind the houses, sidewalks, small parks, a community garden and beautiful trees and flowers planted by the Denver Botanic Gardens. But there also are few backyards to speak of, oddly curved streets, ugly communal mailboxes and a complete lack of privacy that could make for either really good or really bad neighbors.
The mailboxes were especially annoying to a new-urbanist architect from Florida who was in town for the conference and exploring the Village (with camera, notepad and tape measure in hand) while I was there. He said the developers should have put the boxes inside small buildings or beneath gazebos where people could interact with one another, rather than hurrying to get out of elements during rain or snow.
But he did like the setting inside an existing neighborhood and appreciated that fact that he was able to take the bus (what new urbanist wouldn't?) from his hotel to the Village.
Stumble-ability: Can people stumble home from a nearby bar or restaurant?
Highlands' Garden Village doesn't include any bars or restaurants of its own, but the neighborhood is certainly stumbling distance from a huge variety of eateries and watering holes, from Highland Square to the Tennyson district, to 38th Avenue.
Multi-modal: Can people ride their bikes/skateboards/unicycles/go-peds without getting smashed by an SUV?
Your chances of getting smashed by an SUV here are about the same as any other northwest Denver block, although the Florida architect I ran into pointed out that Utica Street, for example, expands from thirty-feet wide outside the Village to 32-feet wide inside, which he says is stupid because it will make motorists drive faster.
Economic diversity: Can poor people live near rich people?
Indeed. There are a huge range of apartments, townhomes and single-family homes here at a variety of economic price points. And the buildings are so on top of one another here that it's hard to tell where one ends and another begins.
Real diversity: Is there mix of people, or is it just a gated community with smaller lots?
There is definitely an ethnic and cultural mix that seems to mirror the surrounding neighborhood. Interestingly, the Village also includes something called Hearthstone Community Housing, a cluster of 33 townhomes that share and face a small park and 4,800-square-foot Common House that features a communal kitchen, a lounge, fireplace, laundry room, craft room, TV, fitness equipment, guest room and bath. The point, according to its website, is to foster trust, sharing and casual interaction between families and to create a multi-generational sense of belonging.
Green space: Are there open, public spaces where people are recreating? (parks, public gardens, creeks, greenways)
The Village is small, so there aren't any large parks or long bike paths, but there are ample green spaces, small grassy areas, pathways, a community garden, a playground and a beautiful, reading-friendly spot called the Mary Elitch Memorial Park.
Transit test: Does it have mass transit attached or nearby that people actually use?
The Village is close to many RTD bus routes.
Mixed-useless: Is there a mix of shops and business integrated with housing? How many are chains?
Shops and offices front most of three-block stretch along 38th Avenue and include a 24-Hour Fitness, a bank, a liquor store, a Starbucks (of course) and a Sunflower Market.
Civics search: Are there public buildings, community institutions or civic centers that serve a non-commercial, public need?
There are two historic structures left over from Elitch Gardens: the 1926 Carousel Pavilion, site of a farmers market and various community events, and the 1891 Elitch Gardens Theatre, currently an empty eyesore surrounded by weeds. Although the theater was supposed to be hosting a variety of events by now, renovation was halted for a lack of funding. There are occasional events in the park in front of the theater.
Priced out: What seems to be the average price of a home? An apartment?
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A 1,546 square-foot, three bed, three bath single-family home on West 37th Avenue recently sold for $342,500. A 1,560-square-foot, three-bed, 2.5 bath townhome with a Jacuzzi tub in Hearthstone is going for $319,000. A two-bed, two-bath apartment in the Trocadero apartments is running $1,150 a month.
Urbanish: Does it feel like a dynamic urban place? Or is it just lipstick on a suburban pig?
There is still a sheen to the Village, which appears to be well-kept by its residents and homeowner's association, and its proximity to the very urban neighborhood all around it carries on somewhat inside. Still, the pastel-colored homes and out-of-place architecture give it strange vibe, which is most evident on West 37th, where a row of these two-story Smarties face off with the old-school Highland neighborhood across the street.