Howdy, Neighbor

The most sweeping change in Denver growth policies in a generation will soon be considered by the city council. The plan that the council comes up with will determine what parts of the city will see the most intensive development over the next twenty years, as Denver struggles to accommodate a projected 132,000 new residents.

According to the latest census figures, about 87,000 people have moved into the city since 1990, a remarkable change from previous decades, when the suburbs saw the most growth. But it hasn't been painless: While some Denver residents cheered the resurgence of downtown and adjacent neighborhoods, ugly zoning battles have sprung up all over, with homeowners in long-established neighborhoods challenging development they think is inappropriate.

In response, city planners spent the past year developing a plan to guide future growth ("The Big Squeeze," November 2, 2000). Originally referred to as the "land-use and transportation plan," the proposal is now officially dubbed "Blueprint Denver."

City officials believe they've come up with a way to protect existing neighborhoods made up of single-family homes while steering high-density development into what they are calling "areas of change." They hope to transform industrial parts of town into new, mixed-use neighborhoods and encourage construction around transit lines.

"So far, people have been very receptive," says city planner Ellen Ittelson, who guided the project through a year of public hearings. "A few people have said, 'Why are you letting Denver grow?' But most people realize Denver needs to grow to stay competitive. The neighborhoods understand that density has to go in the right place."

Blueprint Denver divides the city into two categories: "areas of change" and "areas of stability." Most residential neighborhoods are designated as stable areas, and the city's goal is to prevent any development that radically alters them. But downtown and nearby neighborhoods, as well as industrial areas north of downtown and many sections along the light-rail line now under construction on I-25 south to the Tech Center, will be targeted for intense development. Stapleton, Lowry, and the Gateway area along Peña Boulevard are also regarded as areas of change.

The idea, says Ittelson, is to encourage development around planned light-rail stations and along corridors that are serviced by other forms of mass transit in order to get people out of their cars and ease traffic congestion. Key transportation hubs will be located at Union Station and the fifty-acre former Gates Corporation property at Broadway and I-25. Union Station is owned by RTD, which intends to create a center there for light rail, commuter rail, bus lines, carpools and other uses. The city helped fund the $49 million purchase of the station and will work with RTD to redevelop the surrounding blocks with lofts, offices and stores. The Gates property was recently acquired by Greenwood Village-based Cherokee Investment Partners, which plans to turn the old rubber factory into houses, offices and stores. "Gates is a wonderful site -- it has a huge amount of potential," Ittelson says, adding that three light-rail lines will converge there. "People will be able to travel from there to downtown or the Tech Center without using a car."

Other areas of change include corridors such as East Colfax and Broadway that are now primarily commercial. The plan encourages new five- or six-story residential buildings on those streets, with retail shops on the ground floor.

The city had to back down from plans to encourage that sort of development on Colfax east of Colorado Boulevard, however. Residents rebelled against the notion, fearing it would disrupt their quiet neighborhoods.

"Our approach is that over time there may be more opportunities to look again at that part of Colfax," Ittelson says. "In the meantime, leaving it as it is is acceptable."

Blueprint Denver will be considered by the city council in January. Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt, who has pushed for more long-range planning, is optimistic that it will pass. She also believes the planning office did a good job of bringing neighborhood groups into the process. "The next step," she says, "will be implementing it."

Blueprint Denver is probably the most radical departure in local planning since the 1940s. Prior to that time, Denver was developed along an extensive network of streetcar lines that radiated from downtown. Most neighborhoods were pedestrian-oriented, with commercial districts that allowed people to walk down the street to stores.

The era of the automobile changed all that. But while cars were once seen as a convenience, clogged streets and air pollution have now made going anywhere an inconvenience. City officials can't predict whether Blueprint Denver will get people out of their cars, but they're hoping they can break suburban land-use patterns and bring thousands of new residents into town without spoiling Denver's quality of life.

"Finally, we've realized that if we build our cities along transit lines, we can give people a choice to use transit, and people won't have to get in their cars for every trip," Barnes-Gelt says. "I think people are realizing more density can make their lives more functional and less stressful."

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