The Big Squeeze

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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.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers