Ever wonder what the plans are for a construction site that has popped up at the end of your block? Have you been curious about a new face being put on an old building downtown? For close to a decade, Ken Schroeppel has been answering these questions, documenting Denver's development progress through his blog DenverInfill and its companion, DenverUrbanism.
By day, he's an urban planner and professor of architecture and planning at the University of Colorado Denver -- but in his free time, Schroeppel and his team of contributors connect with developers, architects and an array of folks in the construction field to create a detailed database of the city's current and upcoming construction projects.
Westword spoke with Schroeppel about his long-running DenverInfill blog, how he collects his information on new buildings and the role of preservation within the development of Denver.
Westword: When you go to create a post on DenverInfill about a new development, where and how do you go about gathering information? Do you have specific sources? Do you do have a way you go about researching specific locations or parts of town?
Ken Schroeppel: It's hard to explain -- all of the above, I guess. In other words, there is no limit to the sources. It's obvious things like going past a place and seeing a chain-link fence up around with a sign on it. It's also just reading about it, sometimes for the first time, in one of the other media outlets -- sometimes the Denver Post or the Denver Business Journal scoops me. But the majority of it comes through online research -- I look at property records, sale records, information that would be posted on the city's website in regards to development applications with the planning office.
Architects and architectural firms will often put information on their websites as part of their portfolio or gallery of images. Then, over the years because I am so integrated and really intimately involved with downtown development and the downtown community -- the planning, design and development community -- I've established a really neat network of people that I know. I might be chatting with someone and they will give me information, then a week later, I'm talking to someone else and they will share information about what firms have picked up contracts for areas of town, stuff like that.
When two independent sources kind of tell me the same thing, I will then contact someone over at that particular firm and see what is going on at a specific site. It's kind of like doing some detective work and piecing together information. One thing I would say though is that I take the confidentiality of people tell me with absolute seriousness. There are probably a dozen or more projects that I'm aware of right now but I have not put on the blog, simply because the time isn't right yet. The developer has asked to wait until they are at a certain point in the project where they feel comfortable for the information to be made public.
It's a balance -- I don't like it when the Post of the Business Journal beats me to reporting on a project for the first time, particularly if it is one that I have known about for a long time because I've been waiting for the right time. So it is hard to gauge when is the right time, unless the developer is very explicit on a date.
Is there any trend or anything happening in the development of Denver as of late that you find particularly interesting?
Well, I find it all interesting and the thing is, I am a planner and an urbanist. So to me, I don't consider DenverInfill to be a real estate development site; I consider it a city building site. I have a much broader perspective -- to me, all of these projects that I track are small pieces that contribute to a bigger vision. Something that is often called "city building" or developing and enhancing Denver's built environment to make it better and increase the quality of life for people who kind of want to live and work in the downtown area.
Downtown Denver and its immediate surroundings were decimated in the post-war era by the impacts of the automobile. Tearing down buildings and putting in parking lots -- that has really tattered the urban fabric of the downtown area. So, if you look at all the great cities in the country and all over the world, they all have very intact urban fabrics; you don't find people traveling to cities to take urban vacations to places where the urban core is scattered with surface parking lots. It is an interesting thing. We are attracted to places where there is a density of people and the spaces in the public realm -- like spaces between buildings -- are intimate and intact. Surface parking lots are like big holes in that fabric. For Denver to become the greatest city that it can be, we need to repair this urban fabric that at one time, before World War II, was intact. There was a point in time where basically every single block anywhere in the greater downtown area was cover one hundred percent by buildings. No parking lots. This was back in the 20s and 30s. So you know, we need to get back to that point. Obviously, we are making really good progress, but there is still a lot to go.
For me, I don't look at this as real estate development in a narrow, technical sense; I look at it as a broader evolution of the city by repairing its urban fabric and therefore making it a better place where people want to enjoy going. I look at a lot of things -- I look at like, the apartment boom. That is driven by a lot of demographics, like the millennial generation. But there are also other economic factors that are at work here. I could go on and on about the different markets -- office, hotel, residential -- and where I see those coming and going. They are always changing.
The markets are always fluctuating, so at any given point in time, there is kind of a unique combination of where those different markets are going and what is driving them. You can look back over the last decade or two and kind of see those different trends and markets and how they have ebbed and flowed over time. I watch that and I think about it all the time and I talk with people about it and then I sometimes talk about it on the blog. Overall, my mission is to promote the repair of Denver urban fabric and to help advocate for Denver to become a more urban place.
Where does preservation fit into this for you?
When it comes to preservation -- well, I think we tore down a lot of our cities historic buildings during the 60s and 70s and then in the 80s. But certainly since then, the preservation ethic has become very strong in Denver. We have a lot of people here who are very focused on making sure we don't repeat those mistakes and continue to tear down buildings that are viable and reflect our history and our heritage. I totally agree with that.
I believe we are at a point in time where the general default should be to not tear down an older building unless there is a really compelling greater public reason to do so. I'm not one hundred percent absolute preservationist. I think that there are times when we need to tear down an older building. Of course, not all older buildings are equal; maybe it is a nice building, but it is a very small building. Maybe it is on a big important site that it might be worth tearing it down or moving it for the opportunity to do something bigger and better that could have a far greater catalytic effect on improving downtown, for example.
I kind of like where we are right now, in terms of that balance of historic preservation and new development. I think we are at a point in Denver where every time there is a potential for an older building to be torn down, we now have that debate pretty vigorously. Sometimes one side wins, sometimes the other side wins and that's okay. That's kind of the way life is. But I think it is important that we have that debate. That to me says that we as a city are in a good place. Is there an area of the city or a project happening right now that is particularly of interest to you?
What is going on in the River North and the Brighton Boulevard corridor is absolutely fascinating. We have not covered that area as well as I would have hoped. There are other places like River North and there are other types of projects and things that are going on in the greater downtown area that we haven't covered simply due to a lack of capacity. You only have so much time, you know?
But I absolutely love what is going on in River North and this industrial area. All you have to do is drive around River North and see there has been zero investment in this area -- up until recently -- for probably a hundred years. I mean, there are streets that don't have curved gutters or sidewalks, no streetlights. It's almost like this little part of the city that time forgot, until the last ten years or so. Particularly the pace at with that area is developing too, is interesting. Brighton Boulevard is now becoming this incredible corridor -- buildings are either being redeveloped or adaptively reused for a new purpose.
(River North's) isolation has been because of a number of barriers; you've got the Platte River through there, you've got I-70 and you've got a whole bunch of rail yard and railroad lines that kind of come out of downtown. Then, with it being a historically industrial area, the city felt, over the last one hundred years, that it didn't need to install things like sidewalks because well, who goes walking in an industrial area? It is a very common thing -- you can go to just about any city and go into their older industrial areas that were developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s and they all look kind of the same. There is a lack of infrastructure because there really wasn't a need for it.
Now as you see these areas developing, the developers are required to install full curb and gutter, sidewalks, street trees and new lighting. Kind of the full streetscape we would expect in a more pedestrian-oriented urban area -- but it is done on a project-by-project basis. So when you drive down Brighton Boulevard or upper Blake Street, you have these situations: there will be a new project with beautiful curb and gutter and sidewalks and benches and good lighting and everything. Then right at the end of the property -- boom -- nothing. There will be a gravel shoulder and that's just it. It's a start way of visually seeing a neighborhood kind of transforming right before your eyes.
You've been running DenverInfill and DenverUrbanism for almost a decade -- clearly they are a labor of love. What's the motivation?
Before I even started the blog, there was the original DenverInfill website. It was where I had all of the maps based on each block and everything. I started working on that in 2004 and I finished it in 2005, sometime in the summer. When I finished the website is basically when I started the blog.
But to answer your question -- Denver was going through a lot of development at the time and it was kind of ramping up from the early 2000s. I have always just been a very big fan of cities and urban areas and downtowns, and Denver particularly. By trade and training I'm a planner and an urbanist at heart, so these are things that were all very important and appealing to me. There was just so much going on in Denver that frankly I was having a hard time keeping track of it all. I thought, well, I'm going to develop kind if like a database or something. A place where I can have, at my fingertips, information on any of these projects that are going on. As I learn about a project or as one is reported in the news, I will record and capture that information and kind of keep it organized for my benefit. As I was starting to do that, I thought you know, if I want this information, I bet there might be other people out there as well. I'm thinking, oh, like a couple of dozen people at the most.
That's when I decided to make a website. I'm kind of a tech-nerd myself so I thought it would be fun at the same time to also see what it would be like to design a website from scratch -- I have absolutely no web design experience whatsoever. I got some free web software and came up with the design and simultaneously began to build a website while also collecting all of the data on the projects. I was taking all the photos and doing all of the aerial maps for each block, stuff like that.
I put it together and it was launched in the summer of 2005 and much to my surprise, after about a year or so, it really took off. People started to read it more and I was getting emails and phones calls from people with questions about projects and whatnot. It has really taken off from there. I continue to do it because I love it and with Denver, there is no shortage of projects. If anything, it is accelerating at an increasing pace.
DenverInfill really fills a niche; there isn't anyone else doing it. I think it has been able to sustain partly due to a lack of competition. Because it is so well established and I have tried really hard over the years to maintain a high level of quality and consistency, people have come to really trust it and know what to expect from it and what not to expect from it. Now, I get stopped by people on the street who are like, hey, you're the Denver Infill guy! It's been kind of fun.
You have other contributors on the site now, but it was just you for a long time, right?
I was the only blogger or person speaking through the blog up until about 2010 or so. That's when I started to bring on contributing bloggers -- I now have eight or nine different people contributing. I have a couple of people who are only once or twice a year, but I have others who do two or three a month. Then I have Ryan Dravitz who is kind of our main photographer now. He goes out and does all of these construction update photos. He probably cranks out three or four posts a week.
Having this crew of people helping me -- this is all volunteer on their part -- has allowed me to keep the blog going and increase the number of posts. It has allowed me to broaden the perspective and everything while at the same time, I've gotten busier with my job and aspects of my life, which means I haven't been able to blog as frequently as I used to. So they have been able to help make that up and I am very grateful for the folks that I have blogging for me.
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