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If You Seek a Downtown Development Site, Look Around You!

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):

2011-05-27_downtown_parking_lots

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.

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11 Comments

  1. Dan says:

    I hope this article makes it to the post, like Ms. Ditmer’s did. Although living downtown is great, we need those urban box stores (at least H&M is filling a small part of the void). But where’s Target, Macys, or Chicago miraculous mile large stores? After visiting Cincinnati a week ago, I was surprised to find a downtown smaller than Denver, less nightlife, yet included a Macys.

    Also, you missed a surface lot in the Denver Post building block (off of Cleveland).

  2. A different Dan says:

    This woman writes a column about urbanism?? What a joke!
    She needs to educate herself a little bit. If she has half a brain, she should be a daily visitor to this web site. I suspect she does not.

  3. chachafish says:

    Buya! A very well written article. :)

  4. Chad says:

    I noticed that you weren’t gutsy enough to suggest infilling the parking lot behind the Federal Reserve. I realize there’s probably not much that can be done about that one, but hey someone’s got to suggest it, right?

    • Ken says:

      I don’t think it was a matter of gutsiness, just a practical matter. They control the whole block so the parking won’t go unless the building does too. Maybe someday…

  5. dave says:

    A lot of this column is baffling, but I do agree that the Gaylord development is a bad idea. This will only serve to suck money and people away from downtown. I don’t think public money should be going towards this concept.

  6. bryan says:

    i think you were a little too gentle – but lets hope this makes its way to the post…

    that said, i am guessing she lives outside of the city, park hill at best…it’s pretty scary that she mockingly asks “why” regarding 5,000+ units in central denver would be important. if he does not understand how this works, and that parking is ALWAYS tight in great cities, then she should not be writing for the post in this capacity.

    well done.

  7. MarkB says:

    I’ve always had the highest respect for Joanne Ditmer and her “Raising the Roof” columns. Thanks to her long career–she has been writing a Post column since the year I was born, 1962–she has done more to raise awareness of good urban design in this city than anyone else–for years, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, she was a lone voice in the wilderness, the only journalist in this city who understood what a priceless legacy we have in our built environment, taking it upon herself to educate her readers about the benefits of maintaining our parks, preserving our important buildings, and keeping ugliness at bay. I distinctly remember her campaigning against billboards on Speer Blvd. (unfortunately, many of those are still with us), and many times pointing out the folly of designs that were considered “good” at the time, but are now rightly reviled by most of the readers of this blog [prediction: in 2031 we'll be looking at the forced Times Square-ification of 14th Street and wondering "what we were thinking?"). She wasn't right 100% of the time, but who is?

    When she says "Where? Razing existing buildings? Covering open space or parking lots? And why?," she's merely reacting to Chris Romer's statements. Joanne Ditmer is being misinterpreted here, I feel certain. She's on the side of good urbanism, and on not giving the city away to the latest flashy developer who promises the moon (e.g., her comments in this particular column about the Gaylord proposal for the Airport Gateway area, which would compete against our taxpayer-built convention center downtown, and likely hurt downtown if it is built).

    How do I know she's being misinterpreted here? Here are her words from one of her columns that ran on January 15, 1970: "Must we continue to be known as the city of parking lots? And unless some decisive steps are taken in the development [she was writing about DURA's Skyline urban renewal area], all we’ll do is compound that picture–a building on the corner, surrounded by parking lots, with maybe, (new touch!) a shrub or two.”

    “City of parking lots”–she was writing against having too many parking lots downtown before a lot of the readers of this blog were even born.

    Five years later she was still at it, in a column that ran in the Wednesday Food section on August 13, 1975 (she’s a woman, after all–in those days, as a woman her column was often relegated to the “women’s sections” of the paper). In this column she again wrote about Skyline, after the then-executive director of DURA, J. Robert Cameron, took journalists on a tour of the “wonders” the agency had wrought in various parts of Denver:

    “And because he [Cameron]‘s terribly touchy about undeveloped blocks being referred to as parking lots, he noted that $60,000 a month comes to DURA coffers from them, until they are developed [it would take another nine years for the last full blocks to be completed--Tabor Center didn't open until 1984]. As a die-hard, I still recall that 10 years ago some of us, particularly those interested in certain historic buildings, pleaded that DURA not raze everything at once, leaving the area as barren as a devastated target. I still believe that selectively saving some of the buildings that had the best chance of paying their own way would have been economically intelligent. And it would have been a rewarding alternative to total devastation.”

    Let’s give Joanne Ditmer some credit, and cut her some slack–whatever she meant by those words, she has long been on the side of good urbanism. When she writes about the evils of big-box retail, I’m sure she’s thinking of not only Quebec Square, but that similarly horrid shopping center at Broadway and Alameda (another DURA project that wiped out blocks of houses)–and she’s probably also thinking about the effect of big-box retail on local merchants. She still remembers that Denver used to HAVE local merchants–and I don’t mean just little boutiques run by trust-funders, but actual stores that served the real needs of Denver residents. I’m all for a downtown Target, but I’d prefer to still have Daniels & Fisher.

    Joanne Ditmer is one of those old-time Denver women–like Dana Crawford or Joyce Meskis–who really understand what makes for a great city.

  8. Ken— Even as a TOD fanatic, I am certain we still need parking in Denver !
    The reality is that surface lots make folks a lot of money, and development of structured lots–especially under new buildings costs a developer much more money. Land values are directly related to the income they can generate– Parking lots are the definition of the Denver cash cow. If big box retail could charge customers for the required parking, you might be on to something; but basically big box will not come to Denver, unless it has a big parking lot, or as at Belmar in Lakewood– the City builds the structured parking garages on bonds–It’s important to note that affordable housing must be an integral part of the mix. I do remember when Denver had 6 Major “Department Stores?–The Denver Dry Goods, Newstetters, Joslin’s, Woolworth’s, Penny’s, and the May D & F.—and you know what at that time 1/2 half of downtown was a parking lot, and it worked ! There were also 20,000 more housing units downtown in the 1970′s— Yea, Joanne Ditmer is an old-timer.
    Niccolo Casewit AIA

  9. Steve says:

    If you want Big Boxes in cities, you better plan on public / private partnerships for a parking structure. No matter how liberal the city gets on it’s parking ratios, surface parking will just be to big.Think about the parking across the street from the Art Museum : very nicely hidden by a row of condos. Think of the SEC of 15th and Pearl in Boulder : nicely hidden by a row of office over retail.Cities can and will pay to get scads of shoppers onto their turf.Sales tax revenues is what runs a city,and they know it.

  10. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/17/walmarts-us-sales-international-decline_n_862934.html?ref=fb&src=sp#sb=551257,b=facebook

    Whoops—there goes the market ! If consumers are not employed and adequately paid, they do not consume. Basic economics. Back to basics: Back to Main Streets…