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Downtown Denver: The Boom is Back (at least it seems that way)!

How many projects does it take before you can say your downtown’s experiencing a building boom? Five? Ten? Pick a number, but Downtown Denver is getting pretty darn close to that point. By my count, there are over twenty projects under construction or proposed in the Downtown Denver area. That’s pretty remarkable considering the severity of the Great Recession of 2008.

This time around, there aren’t too many high-rise towers being proposed (yet). Instead, it’s mostly mid-rise buildings, which is terrific news if you believe (and you should!) that great cities are comprised of a tight-knit fabric of pedestrian-friendly buildings that frame public spaces used for mobility, access, and social interaction. Nothing kills the cohesiveness of an urban environment more than a surface parking lot. Surface parking lots interrupt the continuity of the intensive human-oriented downtown environment and they suck the sense of character out of a place. They are a blight on the cityscape. Surface parking lots are, simply, the antithesis of what urban means. We have too many surface parking lots in and around Downtown Denver, but the good news is that over the past 20 years we have eliminated dozens of parking black-holes in the city center and, lucky for us, this current development boom happens to feature building forms that consume good-sized swaths of asphalt. At this stage in the progression of our city’s urban core, we’ll benefit substantially more from ten 5-story buildings than we would from one 50-story building.

Therefore, this is the first in a series of posts highlighting many of the new Downtown-area infill projects that I’ve been overdue in covering. Since January, my new job with the College of Architecture and Planning at UCD, where I teach full-time in the Master of Urban & Regional Planning program, has kept me exceptionally busy. But, with the Spring semester drawing to a close, now’s the time to catch up on what is really an amazing number of new development projects in central Denver.

So, let’s proceed… on with the infill!

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11 Comments

  1. Rob says:

    TEASE!!!! :)

  2. Steve M says:

    While we are in agreement that blight of the surface lots is a the bane of any city’s existence, we are in complete disagreement when is comes to land consumption for the “5 ten-story buildings” vs. one 50-story building. An activist such as yourself should know two ultra-important things…

    (a) a city comprised of 50 ten-story buildings vs. 10 fifty-story buildings loses walkability, sustainability, and growth potential;

    (b) skyline!

    Just picture Chicago with every tower there reduce to ten-stories. no skyline, no signature, no vibrancy, no character, and a total square area that a person could not walk from the loop to the gold coast in 25 minutes or reach by subway in 10.

    So, again, while I agree we need to develop and eliminate surface lots, we must be very, very careful to protect the land, prevent urban sprawl — no less disgusting than its cousin, suburban sprawl, and push for more environmentally friendly multiple-use towers.

    • Ken Schroeppel says:

      Steve, thanks for the comment. Actually, we don’t really disagree on the height issue because in reality, the value of vacant land in the core CBD is high enough that it is very unlikely any developer would do only 5 stories at, say, 17th and California. Most of the new 5-story developments are appearing in the parking lot-infested zone that rings the CBD. In these areas, a mid-rise building is an appropriate form for transitioning between the CBD’s skyscrapers and the residential neighborhoods surrounding downtown. I agree that vacant land in the heart of the CBD should be, and will be, used for high-rise development. In fact, as the parking lot zone surrounding the CBD is developed, that will only make the remaining vacant land inside the CBD that much more valuable, thereby increasing the likelihood of tower construction.

      However, regarding the walkability of a city comprised of 50 ten-story buildings vs. 10 fifty-story buildings… I must disagree. Look no farther than Paris, one of the densest cities on the planet, which is infinitely walkable, yet covered almost entirely by 5- to 10-story buildings. Or Amsterdam, or Barcelona, or so many other historic cities developed before the advent of the skyscraper, which remain as models of walkability.

      • Dan says:

        I have to agree with Steve on this subject. We all agree the parking lot disease caused by the brilliant concept from the 60’s and 70’s called Urban Renewal is slowly beginning to be cured by infill development. But Steve is correct with his points about both walkability (and the great urban examples of Chicago and New York vs LA, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta) and skyline. The footprint of Paris, Amsterdam, London (as in your examples, Ken) is many times that of Chicago and New York which support much higher density. 5 over 50 promotes sprawl – and Denver is one of the worst in the world in this regard, comparable to Atlanta and Houston. For those natives – the drive between Denver and Fort Collins before the 70’s on US 287 was spectacular through all that fertile land and those truck farms, now gone forever, covered with blue grass, maple trees and asphalt. Neighborhood is an attitude as much as a structure. As long as you provide for human needs and diversity, neighborhoods will invent themselves and thrive. I worry that “planners” have unsupportable visions that areas surrounding downtown should ‘ease upwards’ as you get closer to downtown, as though emulating slopes approaching a mountain peak. That’s a vision? Is there something wrong with an occasional high rise popping out of an otherwise low-rise area? Notice that high-rises are popping up all over London and cities in Germany and Spain in the middle of other wise low-rise areas. The conceptual plans I’ve seen for the Denargo Market/River North area that proposed several 10-35 story buildings were exactly what should be developed throughout the perimeter of the downtown area. Let’s not forget that one million more people are expected in the metro area by 2020. Housing them 500 per block in five story buildings doesn’t seem to be a very reasonable solution. The downtown area will only be able to accommodate 25-40,000 at that rate.

        It is also important to note that while surface lots are unattractive and walkability is preferable, the personal transportation solution known as the automobile will be with us for the next 5-10 generations at least, and must be accounted for. Since it is essential for the vast majority between the ages of 16-80, providing for the automobile shouldn’t be penalized either. Reasonable cost for parking in high density areas is ok, but it shouldn’t be a penalty. I want to promote density, not penalize it. Why? Because I deplore what sprawl has done to this beautiful countryside. I applaud the apartment/condo complexes under development for accommodating this need.

  3. Bernie Mac says:

    “great cities are comprised of a tight-knit fabric of pedestrian-friendly buildings that frame public spaces used for mobility, access, and social interaction.” Well said Ken.

    Plus this approach makes for a healthy citizenry and, of course, would include bicycles, public transportation and ART!

  4. Ken Schroeppel says:

    A few points in response to Dan’s and Steve’s comments:

    Certainly, the automobile must be accommodated. No one is suggesting otherwise. The automobile is a critical part of our multimodal transportation system. However, location does matter.

    In the urban core (say, a 2-3 mile radius of Downtown) the automobile should not, and must not, be prioritized. To give the automobile the priority in a dense urban setting simply goes against every principle of urbanism. Any argument to justify the prioritization of the automobile over the pedestrian, bicyclist, and/or transit user in a Downtown area is, by definition, anti-urban. Sorry if you don’t like that, but that’s the way it is.

    If by not giving automobile users priority of Downtown’s public realm means they are being “penalized” in some way, then so be it. The private automobile dominates the use of the public realm virtually everywhere else within the city, metropolitan area, and state. Can’t the automobile suffer a bit of “penalty” in just a few select square miles around Downtown? Is that too much to ask? Pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users suffer quite a bit of “penalty” everywhere else outside of Downtown. Can’t there be just one small, special area where the automobile is at a disadvantage?

    People who choose to work/live/play in a suburban/auto-centric environment know that, as a pedestrian, bicyclist, and/or transit user, they will be inconvenienced to some (usually substantial) degree. It’s a trade-off. It comes with the territory. The same is true in the urban core: if you want to drive your private automobile in the downtown area, then be prepared to be inconvenienced. It comes with the territory. If that’s too much to ask, then don’t go downtown.

    On to the density/height issue:

    First of all, Steve said: “A city comprised of 50 ten-story buildings vs. 10 fifty-story buildings loses walkability, sustainability, and growth potential.

    I’m sorry, but on what planet is that true? I think you’re confusing skyscrapers with urbanism. A bunch of skyscrapers does not a great city make. Some, even most, great cities have skyscrapers, but their skyscrapers are the consequence of their being great cities, not the cause. This is a fundamental principle of urbanism. By your statement, you just condemned virtually every city consisting of pre-skyscraper urban forms as being unwalkable and unsustainable, and that’s nonsense. Of course, buildings of any height should be pedestrian-friendly at the ground floor, but that’s a different issue.

    Dan, I don’t understand your points. First of all, the inner core of Paris has almost the same density (63k/SqMi) as does the island of Manhattan (69k/SqMi), despite the fact that the urban core of Paris is almost all 5-7 story buildings. Overall, the City of Paris has twice the density (54k/SqMi) than New York City (27k/SqMi), which has almost eight times the land area of Paris.

    The land area of the city of Amsterdam is 64 square miles for a population density of 12.2k/SqMi. Chicago’s land area is 227 square miles for a population density of 11.9k/SqMi. The City of Barcelona has a land area of 39 square miles for a population density of 41.2k/SqMi. These are some of the planet’s most walkable, vibrant, and dense cities, and they somehow managed to get that way without a bunch of skyscrapers. Your view that New York and Chicago are smaller and more dense than a place like Paris is not correct.

    Let’s look at this another way: Based on the standard Denver street grid of 8 blocks per mile in the north-south direction, and 16 blocks per mile in the east-west direction, that’s 128 standard city blocks per one square mile. If every block within that square mile was developed at the same density as the five-story 2300 Walnut project (310 units covering the whole block) and assuming 1.5 people per unit, that would give you a population density of 59.5k/SqMi, just shy of central Paris or the island of Manhattan. That would seem sufficient to me! Characterizing a 5-story building that covers an entire city block as being the equivalent of suburban sprawl is simply not accurate.

    I’m not arguing against skyscrapers. I love skyscrapers, and they are totally justified and desired in the CBD, as well as in other clusters here and there throughout the city’s urban areas. But, what I think you are misunderstanding is this comparison of “ten 5-story buildings” vs. “one 50-story building” that I’m trying to make. There is only so much demand to go around.

    Each real estate cycle in Denver generally lasts about 11 years. Let’s say there is demand within each cycle for, say, 200 “floors-worth” of vertical development within the Downtown area (CBD, LoDo, CPV/Union Station, Arapahoe Square, Civic Center/Golden Triangle). If we were to satisfy that demand per cycle through eight 25-story buildings, then considering there are about 160 vacant/parking lot development sites in the Downtown area (yes, I counted them), that would mean it would take approximately 20 real estate cycles (or about 220 years) before we eliminate all vacant/parking lots in the Downtown area. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to wait that long.

    On the other hand, if we start on the periphery of the Downtown area and develop a bunch of 5-story buildings, then in just one real estate cycle we could consume 40 sites. Do that, along with the occasional high-rise here and there, for a few cycles, and within our lifetime we’ll be at a point where we will not only have awesome Parisian-scale thriving, walkable, dense mixed-use districts surrounding the CBD, but we’ll also have few enough sites left in the CBD where the demand to go “skyscraper” will be irresistible.

    • Dan says:

      Ken,

      Regarding positioning the automobile in this realm, I generally agree with you – it should not be prioritized anymore. By penalty I mean the urban area cannot hope to complete as a residential community if it costs an additional $3-400 a month per vehicle to live in the area. While I’m ok with commuters paying high costs, that is a competitive pressure as well that can harm the viability of downtown as a place of business. Commuter parking needs can be met with parking garages. Mass transit is not a convenient solution for many commuters due to it’s point-to-point and schedule limitations. It works well in high density cities like New York and Chicago precisely because of the density.

      Regarding the density data, I defer to you Ken – you have that data and I don’t. (I knew Amsterdam was a bad example after I made it.) I still deplore the sprawl considering what it has covered up and the resources it consumes. I also would like to see the surface lots disappear. I think the case I am making (and perhaps Steve is as well) is that I consider a broad field of 5 story buildings boring to look at – unappealing, whereas a field with some high-rise interspersed with low-rise is interesting to the eye and draws you in. I live in NW Denver and the view from Speer into the city is spectacular. That’s what I want to see. I think walkability and the other characteristics you mention are achievable in either footprint. I would like to see the 1 mile radius around down town be home to 100-150,000 people. Let’s think big.

      You mentioned “principles” of urbanism. I’m curious – are these principles developed before or after the fact? Is urbanism a science or is there flexibility? I understand your passion, Ken. This is your profession, after all. But I also think the beautiful thing you’ve done with DenverInfill is create a forum open to many viewpoints and as such should cause all of us to challenge our own positions.

      • Ken Schroeppel says:

        Dan, I too think some taller buildings interspersed with low-rise is best. I’m not promoting only broad fields of 5-story buildings. I just wanted to make the point that if we do the opposite and look down at 5-story buildings because they’re not high-rises and somehow unworthy of a big city, we will be mistaken on two counts: 1. Paris, among others, do just fine with lots of 5-story buildings and have excellent walkability (this was aimed mostly at Steve). 2. If we hold out for all developments to be high-rises, then these parking lots will disappear at a glacial pace and in the meantime, we’ll still suffer their negative consequences. But again, I totally agree: I love the up-and-down flow of building heights across the urban landscape, with clusters of taller buildings here and there.

        Finally, the principles of good urbanism have been revealed to us over time. After we strayed from the traditional urban forms and patterns that we had been using intuitively for millennia, we realized that we didn’t like what we were doing (sprawl, auto-dependency, separation of uses, etc.). We then looked back at those urban areas that appeal to humans and understood the principles behind them, which we now use today to guide new development (or at least some do, some of the time, to some degrees of success–thus, the debate). One of my favorite quotes was from an urbanist friend of mine, who said, “The support system of sprawl is astoundingly pervasive.” That is the battle we now are waging: to change the institutionalized systems that continue to promote sprawl and its related forms and patterns we do not like. Changing the Denver zoning code, is a good example of that.

        Thank you for your participation on these blogs… this is exactly the type of dialog I had hoped for!

        • Dan says:

          Ken,

          I am delighted with your reply and this conversation. I think we share the same enthusiasm for development in the central downtown area and it can’t happen fast enough. To a large degree I have been reacting to the visions of City Council (driven by the planning department (CPD)) that I’ve seen (perhaps linked to on this site?) that do seem to project that uniform field. I wonder if we will see exceptions – if a developer might propose a 15-20 story residential tower in an otherwise 5 story field that City Council and CPD decides to approve?

          Regarding planning principles, I accept your explanation of how they evolve from the past experience and attempt to be forward looking in application. When I look at some current examples, I question the effectiveness of grouping apartment buildings together and separate from single family homes, similarly with duplexes and other multi-family structures. You see this type of ‘planning’ all over the metro area, especially in Aurora and Westminster. I fail to see the logic from a community planning point of view. This clearly flies in the face of diversity. It shouts “you’re a renter or a condo owner and don’t belong or can’t be integrated into my community”. It is a policy of exclusion, not inclusion. I live in NW Denver where we have anywhere from single family homes to senior housing to Section 8 to multiplex to high rise apartments, ranging from rent to $150k to $2.5 million to own – true diversity in housing solution and economic status, and coincidentally also in ethnicity, gender, and age. We also feature architecture from every decade since the 1880’s. And most importantly, it works, and has for a long time, and it happened naturally without much planning. The market is proof. Our property values have not declined and the real estate market is currently white hot yet affordable. (BTW – I’m not recommending this type of diversity in the core city areas that need development – it is completely impractical. Rather I am expanding the conversation.) I think the new zoning code did a good job of stating the obvious (areas of change or ‘need change’) and appropriately encourages development in those areas. I think we need to show flexibility in how this development occurs. The new code was also realistic in areas of stability, admitting they will also change and the result may be different than what was there before. I do think the code seriously challenged the economics of inevitable redevelopment in areas of stability by reducing development rights. Now a property eligible for development must decline in value to junk status (blight) before it can be purchased and scraped to be economically redeveloped into the same use. In the end such a policy will be harmful and unhealthy to sustain otherwise vibrant neighborhoods. I’m not certain what your position is concerning Blueprint Denver, but I did catch the word ‘battle’. I don’t think it’s a battle which implies some assertion of right and wrong; rather it is a discussion seeking what works and is effective and is otherwise desirable versus what is ineffective and largely undesirable and untenable.

          • Ken Schroeppel says:

            Dan, I agree about the diversity issue. As a resident of Lower Highland, the seemingly random mix of apartments, condos, row houses, single-family homes, and the odd commercial structure, is one of the qualities I love most about the neighborhood. (Same too for Capitol Hill.) I believe the city does want that diversity, and our new zoning code certainly gives us more flexibility to do that in some regards than the old zoning code, but at the same time, it’s really up to the developer. In some cases, the developer may simply build to the max allowed, build less than the max allowed, or seek a zoning change to increase over the currently allowed max. Zoning is generally applied to areas at a certain level of detail. Zoning a large area (say, a whole square mile) the same zone designation would certainly be not fine-grain enough. On the other hand, zoning every parcel a different zone designation to create a super-diverse field of urban forms would be too difficult and probably wrought with controversy. Therefore, something in the middle: a half-block, a whole block, or a cluster of blocks, get the same zone designation in an effort to create or maintain some context and predictability while not being overly prescriptive.

            Anyway, two good examples of what we’ve been talking about, both of which I strongly supported, was Buzz Geller’s rezoning at 14th and Larimer and Ray Suppa’s rezoning at 15th and Little Raven, both allowing towers in the 30-story range, at sites surrounded by generally much lower building heights.

  5. Dan says:

    I agree with you completely, especially regarding the two projects mentioned. I hope they have an opportunity to be developed, but the economy may put them off. The days of $400-1000 per square foot may be over for awhile – as I recall that was the target for these projects.