Colorado History

Hungry for a Makeover, Wheat Ridge Tries a Road Diet

Hungry for a Makeover, Wheat Ridge Tries a Road Diet
Andrew Nilsen
Britta Fisher was grabbing a cup of joe in a Wheat Ridge coffee shop, she says, when a man she didn’t know started “getting in my grill and yelling at me.” He was upset about the traffic. Not just any traffic, but the traffic on West 38th Avenue — which, depending on your point of view, is either Wheat Ridge’s grand promenade or its Autobahn.

More than most Front Range drivers, perhaps, Fisher thinks a lot about traffic. As executive director of Localworks, a nonprofit created to promote economic development and neighborhood revitalization in Wheat Ridge, she’s been deeply involved in efforts to make West 38th more appealing to pedestrians, shoppers, diners and the wider community, largely by calming traffic.

Five years ago, as part of a pilot program, city officials decided to institute a “road diet” on the 38th Avenue corridor between Sheridan and Wadsworth boulevards, where cars and trucks typically zipped along at close to 45 miles per hour. Instead of two lanes of traffic flowing in each direction, the street now has one lane each way, along with a center lane for turns and a bike lane on the south side between Wadsworth and Pierce.

The realignment has lowered average auto speeds along that stretch, bringing them down to the posted limit of 35 miles per hour and drawing positive reviews from bicyclists, parents whose children attend an elementary school situated just off 38th, and some businesses. In other quarters, the road diet has been a source of much confusion, anguish and anger. None of the complaints, though, have been quite as emphatic as the one lodged by the disgruntled fellow in the coffee shop, just a few months after the project began. The man quickly let Fisher know that the road diet had messed up his commute and his life.

“I used to be able to go sixty miles an hour down 38th Avenue,” he said.

Fisher stared at Sir Speedy in disbelief. “Sir, I really don’t want you to go sixty miles an hour down 38th,” she said. “I walk on this street. My kids walk on this street. My neighbors walk on this street.”

Sir Speedy stomped off. Recalling the encounter, Fisher shakes her head. “He really said sixty,” she insists. “I have witnesses.”

There are people in Wheat Ridge who believe that the road diet is an essential part of creating a “Main Street” feel in what has long been a bedroom community. “We want a place for people to go to, not just through,” Fisher says. “You can have someone who commutes every day and never stops. That doesn’t help generate any money to repave the road, fill potholes or support community services.”

click to enlarge Britta Fisher, executive director of Localworks, says slowing down traffic on West 38th Avenue is part of the effort to reclaim a “community gathering spot” in Wheat Ridge. - ANTHONY CAMERA
Britta Fisher, executive director of Localworks, says slowing down traffic on West 38th Avenue is part of the effort to reclaim a “community gathering spot” in Wheat Ridge.
Anthony Camera
There are also people in Wheat Ridge who despise the experiment — and not just because they want to hit sixty getting from the western suburbs to downtown. Some business owners who’ve operated in the corridor for decades say the project has increased congestion, driven customers away, and actually made the road less safe. (The city’s own studies dispute those claims.) Others say that Wheat Ridge is trying to mimic the hip urbanism of Denver’s Highland neighborhood or Tennyson Street, without much success. The disagreements between those who support the current three-lane configuration and those who favor a return to four has spilled over into city council meetings and public hearings, divided former political allies, and even made for some tense family get-togethers.

“The council is so dug in on this thing, they won’t listen to anything,” says Mike Stites, a former city council member who runs a family tire store on West 38th — and a former mayoral candidate whose father was elected Wheat Ridge’s mayor five times. “I keep telling them, ‘If you want to do anything in Wheat Ridge from here on in, put 38th back the way it was.’ Then you’d settle down half the people. But until they do that, they’re going to have a battle on everything they do. They’ve managed to split this city right down the center.”

The impasse between three-laners and four-laners has kept the project from moving ahead or being scrapped altogether. Three years ago the three-laners sought a sales-tax increase to pay for streetscaping, new curbs and other improvements that would take the modest restriping job to the next level; the initiative failed. Last month a proposal by one councilmember to put the question of returning to four lanes on the November ballot failed by a four-three vote; one of the supporters of four lanes was absent from the meeting.

Tim Fitzgerald, one of the councilmembers who voted against the proposal, let his colleagues know that he was tired of debating the width of the street. “In the last four years, this has been an all-consuming issue,” he observed. “We’ve had consultants. We’ve had plans. We’ve had meetings. We have a lot of things to do, and we can’t waste time on this….We can’t move forward if we’re consumed with this divisive wedge issue.”

Backers of the road diet say the issue isn’t really about how many lanes the street should have, or about the rights of bikes and pedestrians to public thoroughfares, but something much more complicated: what sort of community the residents of Wheat Ridge want to live in. The place has always been an outlier among Denver’s western burbs, the get-off-my-lawn grandpa of the bunch, more eccentric and less fixated on keeping up with the Joneses than, say, Arvada or Lakewood. But as the pressures of double-digit growth and gridlock fuel anxiety about the quality of life up and down the Front Range, even Wheat Ridge has found it isn’t immune.

Wheat Ridge resident Rachel Hultin, who works for the advocacy group Bicycle Colorado and has been a supporter of the road diet, sees her town as a place in transition, one that’s moving away from its “isolationist culture.”

“The bikes are a convenient target,” she says, “but this isn’t about the bikes. It isn’t about three lanes versus four. It’s about investing in your community. But you don’t mess with the roads in Wheat Ridge without kicking a hornet’s nest.”

click to enlarge Former city councilman Mike Stites, who runs a family tire store on West 38th, says the road diet has “split this city right down the center." - ANTHONY CAMERA
Former city councilman Mike Stites, who runs a family tire store on West 38th, says the road diet has “split this city right down the center."
Anthony Camera
The fundamental identity crisis in Wheat Ridge — whether it’s a place to come to, or one to go through — dates back to its origins 150 years ago, when it was a stopover for folks on the way to somewhere else. Miners heading west to cash in on the Colorado gold rush found the area a convenient respite, ideally situated on the main travel route from Denver to Golden, Black Hawk and Central City.

Some took a stab at finding gold in the immediate vicinity. When those hopes failed, the land became available to homesteaders keen on raising wheat, fruit and vegetables. Many of the farming operations lasted well into the twentieth century. After World War II, the place began to fill in with residential development, while major arteries like West 38th became lined with gas stations, car dealerships and auto courts. Wheat Ridge wasn’t formally incorporated as a city until 1969, but even then it retained some of its rural feel, with more than a few narrow, twisting streets, horse barns and pastures butting up against the new subdivisions.

Wheat Ridge’s population has remained just about the same, hovering around 30,000, since its incorporation as a home-rule city nearly five decades ago. Some of that can be attributed to a lack of annexation opportunities as an inner-ring suburb, but wariness about growth and upheaval seems to be a longstanding tradition among local residents. “Back when my dad was mayor, there was a no-growth bunch,” recalls Mike Stites. “They didn’t want sidewalks. They didn’t want asphalt. They wanted natural drainage. We ended up with a lot of parks, just so they could stop development.”

Battles over the width of the streets — particularly 38th Avenue, the town’s main drag — have been an integral part of the argument, dating back to the postwar boom of the 1950s. In 1994 a Westword article about a one-mile stretch of 38th west of Wadsworth noted that the question of whether it should be expanded to three or four lanes had been a source of bitter disagreement among Wheat Ridge officials for more than a decade.  The nasty infighting eventually led to changes in the city charter, which grants city council the authority to determine the widths of all streets in Wheat Ridge — yet also designates a process for putting the question to a public vote if enough property owners on the affected street take issue with the council’s decision.

At the time that article was published, the tussle was largely between those who believed that more expansive roads were a key to efficiency and progress and those seeking to preserve some scrap of Wheat Ridge’s former bucolic glory. But a few years later, the terms of the debate changed. Some forward-looking types began to make the case that taking a wide, busy street and narrowing it — a road diet — could actually be the path to the future, not the past.

That notion had its genesis in a neighborhood revitalization study, commissioned by the city council and released in 2005. The report found that, by most economic indicators, Wheat Ridge was falling behind other western suburbs. Its housing values were lower, its population grayer, with less income; one out of every four residents was age 65 or older. Auto-related businesses, such as parts shops and dealerships, accounted for 42 percent of all retail operations, nearly double the percentage found in Jefferson County as a whole — a problem for several reasons, including the fact that the sales tax for auto purchases is collected not by the municipality where the dealership is located but by the buyer’s place of residence. Other ’burbs had Belmar, FlatIron Crossing, Old Towne Arvada, and other “destination shopping” sites; Wheat Ridge had outdated strip malls and the big-box stores on Youngfield.

Worse, the city had no main street, in the sense of a community gathering place that could also be a retail destination — or, as the report puts it, “a pedestrian-oriented place with character that is differentiated from other places.” Developing such a place along West 38th Avenue was one of several strategies proposed by the report to save the city from a slow, painful tumble into geezerdom.

“Wheat Ridge is at a crossroads,” says Fisher of Localworks. “If we continue to be a bedroom community, we may end up being a nice neighborhood of Arvada or Lakewood because we don’t have the sales taxes to support services for people sleeping here.”

The idea of reshaping 38th into a main street isn’t that much of a leap, Fisher adds, to anyone who’s studied the city’s history. “There used to be a big sign on 38th, hanging right where Wheat Ridge Cyclery is, with a big heart — the Heart of Wheat Ridge,” she says. “This has always been the community gathering spot. We wanted to reclaim and build on that.”

After much quibbling and public comment, city officials adopted a plan to redevelop the West 38th corridor in 2011. How to make the road more “pedestrian-friendly” appears to have been central to the conversation from the outset. But Stites, who was one of the businesspeople providing input on the plan, maintains that the specific road-diet solution, originally touted as a 12- to 24-month pilot program, was of uncertain provenance. “The first meeting was, ‘What do you want to see?’” he recalls. “Most people talked about just cleaning it up. The next meeting, they had a full-blown plan. It was pre-ordained to be what they wanted.”

In 2012, the street was restriped between Wadsworth and Sheridan, cutting down the traffic lanes and making room for bicycles. City crews also added crossing zones and a few sidewalk bench areas to encourage strollers, along with rows of planters to discourage cars from getting too close to the curb. Wheat Ridge city manager Patrick Goff says the road diet has achieved its primary goal of calming traffic; in the first two years, the average traffic speed dropped from 42 to 36 miles per hour in the restriped section.

“Speeds are down to closer to the speed limit,” Goff notes. “Traffic volumes did decrease a little during this process, but they’re back to where they were before we did the road diet. And there’s really been no change in the number of accidents.”

Other metrics gathered by the city indicate higher pedestrian counts and more bicyclists on the road. The realignment has been a boon to street fairs and other events; it’s also touched off a boomlet in restaurants with patios, including an Irish pub, a brewpub and a Jersey-style pizza joint. Encouraged by what they were seeing, the three-laners put two items on the 2014 ballot that would nudge the pilot program toward permanence. The first sought formal voter approval for reducing the width of the street. The second asked for a $6.4 million sales-tax increase to fund capital improvement projects, including the much-promised “streetscaping” that would add various design elements and curb improvements to the corridor.

Both measures were defeated by approximately a fifteen-point margin — which, in Wheat Ridge, amounts to about a 2,000-vote spread.

“There wasn’t one reason we could point to as to why it wasn’t approved,” Goff says. “The sales tax was for other citywide infrastructure, too. There was a lot of discussion after it failed, that we didn’t talk to enough people.”

Concerns about costs — opponents of the sales-tax hike said it would be closer to $9 million — may have been part of the reason for the setback. But Fisher suspects there were other factors as well: “If you talk to voters, like I did, the biggest question I kept getting was, ‘Why do I care how wide the street is? Why doesn’t the city council handle this?’ Many were confused, and people didn’t want to spend that much money. Some didn’t feel it impacted them enough to be worth it.”

In the wake of the defeat, councilmembers who supported the road diet and their allies decided to redouble their efforts. They held a series of community meetings — many of them extremely well-attended, by Wheat Ridge standards — to solicit ideas and develop alternative streetscape design packages, ranging in price from $4.5 million to $9.75 million. The city has yet to go back to voters for funding, though, for any of the various concepts that have been advanced.

“When the vote failed, there was concern that there would be a campaign to go back to four lanes,” says Hultin of Bicycle Colorado. “So the idea was to reopen the community planning phase and get more people involved. But now there have been so many iterations, and it’s changed every year. At this point, there’s no specific plan for going forward, and that’s part of the problem.”

The road diet’s critics regard the 2014 vote as a firm rejection of the project, one that the council should have honored. A sign outside A1 Equipment Rentals on West 38th urges the council to END THE ROAD DIET once and for all.

“That’s what makes me mad,” says Russ Redig, whose father started A1 almost sixty years ago. “The voters said no, we don’t want to spend the money. Yet they refuse to put the street back.”

Redig says the vast majority of his customers don’t like the road diet; for hauling equipment in and out of his shop, four lanes is a preferable arrangement. “They tell me they avoid 38th Avenue,” he says. “That’s kind of a bummer, to have people tell you they’re no longer traveling on your street.”

Goff has compiled data indicating that sales-tax revenues along the road-diet stretch of businesses have increased substantially since 2010, at a rate exceeding that of the rest of the city; for some sections of the corridor, the increase over six years has been more than 60 or 70 percent. Vacancy rates have also dropped. Four-laners like Redig and Stites are skeptical, citing other possible reasons for the revenue increase. “A lot of business owners have put a lot of sweat and equity into building their businesses,” says councilman Zachary Urban. “To suggest the road diet did all their work for them is a bit much, I think.”

“They said it was a twelve-month experiment,” Redig says. “Now we’re going into the fifth year. The current council grasped onto this thing and refuses to admit they were wrong.”

click to enlarge Wheat Ridge Cyclery president Ron Kiefel regards the project as a step in the right direction for the business corridor. - ANTHONY CAMERA
Wheat Ridge Cyclery president Ron Kiefel regards the project as a step in the right direction for the business corridor.
Anthony Camera

Walking West 38th through the heart of the road-diet section, it’s possible to pick up twinges of the Main Street vibe the three-laners are trying to achieve. Whatever else it might be, the Heart of Wheat Ridge — or the Ridge at 38, as it’s currently branded — is an area in flux, caught between one era and the next. It’s a rough beast, its hour not quite come, slouching toward Sheridan to be born.

But first you have to slouch past the Wadsworth intersection. The western gateway to Main Street is a tribute to its heavily vehicular past, flanked by fast-food outlets, a Midas shop, a sprawling, shuttered car dealership awaiting redevelopment, and a Shell gas station in the process of evolving into a 7-Eleven gas station. Heading east, the restriping doesn’t start until you get to Vance Street, past a couple of churches and banks and mini-strip malls and another gas station. A vacant lot at Upham is slated to become a 150-unit apartment complex with 15,000 square feet of retail space, but for the moment, it’s just part of the formless void at this end of the project.

By the time you reach Teller Street, the character of the street starts to change. On the north side is Stevens Elementary, set away from the street by a well-landscaped parking lot and flanked by a big patch of lawn known as The Green, a gathering place for community events and holiday festivals, including an annual Christmas tree lighting. On the south side is a procession of modest-scale neighborhood businesses: window repair, jewelry store, hair salon, art gallery, tattoo studio and so on, culminating in Right Coast Pizza, which inhabits a building formerly occupied by a church, a dry cleaner and the offices of Localworks.

Right Coast opened in 2012, around the time the restriping project began. Owner Justin Vogel, who grew up in the area, has given a thumbs-up to the road diet for increasing the visibility of his place and making outdoor seating more pleasant. His business is part of a wave of upgraded eateries along 38th with busy patios, including Colorado Plus, a brewpub in the space formerly occupied by Valente’s; and Clancy’s, one of the area’s older Irish pubs, which relocated from Kipling a few years ago to a building that once housed the Mon Petit restaurant.

The public benches scattered along the way also provide a place for pedestrians and cyclists to kick back, though not without a bit of unease. The planters separating these oases from the traffic are modular, which makes them easier to replace whenever a car hugging too close to the curb happens to collide with one — which, depending on which side you’re talking to, happens rarely or regularly. The streetscaping plans call for bringing the curbs out more, to give pedestrians more of a comfort zone between them and the street, but at present there’s no such buffer. On the north side, there isn’t even a continuous sidewalk.

From Teller to Pierce, where the bike lane ends, is a collection of oddly juxtaposed and eclectic businesses. A construction company shares its building with a yoga studio. A farmers’ market sits next to a dental clinic. The former Marc’s, once a posh place for brunch, is now a dialysis center. New businesses squeeze into storefronts next to family operations, like B & F Tire or A1 Equipment Rentals, that have been there for generations.

Not all of the old-guard business owners are opposed to the road diet. A salesman named Eugene Kiefel bought a bike shop on 38th in 1973; over the years, Wheat Ridge Cyclery has expanded into one of the largest bike shops in the metro area. The current president of the business, Eugene’s son Ron, is an enthusiastic supporter of the lane realignment — and not just because it makes it easier for bike riders to get to his shop.

Wheat Ridge Cyclery draws its clientele from a fifty-mile radius, Kiefel notes; more bike lanes won’t make that much difference. “If the corridor goes to four lanes or stays at two, the impact on our business isn’t all that great,” he says. “The days of drive-by shopping are long gone. People use their mobile phones to search for businesses and look at reviews — that’s how you drive traffic to your business. We’ve known that for years.”

Kiefel wants to see the streetscaping plan implemented because he figures it will be good for the neighborhood and for Wheat Ridge: “I would like to see 38th Avenue become a destination, with great restaurants and a downtown feel. That’s really the fight — what is this area about? What should it be about? There are lots of ways to get to downtown Denver. I’m for building something for the community.”

click to enlarge A bike lane, slower auto speeds and other features of the road diet are supposed to encourage more community activity along West 38th Avenue in Wheat Ridge. - ANTHONY CAMERA
A bike lane, slower auto speeds and other features of the road diet are supposed to encourage more community activity along West 38th Avenue in Wheat Ridge.
Anthony Camera
Last year, the three-laners considered going back to the voters to get additional street improvements going on 38th. That idea was ultimately tabled, though, out of fear that it would drag down a more important ballot issue, 2E, which sought a half-cent sales-tax increase to fund $33 million worth of various projects around the city, including widening Wadsworth Boulevard between 35th and I-70.

At a city council meeting last month, the city’s leadership took a few moments to celebrate the passage of 2E and sign documents authorizing the issuance of bonds for the upcoming projects. Then it was back to business as usual, including a proposal by Councilman Urban for a ballot question this fall on whether the road diet on 38th should be abolished in favor of four lanes.

Saying that the council had received “conflicting and non-congruent points of input” about the matter, Urban urged his colleagues to let voters settle the fate of the corridor. “Last year we asked for 38th to go on the ballot, then we pulled it off,” he said. “Let’s try something different.”

The three-laners had turned out in force, including some sporting stickers that declared 38: LET IT BE. Although public comment isn’t customary for the first reading of a proposed ballot issue, the council decided to give both sides a chance to vent.

“The community has repeatedly voiced support for a pedestrian-friendly 38th Avenue,” resident John Genova told the council. “As an engineer, I can assure you that you can’t fit the sidewalks, the amenity zones, the parking, and four lanes of traffic in this combined right-of-way.... Turning 38th Avenue back into a freeway betrays the trust of the citizens.”

“Many of us moved to that community for the charm, the walkability,” added Amber Wilson, vice president of a local homeowners’ association. “It’s a sweet little place, and we want to keep it that way.”

Fisher, Hultin and several other three-laners also spoke against Urban’s proposal. The four-laner voices were less numerous. Before casting the swing vote that would keep a final decision on the road in abeyance for at least another few months, Councilman George Pond declared that the initiative was “the wrong question” at “the wrong time.”

“My no vote doesn’t mean that we should stop talking about this,” he added.

Afterward, Urban was unapologetic about his effort to crash the diet. “It’s something that needs to be put to rest, and the best way to do that is through a citywide vote,” he says. “We’ve already voted on this once. A lot of people don’t feel listened to because of the inaction that occurred after that loss. The council has had multiple opportunities to put it on the ballot since then. The only way to have any action on this is either through a new makeup of council or...I’m not sure what else can be done.”

Fisher, who co-chaired the 2E effort with Wheat Ridge Mayor Joyce Jay, says the council has to make up its mind whether 38th Avenue is “a heart or an artery.”

“I’m glad we did the restriping, but there has to be a point where we come together,” she says. “It felt like, after 2E, that we were. So it was disappointing to hear, ‘Let’s put 38th back to four lanes.’ I would rather see something like 2E, identifying priority projects across the city — including the streetscaping on 38th. Wheat Ridge voters respond when you say exactly what you’re going to buy and what it’s going to cost.”

Some people believe that if the council doesn’t act, worsening traffic conditions will make the decision for them. They point to the widening of Wadsworth, the impending arrival of the apartment project on Upham, and other projects in the area that are bound to increase the volume of cars on the West 38th corridor. “You’re not going to be able to keep that traffic out of here,” Herb Schillereff, a four-laner and resident of Wheat Ridge since 1963, told the council.

City manager Goff concedes that growth in the corridor is a legitimate concern — but not a pressing one. “The street has the capacity for the traffic we see,” he says. “Right now all our studies show that 38th as it’s narrowed today can handle the traffic and almost 20 percent growth.”

Pond, a landscape architect by training and an executive at the Denver Zoo when he’s not engaged in city council matters, says he isn’t sure when the council will make any momentous decisions about “completing the vision” on the 38th corridor — only that it probably won’t happen this year. In the meantime, he’s content to let the road diet work its magic.

“This concept is not going to break the street,” he insists. “Are some of the transitions awkward? I think that’s true, but we weren’t starting from scratch.”

The larger challenge, Pond believes, will be figuring out what the city wants to happen behind the curbs, not in the broad stretch of asphalt between them. “Some of the actual place-making hasn’t come to fruition,” he says. “There may be some activities going down, but the place hasn’t been made.”

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast