We agree with Joanne Ditmer’s column in today’s Denver Post calling for Denver’s mayoral candidates to focus more on the smaller issues that define everyday life in the city (available here). In fact, we usually find common ground with Ms. Ditmer’s columns on environmental and urban issues facing Colorado. But she made some points today that we find very concerning.
First, Ms. Ditmer criticizes Chris Romer’s call for more big box retailers in Denver because they “devour landscapes” and “could destroy a neighborhood.” But this is hardly inevitable. Most big box retailers have now developed urban format stores. And while the anti-urban big box template is alive and well in Denver (see Stapleton’s Quebec Square), we do not have to look far to see better examples. Lakewood’s Belmar is a good start. Other cities outside of Colorado have done even better. Central Denver is ripe for the introduction of urban-scaled large-format retailers; anyone who has lived in or near downtown has, at one time or another, complained about driving to Glendale for life’s essentials. As Ms. Ditmer surely knows, Denver’s planners already possess all the land use tools they need to address her concerns.
More concerning is this part of Ms. Ditmer’s column:
“[Romer] said, ‘If we can make it easier for developers to do business, we could accomplish the mission of building 5,000 new rooftops in downtown Denver.’ Where? Razing existing buildings? Covering open space or parking lots? And why?”
Since when is covering parking lots downtown a bad thing? Ms. Ditmer seems to view surface parking lots as a legitimate downtown land use in their own right. They are not. Surface parking lots are vacant land with an interim use waiting to be developed, and wholly incompatible with a vibrant urban environment. New surface parking lots are not even an allowable land use downtown under the existing zoning code. And perhaps most importantly, they are a terrible eyesore and they greatly diminish the pedestrian experience.
We feel compelled to point out that surface parking is not necessary for downtown to prosper. As planners often remark, “any place worth its salt has a parking problem.” But even that is only half the story. There are far less disruptive means available to the city to provide adequate parking, without leaving whole swaths of prime downtown land dedicated to surface lots.
On to Ms. Ditmer’s next point regarding Chris Romer’s call for 5,000 new rooftops downtown. 5,000 is actually too few; Mr. Romer should be calling for many more! The 2007 Downtown Area Plan specifically calls for adding 18,000 new housing units to Downtown Denver by 2027. New downtown housing has been a goal of every Denver plan (and the plan of nearly every major U.S. city) for decades. Who would deny that downtown’s residential growth over the past decade has added a palpable energy to the city’s streets? DenverInfill and DenverUrbanism are dedicated to increasing Denver’s urban vitality and livability. The growth of downtown housing is the linchpin of that effort.
Finally, to Ms. Ditmer’s question—where to put all of this downtown housing? Suffice it to say, it will be a long time before we are forced to entertain the notion of “razing existing buildings” or “covering open space” to accommodate new downtown growth. Does Ms. Ditmer live in the same city we do—the one littered with undeveloped lots?
Take a look at the map below we’ve prepared, showing undeveloped land in the Central Business District. The yellow line represents the boundary of the CBD’s B-5 zoning, now labeled under the new zoning code as D-C (Downtown Core) and D-TD (Downtown Theater District):
Surface parking lots/vacant lots are outlined in red, with over 50 just in the CBD alone. If LoDo, Arapahoe Square, Uptown, the Golden Triangle and other CBD-adjacent districts are included, the surface parking lot count exceeds 200.
In 2005, shortly before the last Downtown Area Plan update, twelve teams of graduate planning students in Ken’s Planning Methods I course at the University of Colorado Denver prepared build-out scenarios for Downtown Denver. It was a Special Feature at the original DenverInfill.com, and is still available here. The averages were telling: the students found that Downtown Denver’s undeveloped lots can accommodate over 9,000 residential units, 800,000 square feet of new retail, almost 4.8 million square feet of new office space, and over 5,000 new hotel rooms, all while still providing over 28,000 structured parking spaces. If a higher percentage of land is assigned to housing, the number of new residential units that could be accommodated could top 15,000. And the students were only considering the CBD. LoDo, the Union Station/Riverfront Park area, Uptown, Prospect, the Golden Triangle, and Arapahoe Square were not even included. Needless to say, we have more than sufficient land available in the downtown area to accommodate tens of thousands of new residential units without razing a single structure or building on open space.
Ms. Ditmer’s column fires a shot directly through the heart of urbanism in Denver. We genuinely hope it was merely an oversight on her part and not representative of her true feelings.
This post has been co-authored by Ken Schroeppel and Brent Butzin. Brent is an attorney practicing in Denver. He graduated from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, where in 2007 he was awarded the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute’s annual award for excellence in land use planning law. Before law school, he worked as a consultant providing planning and civil engineering services to municipalities, special districts, and developers across Colorado. He holds a Master of Science in Civil Engineering and a Bachelor of Environmental Design from the University of Colorado at Boulder.