The Big Squeeze

Sorting through a stack of planning documents and books on a shelf in her office, Denver city planner Ellen Ittelson pulls out a faded booklet with yellowed pages. It's a Denver planning-department primer from the 1940s, and the main topic is how to remake the city's streets to accommodate cars. "The entire theory of planning for street traffic has changed since the advent of the automobile," it reads. "We can remedy these faults by making streets sufficiently wide to carry traffic."

Since the end of World War II, Denver has guided its development based on the notion that everyone would drive everywhere. Now that traffic congestion has become the number-one complaint of city residents, however, Ittelson believes Denver must turn away from this model. "It took us a long time to get into the mess we're in, and it will take a long time get out of it," she says.

A good starting point is the intersection of University Boulevard and Interstate 25 where, seven years from now, a major light-rail station serving thousands of commuters will open as part of the planned light-rail line down I-25. Ittelson hopes to see new high-rise apartment buildings with stores on the ground floor grow up around the station. She wants these apartment buildings to form the center of an urban neighborhood where people will be able to go to the grocery store, head for the movies and travel to the office without ever getting into a car. "Right now in our society we don't have the choice not to use a car," she says. "We want to give people the opportunity to have a choice for each trip they make."

But dense development near light-rail stations may be just the beginning. After decades of losing population to the suburbs, Denver is growing again, and the city is increasingly shouldering intense development pressure. In fact, the Denver Regional Council of Governments predicts that Denver will add more than 100,000 residents in the next twenty years -- and many in city government believe the number could be twice that.

Adding to the pressure is the possibility that Coloradans, angered by sprawl, will approve Amendment 24, the "responsible growth" amendment on November 7. Under that proposal, voters in cities and counties throughout the state would have to approve local comprehensive plans designating where new development could take place. The expectation is that suburban voters would frown on bulldozing open space at the edge of their communities, meaning more development would be funneled into areas that are already urbanized.

Now officials who spent years trying to find ways to keep the middle class in the city are faced with a startling new problem: how to accommodate thousands of new residents without destroying existing neighborhoods.

To answer that question, Denver has quietly begun work on an overhaul of its land-use and transportation plan that will eventually lead to a rezoning of much of the city. If Ittelson, who is coordinating the effort, and others have their way, the plan will encourage dense new residential construction along busy transit routes such as Colfax and Broadway, as well as around the light-rail stations like the planned one at University and I-25. If they're packed in in this way, Ittelson is betting, a large number of these new residents can be convinced to use bus and rail lines to get around instead of cars.

But Ellen Ittelson's grand vision is Gerard Zschoche's nightmare.

Zschoche, who is the president of the Washington Park East Neighborhood Association, believes that bringing hundreds of new people to the area around University and I-25 would be a disaster. "We're so choked with pollution and traffic already, and they want to bring more people in," he says. "That's the last thing we need."

He predicts that most of those new residents will choose to drive anyway, even though they may live across the street from the rail line. Once the word gets out, he says, Washington Park residents will resist the idea.

But they may not have much of a choice. Denver has already hired the firm of Fregonese and Calthorpe to write the new land-use and transportation plan. Both those names have celebrity status in the planning world, and both men are forceful advocates of pedestrian-oriented construction around bus and rail lines. John Fregonese is the former director of Portland, Oregon's regional planning agency, which supervises that city's famous urban-growth boundary. Peter Calthorpe is the California architect who is one of the fathers of "new urbanism."

Beginning in January, the city will hold a series of public meetings around town so residents can discuss how they want Denver to change. Although city officials will listen to what they say, Fregonese and Calthorpe will ultimately write the plan and submit it to the Denver City Council in the spring of 2002.

Denver City Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt, who co-chairs the council's land-use committee, hopes that city residents will be willing to accept a development model that's radically different from what's in place today. But she fears they may adopt a "not in my backyard" mentality and refuse to help reform the city's zoning. "When you try and make a huge change, it's very difficult," she says. "We're in an environment where people are so freaked out by change and growth, they just say no. They're trying to hold on to what they have."

The stakes are high: If the city adds 100,000 new residents and they all drive, the quality of life in central Denver will plummet dramatically. But if planners can figure out a way to get these people to use mass transit, Denver could become a model for other cities.

"When the Pope came and all those thousands of people were here, you didn't notice them, because none of them had cars," says Ittelson. "If they had driven, it would have been a nightmare."

Denver's current zoning code took effect in 1956, and while zoning has been changed in many neighborhoods since then, the city hasn't re-examined its overall zoning structure. The new land-use and transportation plan is the first phase of a process that will eventually lead to rezoning large parts of the city, so it will shape the look and feel of Denver for decades to come. (Denver did update its comprehensive plan in January, but that document is more of a vision for the city than a legally binding master plan.) The new plan will tell real estate developers and investors exactly where the city wants to encourage new construction and which neighborhoods will be candidates for large-scale change.

"It's a massive undertaking," says Ittelson. "It's not something a city does without a great deal of thought. We're still living with the positive and negative ramifications of the 1956 zoning."

At the time, zoning codes encouraged the separation of commercial and residential areas. This was understandable, since the economy was dominated by heavy industry. "They wanted to keep the smokestacks out of the neighborhoods," Ittelson explains. However, she adds, this "separation of uses" wound up hurting cities by encouraging long commutes between work and home. Now that most people work in offices rather than factories, Denver wants to try to make new housing available near major employers.

In the first half of the century, Denver neighborhoods grew up around streetcar lines, and local retail strips gave people a place they could buy bread or milk while walking home. Today the clusters of stores that can be found in older neighborhoods are a reminder of where the streetcars used to stop.

"If we could just bring back the streetcars that were taken out in the '40s and '50s, we could have what we want in place," Ittelson says.

About 500,000 people now live in Denver (out of a metro population of just over two million). Another 50,000 are expected to move into what is now about 12,000 acres of vacant land that will eventually be developed into homes at the former Lowry Air Force Base, at the former Stapleton Airport, in the Central Platte Valley and in the Gateway area along Peña Boulevard. Everyone else will have to be accommodated in existing areas of the city, but not in established neighborhoods such as Hilltop, where homeowners have fought to keep developers from splitting lots in half and where no one would even attempt to build a high-rise apartment building (see sidebar).

That leaves Denver's numerous commercial areas, which could be redeveloped into mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented residential districts. The city's consultants believe Denver could easily add 100,000 people by building five- and six-story residential projects along streets that are now entirely commercial. "You've got places like East Colfax with tremendous potential," says Fregonese. "It's a prime property. Broadway could also be a really great street." Even de facto highways such as South Federal and Colorado boulevards have residential possibilities set half a block off the street, he says.

The key is to make pedestrians welcome and buffer the effects of traffic. The buildings would have stores on the street level and housing above, and bus service would have to be upgraded so that buses ran every few minutes down these corridors. "Areas with heavy traffic are not that pleasant to live in, but you can have a four-lane road with trees and flowers that can be made to be pleasant. Denver has a high potential for that," Fregonese adds.

At one time, the older parts of East Colfax had just the sort of buildings Fregonese is advocating. Until the 1960s, Colfax was a vibrant street on which hundreds of people lived. Bakeries and butcher shops lined the sidewalk, along with flower vendors, tailors and dozens of other retailers. Above the street, many of the buildings were filled with apartments. Some of these buildings survived, but many were torn down and replaced with fast-food restaurants and stores that are geared to drive-in traffic, a change that hastened the decline of the street.

"Commercial on the ground floor and residential above is a historical prototype that was very successful here, and there's no reason it couldn't happen again," says Ittelson.

Denver hasn't been at the forefront in pushing for these kind of mixed-use projects, however. "Other cities have done a lot more than we have," she says, pointing to places as disparate as Seattle and Salt Lake City that have been trying to guide new construction toward transit corridors. So convincing the locals that it's possible may be a stretch.

"It's hard for people to imagine living in a place where they don't have to use their cars. They can't imagine living in a neighborhood where they can walk to get coffee or bread."

It's easy for John Fregonese to imagine, however. Portland, where he worked as a top planner, has become a secular Lourdes for government officials who regularly journey there looking for miracles that will free their communities from auto congestion and sprawl.

In the 1970s, Oregon enacted a law that mandated growth boundaries around all of its major cities, including Portland. The law also created an elected regional board to oversee growth in the Portland area. That board has pushed higher-density housing and commercial development and channeled transportation funds into Portland's light-rail system rather than into new highways. In one of its biggest planning gambles, Portland is now encouraging dense development along light-rail lines, hoping to get commuters out of their cars and onto mass transit.

It seems to be working, says Fregonese, who adds that "transit ridership has increased four times faster than population here, and congestion levels have stayed fairly constant."

At one time, Portland was similar to Denver in that almost all the new housing went to the suburbs, but that has changed. "In the percentage of new housing units in the Portland area, the city of Portland went from 8 percent in 1990 to 25 percent in 1999," says Fregonese. In addition, Oregon now requires cities to build multi-family housing in addition to single-family homes. The result is a diversity of housing types. "We have a lot more townhouses and homes on small lots," says Fregonese. "We're seeing townhouses and other multi-family products make up 15 to 20 percent of the housing market. Before the [land-use] law, it was 2 percent."

But not everyone thinks Portland's experiment has been a success.

"Portland is the mecca of growth control, that we can plan our way into utopia," says Jon Caldara, a former RTD boardmember who is now president of the conservative Independence Institute in Golden. "It's been an outrageous failure." A paper published by the institute calls Portland "the Potemkin village of the Northwest," a reference to the fake villages made up of happy peasants that were used to impress Russia's Catherine the Great.

John Charles, an analyst with the Cascade Policy Institute in Portland, echoes these thoughts, and he's especially critical of the push for high-density development along Portland's light-rail line. "It's all based on government subsidies," he says, noting that Portland has used tax abatements, low-income housing credits and other means to encourage development near the line. By one estimate, $2 billion has been invested in projects along Portland's light-rail line.

Charles insists that traffic congestion in Portland has increased in large part because of the new-urbanist planning philosophy. "If you artificially densify a region, most of those people will have cars and use them," he says, "so you'll worsen congestion." He even suggests that many planners secretly want more congestion to force people out of their cars and onto the rail system. "The mindset is, cars are bad and people who drive are bad; therefore they must be punished."

While not everyone supports Oregon's planning laws, they've proven politically popular. Voters have killed several efforts to gut the laws, and most of Portland's elected officials support the growth boundary and the push for more density. Fregonese says that's because Portland has protected its existing neighborhoods, directing development into rundown commercial areas and former industrial zones that other cities would simply write off. "The key is doing infill and finding the places where density fits," he says. "I can't think of any neighborhood in Portland that's been completely changed. Single-family neighborhoods are pretty stable by their nature."

If Denver got creative about looking for spots for infill, it could find hundreds of such sites along the South Platte River and in semi-industrial neighborhoods, he says. "You have a crescent of industrial land along the river and railroad tracks, and a lot of that is suitable for housing."

That may not be as easy as it sounds in Denver.

City officials here know that higher density will be resisted by some neighborhood groups, like Zschoche's Washington Park East Neighborhood Association -- especially since the city council has allowed more established neighborhoods, like Hilltop, to prevent even a small amount of development in the form of lot-splitting -- and they're bracing themselves for an uproar.

"We would all be immensely surprised if we didn't have controversy," Ittelson says. "It's an expected part of this."

But Barnes-Gelt sees no double standard in her advocacy of density in commercial areas and along I-25 and her opposition to lot-splitting in Hilltop. "There are appropriate places to add density and inappropriate places," she says. "The wanton destruction of neighborhood character is not why Denver is a wonderful place to live."

The only places that make sense are those with the capacity to have frequent bus or rail service, she says, adding that even in Hilltop, there are areas along Holly Street that would be appropriate for high density.

If high-density developments are attractive and well done, Barnes-Gelt says, she believes the public will accept them. She points to the redevelopment of the former St. Luke's Hospital in Uptown as an example of a dense project that is appealing. "That has ninety units to the acre. It's ten times denser than most everything we build," she says. "The key is good schools, safe streets and strong design. People are starting to realize that real communities are in cities; it's more interesting and compact than the suburbs. Civilization didn't begin in Aurora."

Many of Barnes-Gelt's colleagues on city council share her perspective. "I am very much in favor of density," says Polly Flobeck, who represents Hilltop. "In many places in the city, density makes sense, but I don't think lot-splitting is the way to densify. We can't just tear down this city and build house after house after house. But we can certainly look at the advantages of density and do it where it's appropriate."

Flobeck says many people in her district were opposed to the Hillcrest Village project at Third Avenue and Holly Street, which brought 32 condominiums along with several new retailers to a vacant lot. However, she says, most of the neighbors now think Hillcrest Village is a good addition to the area. "Hillcrest Village is close to bus lines, and there are little stores there," she says. "It's exciting to take density -- which many people think is terrible -- and have neighbors walking and not having to get in a car to drive."

Whether Denver residents are really ready to change the way the city looks and feels is still unknown. For decades, most of its neighborhoods have seen little change, and the sudden development pressure in the city's center has shocked many longtime residents. All the talk of new urbanism and transit-oriented development may sound good on paper, but when people are faced with a six-story housing project down the street, they may rise up to kill it.

Barnes-Gelt believes that would be a tragedy.

"This is not just a Denver issue, it's a Front Range issue," she says. "We're poised right at the edge. If we're going to maintain and sustain this place, we have to be realistic. The best possible move would be to have another 200,000 people in Denver. That would be 200,000 less people sprawling in the suburbs. There will be a lot of anxiety on the part of citizens, but we have the chance to do this, and, damn it, we'd better do it."

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers