On Monday, October 7, Mayor Michael Hancock appointed Laura Aldrete as the new director of Community Planning and Development, a major position that has been vacant for a year. Aldrete comes into the role as the former director of real estate for Denver International Airport. She'll be the first Latina to lead the department.
The previous director, Brad Buchanan, stepped down to lead the National Western Center in October 2018. The city hired city planner Jill Jennings Golich as an interim replacement; in June, she left to take a job as the planning director for Adams County, and CPD deputy director Evelyn Baker stepped in to fill her shoes.
"It's an important position within city government, and it’s hard to get somebody to commit to that position when you’re in the middle of an election," says Mike Strott, a spokesperson for the mayor's office.
At the same time, it's been a big year for city planning: After wrapping up Denveright, a three-year city outreach process, in April 2018, the city produced several major long-range planning documents that deeply impact CPD's work. Comprehensive Plan 2040, a set of broad goals for the city, was adopted in May, and Blueprint Denver, a document that guides land use and transportation, was updated to align with the goals of the comprehensive plan and to make social equity a principle in land-use decision-making.
City planners with CPD use those as guiding visions to work with community stakeholders to develop area plans that home in on a vision for the future of specific neighborhoods. Right now, only 32 percent of the city has an updated area plan; the Neighborhood Planning Initiative outlines covering every part of the city with an area plan in the next decade or so. Meanwhile, if a developer wants to come in with a new high-rise, for example, when going through the zoning and permitting process, it has to argue that the new project fits not only the zoning code and the city's building and fire code, but also the vision outlined in Blueprint Denver and the local area plan, if there is one.
The new direction set by Denveright comes after a period of record economic growth and consequent physical growth. Christine O’Conner, the co-chair of the Zoning and Planning committee for the Denver Inter-neighborhood Cooperation, says she is concerned that Denver's growth has not been thoughtful or community-engaged. "Everybody’s excited that we have a new planning director," she says. But, she adds, "I don’t see anything in her background that says she’s going to have a different approach than we’ve had all along."
Ean Tafoya, the other co-chair, says he's encouraged that the city is turning around what he thinks is a "dismal outreach to communities of color. ... The fact that she’s bilingual, she’s a Latina, I hope that breaks down barriers." But he says he was disappointed that Denver INC, which represents 100 Registered Neighborhood Organizations across the city, was not consulted in the search process.
Strott says the mayor's office "took input on the position from anyone who wished to give it." He continued in a written statement sent to Westword, "the Mayor made a decision that, rather than rely on a traditional search, we would recruit someone who met his very specific criteria: (1) an individual with proven accomplishment in both the public and private sectors, (2) deep knowledge of urban planning, design and, preferably experience with DURA, (3) deep knowledge of and sensitivity around Denver’s unique neighborhoods, and (4) ideally a person of color who could walk the talk of equity and inclusion. In Laura Aldrete, we found an outstanding individual who fit the criteria the Mayor established."
Aldrete grew up in Denver and has been involved in many areas of the city's planning and real estate world, working on some of the biggest developments in the past few decades. Before she took up real estate at the airport, she was a planner at Matrix Design Group, where she helped bring Broadway Station to fruition, and Parsons Brinckherhoff, where she worked on the redevelopment of Denver Union Station. Prior to that, she was the assistant director of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority and worked in the mayor's office as the project manager for the Stapleton redevelopment. She also served on the planning board from 2005 to 2012, and she's a member of the Urban Land Institute. On her second day on the new job, Westword sat down with her to talk about how she'll bring that experience to the top position in city planning.
Westword: You've been in urban planning and real estate for a long time. Can you talk about what drew you to this profession?
Laura Aldrete: My first career was as an archaeologist. I have an anthropology degree. I love dirt and I love people, and so I would spend six months out of the year in Honduras working on an excavation on a late Maya classic site. You'd write a monologue at the end of it, report all your findings, you'd just put it in the national library, and nobody knows anything about it — you don't affect the community that you're in. There was just something lacking there for me. A friend of mine gave me an article on a social housing project in India, where they didn't understand the cultural differences, and built a 200-unit affordable housing project that no one would move into because it wasn't culturally sensitive. So that was really where I started seeing how I could bring anthropology into the current day situation, the current community. And so I went back to school for planning. It's really about culture and people.
Going back, what are some of the other roles you've been involved in with the City of Denver?
When I came home after school at UCLA, I started at a design firm and learned about the planning and the visioning of it. But I soon realized that it's not just the planner who makes the decisions about what's gonna be built there. You have to understand the government processes, you have to understand entitlements, you have to understand the lending community. If there's public finance, you've got to understand how that plays a role. Engineers play a critical role, because if you need a park or a road and the water line has to go through it, that's going to determine the size of your road. I feel like my career has really been this selection of, how do I understand comprehensively how things get built? So if you think about my time at DURA, that's about public finance; if you think about private-sector consulting, whether it's a design firm or engineering firm, that's about entitlements, design and how engineering folds into design, and vice versa.
Let's talk about your most recent role at the airport. Can you explain what that role was and what you see as some of your big accomplishments there?
It was the development of a new department within aviation. Typically, real estate is not really common among an airport or aviation. But because our airport, even at full buildout in the future, will have a large amount of land left over, there is a recognition that you could generate revenue back to the airport through development.
So the big accomplishments are, one, building a department of real estate within aviation. Those are two things that don't often co-exist, which is a lot about co-education for everybody, learning about each other. And the other thing is setting a vision — this is not going to be a buildout over the next ten years; this will be a buildout over the next thirty to 35 years of the airport. That's really your gateway to Denver. We don't have any other port; it's our only port. And so how people come in, whether you're from Denver or you're coming to visit Colorado, we want to set the right entrance and exit for that experience, so that real estate really sets that tone.
If you think about what your experience is when you go to other airports, you know you're getting close because you see a lot of industrial, it's not very well organized, it's kind of mishmashed — it's not really the best face of the city. And we think it's very important that our entry into our city is the best face. We think prairie and that horizontal landscape is very important because it preserves views to the mountains. We think that feeling of open space and open sky is really important. So our vision is really about creating urban districts in certain areas so that you do have that feeling of prairie. I'm not trying to just bring the city, spread the city out there. We're trying to do it in a smart way.
What was your involvement in the Stapleton redevelopment, and what are your thoughts on how it turned out?
I'll answer that backwards. Overall, I think it's a phenomenal success. And I don't say that because I worked on it — there are hundreds and thousands of people who worked on it. But it was the first time we started thinking about urban design for single-family in an urban context. Now, twenty years later, we might say it could have been more dense, but at the time it was very cutting-edge, both in terms of the housing type and mix of housing. It really came off of the Green Book, which was a plan that was done by the people. And that plan looked at what was Denver, and the history of Denver. It really looked at Park Hill and how that community came together with a mix of housing types throughout Park Hill. So I thought it was very smart, in terms of how the vision was set up, and my job was to implement it. The developer had just been selected, so my job was to really move between the developer and the planning department to make it as seamless as possible.
Coming into this role, what are your thoughts on what CPD has been doing well and where you hope to grow and improve the most?
I think CPD has always done a great job of setting a vision for the city, both on the neighborhood scale [and] the city building scale. We've made big decisions like Stapleton, Denver Union Station, Coors Field. I think we are doing a better and better job, from what I've seen in the course of my career, to really understand those communities and let the voice of that community come through.
In particular, I have two lenses that I really think about things, and that is climate change and equity. I'm not like the genius that's bringing those in; I know they already exist here in the department. I think it's just helping to emphasize those two lenses on everything that we do.
So jumping into issues related to those two, I'm wondering how you would define gentrification.
I don't know that I have a specific definition, but I think it has to do with the ability for somebody to participate in the future of their community, both in the planning of it and the actualization of it, and if you feel like you're participating in that, then that is the antithesis of gentrification.
What is CPD's role in combating its negative effects, like involuntary displacement?
There is greater and greater awareness of that, and again I think we have been thoughtful about it. Blueprint Denver and Comprehensive Plan 2040 in their headers talk about inclusivity, healthy communities and connectedness. Those are all underlined to keep neighborhoods from gentrifying. Part of it is, I think CPD's role in the city is to plan and help set the vision. We need to work with the city as a whole to help put the tools in place as the economy moves forward and changes begin to happen to make sure that there is a sense of participation from the community, both in the planning and then in the change that happens.
It takes the entire city government on that, so planning is at the very tip of it, where we set the plan of what that community wants to be.
One of the things I feel like I hear a lot is increasing resentment about the amount of development in the city. Do you think Denver's growth should be slowed?
I don't think our role is to determine whether to go fast or slow. We are regulators. So we keep pace with development. That's what I would say.
What would you say to someone is who is frustrated about all the big buildings going up?
I think that, one, is it is not a question of should development occur or not. There will be more people moving into Denver, because it is a fantastic place to be. I can see both sides of it, having grown up here. There needs to be a recognition of culture and history and context, which is what I think people lament, alongside traffic. But that's really what hits their heartstrings. I hear that. I feel that also. At the same time, I do know that healthy cities last millenia because they change and they grow and they evolve. And if we stop evolving, we will not be successful as a city in the long term. So we have to grow, and we have to change. And it is hard. If we can bring more context and history and culture forward, it can go a long way to help make some of the new growth feel better.
You're the first Latina director of the department. How will you ensure that there's adequate cultural literacy going on in community planning processes?
Well, I think there are ever-evolving new tools around that. It's one of the reasons I love being an anthropologist, because you have to realize the bias that you're coming into in any situation. There is a lot of training that can happen around equity and awareness of other perspectives that we can have in this department. We are a city of over 30 percent Latinos, so I would think that would continue to grow in our department as well.
In terms of actual representation in employment in the department?
Another issue that you mentioned was climate change. How does CPD fit into the city's efforts to address climate change, in your view?
There's been a lot of movement in the last year or two with green building ordinance, to align the city with some directives around climate change. We are working in the various departments; we're thinking about how our buildings will be different in five years than they are today, and making sure that we're ready for that from a code standpoint. So I think that's probably one of the more notable places, when you see more efficiency in buildings. But I think there can be applications on the planning side of it as well. We're thinking about our communities, to lower the heat island effect, to increase various modes of mobility. So it starts with planning, but probably the quickest or most tangible change we will see is in the way our buildings are built moving forward.
What about transportation? How does that fit into the picture? Do we push the greener forms of transportation in the early part of the process?
Absolutely — and Blueprint Denver is straight up connecting land use and transportation. We should see higher density along those corridors of transportation, and transit to support those transportation corridors. This department is already doing that.
What about open space? It's been an issue among certain communities. What can CPD do to ensure that Denver keeps and preserves its open space?
Any change to open space that is dedicated, we require a vote of the people. I don't think we're talking about losing open space, I think what we're talking about is how we add open space. The Parks and Recreation Game Plan really talks about adding open space and having it be more accessible in proximity. But mobility is also tied into that; how quickly and easily can you access open space? I think that's all in our planning, and I think different neighborhoods use open space differently. Some want regional open space and some want smaller pocket parks, and we need to understand who those communities are and let them drive what the shape of this open space can be.
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Are there any projects that you're particularly excited for, that you think will have the potential to shape a part of the city in a way that it hasn't been before?
Sixteenth Street Mall, I think, is going through an evolution from a pure transportation corridor to an opportunity to be really more of a place and a series of living rooms in our downtown for everyone. On day two, that's my favorite project. I think keeping a focus on the central core; that's where everybody comes to celebrate.
What are some of your favorite parts of Denver, maybe that you see as a result of good urban planning?
Everything behind Union Station, where it used to just be rail tracks and places for teenagers to do inappropriate things...that's a great transformation of a place. I think turning the Platte River, turning our face onto the river, as opposed to turning our backs, cleaning it — those are great places for everybody to enjoy. And north Denver. I'm from the west side, but I live in north Denver. There's still some context and history and culture there that I enjoy.