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Archive of posts filed under the Plans & Policies category.

Bidirectional Bike Lanes

I just returned from a long holiday weekend in Montreal. It was my first time to that city and it was awesome. Montreal is nicely urban and dense with a great metro system, but it also felt very approachable and non-intimidating. Anyway, as is always the case, I come back from a trip like this with a ton of photos and examples to share of what other cities are doing that we could do here in Denver to improve our urban environment.

For our first example, let’s talk about bidirectional on-street bike lanes. In Denver, our major off-street bike trails, like along Cherry Creek or the Platte River, are bidirectional, but do we have anything in Denver like these examples below from Montreal?

Without curbs:

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With curbs:

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The street in Montreal without curbs was a local residential street with very little traffic. The street with curbs was a bit more of a major neighborhood street, something similar to, say, E. 11th Avenue in Capitol Hill.

I saw many examples of this in Montreal; in fact, I think I saw more bidirectional on-street bike lanes than unidirectional lanes. They appear to treat bicycles as a true transportation mode worthy of its own system within the public right-of-way rather than as something you accommodate if there’s enough room on the street to paint a few lines without inconveniencing the motor vehicle system too much.

The Downtown Denver Partnership has recently asked the city to study the possibility of a bidirectional bike lane system on 15th Street in Downtown to connect Civic Center with LoDo. Where else do you think Denver should or could implement bidirectional bike lanes? What routes would bike commuters suggest? Where do you think the right-of-way width/configuration would allow for bidirectional lanes? Discuss.

By the way, the city is currently updating its bicycle and pedestrian master plans through an effort called Denver Moves. If you are interested in this issue and want to provide feedback to the city on this important topic, please get involved in Denver Moves. For more info, visit: http://denvermoves.org/


Lessons from Vancouver

Recently I had the opportunity to travel to Vancouver, BC as part of the Downtown Denver Partnership‘s urban exploration program. Our group included about 60 downtown leaders and officials, and the purpose of the trip was to learn about different design and policy initiatives used successfully in Vancouver that we could potentially adopt to improve Downtown Denver.

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Downtown Vancouver is an amazing place. A city and metro area almost identical in population to Denver, their downtown is covered by (literally) hundreds of residential towers, along with office towers, all the usual civic buildings and cultural amenities, exceptional parks, and substantial retail.  Over 90,000 people call Downtown Vancouver home in an area 1.75 miles by 1.0 miles—about the same size as in Denver bounded by the South Platte River to the State Capitol, and Speer Boulevard to Park Avenue. Here’s Downtown Vancouver via GoogleEarth with 3-D Buildings:

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How Downtown Vancouver transformed over the course of about 20 years into a dense, residentially oriented and livable downtown was the result of a convergence of many factors, including worldwide exposure from hosting the 1986 World Expo; a flood of investment capital in advance of the 1999 transfer of Hong Kong to China (and, since then, investment capital from throughout the world); a strong pro-environmental and progressive cultural ethic; a vibrant local economy; anticipation over hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics; a geographically constrained urban core; and municipal leadership that’s unapologetically and aggressively pro-urban. Imagine a city Denver’s size with dozens of One Lincoln Parks and Glass Houses coming online every year for over two decades running (with no slowdown in sight). That’s Vancouver.

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It’s impossible for me to recount the hundreds of great ideas, key decisions, and influential policies that we learned about on the trip in this blog post, but I’ll share with you a few that really stood out to me:

When asked about the city’s policy and spending priorities within the public realm, the Vancouver planning director said in a very matter-of-fact manner:

1. Pedestrians
2. Bicycles
3. Transit
4. Movement of goods
5. Private automobiles

…in that order, period. And this is not just a planning department priority order, but one shared enthusiastically by Public Works, Parks & Rec, and everyone in the city from the Mayor on down. That priority order permeates everything they do in Vancouver, and it shows. It’s no coincidence that Vancouver routinely ranks as one of the most livable cities in not only North America, but the world. In Denver, we are slowly coming around to those priorities, but we have a long way to go before it becomes an institutionalized way of thinking.

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Vancouver requires a lot from their development community. Parks, plazas, promenades, civic projects, transit improvements, schools, day care centers… you name it, if it’s something that adds to the livability of the city, the city requires developers to help pay for these things (what they call the “common wealth”) if the developers are going to be granted a building permit. But in exchange for all of that civic investment, the city rewards the developers with substantial density bonuses and a streamlined review process. The city’s strategy is that a successful project must be a win-win for both the developer and the community. The city will work whatever deal is necessary to make the project profitable for the developer while also making sure the project contributes to the vitality of the city. Now, to be fair, this is a strategy that works because there is such a tremendous demand to build projects in Vancouver, that the city is in a position of calling the shots. But, one of the reasons why demand to invest in Vancouver is so strong is because of the high quality of life that has resulted from all those amenities that were built with help from the development community.

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Vancouver is known for its “point” tower: a thin structure rising up from a podium base that extends to the property line. In Vancouver, each tower above the podium must be at least 80 feet from its neighbor. This results in a checkerboard-like distribution of towers across the downtown with plenty of air and sun and nice views in between while, at the sidewalk level, the podium provides a strong street wall punctuated only by the carefully placed public park or plaza. In Vancouver, those tower podiums are usually only two or three stories high and consist of various activities such as retail, lobby functions, offices, or community uses. Parking? It’s all underground. Above-ground structured parking is not allowed.

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Towers in Vancouver are not allowed to have a flat boxy top. The developer/architect is required do something interesting at the top. The city doesn’t dictate what the top must look like and it doesn’t have to be fancy, it just can’t be a box.

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There are 14 full-service grocery stores in Downtown Vancouver (plus urban versions of Home Depot and many other big-box retailers). Want retail? Need lots of people.

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Vancouver is known for its family-friendly downtown. They made the decision that their downtown wasn’t going to be for just young professionals and empty-nesters. Not only do they have an affordable housing requirement (as does Denver), but they also have a family-housing requirement: each development must have a certain number or percentage of three- or four-bedroom units to accommodate families. That, combined with plenty of downtown schools, day care centers, and kid-friendly public spaces, has mostly eliminated the “gotta move to the suburbs after the kids are born” routine that is so typical here in Denver. In fact, the demographic that has been a big part of the city’s population growth has been suburbanites with kids moving into Downtown.

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Ground-floor retail is required in buildings only along certain streets (primarily those with transit). Otherwise, the ground floors of buildings must be visually permeable with interesting/engaging designs to the pedestrian, nice landscaping, etc., but retail isn’t forced to be everywhere.

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I could go on, but that’s enough for now. Each of these topics have clear applications for Denver. As a result of this trip, I’m even more committed to advocating for more progressive thinking about how Downtown Denver should grow and prosper. Vancouver’s experience can help us get there.


Denver Approves New Zoning Code

The Denver City Council just passed, unanimously, the new Denver Zoning Code. I haven’t blogged much about the new zoning code over the past five years because, frankly, I haven’t had the time or the energy to give it the coverage it deserved, with all those infill projects to talk about. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been a strong supporter of the Herculean effort that planning director Peter Park and the Community Planning & Development staff, the Zoning Code Task Force, City Council, and thousands of citizens have undertaken to give Denver a 21st Century zoning code.

Denver’s now-former zoning code had its origins in the 1950s. That code reflected the values at that time which could be generalized in a few words: “make our city as automobile-friendly as possible” and “old and small urbanism is bad, new and big urbanism is good, regardless of location”. The old code didn’t just allow, but encouraged the destruction of historic neighborhoods through incompatible development, required new development to be designed around the automobile, and generally dehumanized our built environment. While our values and our plans eventually changed to reflect the type of city-building that originally gave us the mixed-use, sustainable, pedestrian-oriented places we treasure most, our zoning code was still promoting—dictating even—quite the opposite. Now, the city’s zoning code, which is nothing more than a regulatory tool for implementing our plans and our vision for the city’s future, is in sync with those plans and that vision. This fundamental restructuring of how we regulate our built environment is on par with our investments in DIA or FasTracks: it is profound in the magnitude of its potential to help us achieve exceptional urbanism in Denver.

Like any major effort, the new zoning code is not perfect, and no one is saying that it is. But the city must be commended for being up to the challenge in the first place, and for the extensive outreach and collaborative process they implemented to accomplish the task. Even people who have a particular nit to pick with the new code acknowledge the exhaustive work and open process the city followed to make the new code as good as can be expected at this time. Appropriately, many tweaks to the new code will be made over the coming months and years, but as of June 21, 2010, we now have in place a zoning code that is in harmony with our land use and transportation plans and rooted in the perspective that zoning is not just about land use, but about neighborhood context and building form too. The real test of the new zoning code will obviously come through the private sector attempting to develop new projects under it, so how well it really works remains to be seen. But even a partially flawed new code consistent with our ideals and vision is infinitely better than an old code that was philosophically antithetical to our current city-building values.

In one fell swoop, yet years in the making, the zoning map and the zoning code for the entire City and County of Denver just radically changed. It’s a big deal, and I am proud of our city for achieving it.


Re-Envisioning the Denver Coliseum

DenverInfill had the privilege to partner this year with NAIOP-Colorado to promote the Rocky Mountain Real Estate Challenge, the annual high-profile competition between the real estate programs at the University of Colorado and the University of Denver. This year’s challenge, as discussed in my post of April 20, involved a re-envisioning of the Denver Coliseum property near I-70 and Brighton Boulevard in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood.

The challenge focused on a 46-acre site that included the Coliseum and its parking lots to the southwest toward Globeville Landing Park. The site sits at the crossroads of the redeveloping area north of Downtown that features nearby the RiNo arts district, future FasTracks transit stations, South Platte River amenities, and excellent highway access. One of the competition’s main assumptions was that the Coliseum had to remain the property of the city and continue as an entertainment venue. For all of the program’s rules and requirements, review the document included with the April 20 post.

Last night, over 600 people packed the ballroom at the Downtown Marriott to hear the two teams’ presentations and the selection of the winner. The result: the University of Colorado was victorious and snapped a four-year DU winning streak. Congratulations CU!  Both teams, however, put forth excellent presentations that offered innovative, yet different potential futures for the Coliseum area. I’m happy that DenverInfill is able to present both teams’ proposals from last night.

CU envisioned the site as the Denver Center for Creating Art, with the Coliseum reconfigured as a performance and rehearsal venue and new development providing space for the Art Institute of Colorado and other arts-related businesses. Below is CU’s proposed site plan and here are links to PDFs of CU’s executive summary (1.6 MB) and full presentation (14.7 MB).

2010 RMREC - CU Team Site Plan

DU, on the other hand, envisioned the site as the Frontier Center at the Denver Coliseum, a complex focused on “agri-tech” and alternative energy education and business development, with a conference center and incubator space for entrepreneurial businesses focused on these evolving industries. A site plan from the DU presentation is below, and here are links to PDFs of DU’s executive summary (0.6 MB) and full presentation (6.1 MB).

2010 RMREC - DU Team Site Plan

While both plans represent academic exercises only and do not necessarily reflect what will eventually be planned for the Coliseum, the potential for the site as described by both teams is exciting and gives Denver citizens and its leaders plenty to consider as the Coliseum area transforms into a vibrant extension of our urban core. Congratulations to the students from both schools, and many thanks to everyone at NAIOP and the City involved in organizing this year’s Rocky Mountain Real Estate Challenge and for their efforts to enhance the quality of both universities’ real estate programs and to promote excellence in Denver’s urban environment.


2010 Rocky Mountain Real Estate Challenge

One of the most unique and exciting competitions in the realm of urban development is the annual Rocky Mountain Real Estate Challenge. The challenge is organized by the Colorado chapter of NAIOP, the nation’s premier commercial real estate development association.

Each year, the real estate development program at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business faces off against its counterpart at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business over a particularly complex real estate development scenario. Over the past couple of months, several student teams within each program have battled over who gets the right to represent their university in the final competition. The two finalist teams are now set, with the final competition presentations and judging coming up on May 5 at the Marriott City Center in Downtown.

This year, the City and County of Denver is the client, and they have asked the teams to explore redevelopment opportunities in the Denver Coliseum/River North area. With various industrial and railroad uses, an interstate highway, the Platte River, old and new infrastructure, surface parking lots, a future FasTracks transit station, and the Coliseum itself all clustered into this emerging district north of Downtown, the students definitely have their work cut out for them. Their challenge: come up with an exciting and viable development project based on intense research, financial analysis, and physical design, and present their proposal before a big crowd of commercial real estate development professionals. No sweat.

For more on the rules to the challenge and background information on the site, view this PDF that was issued to the student teams. Want to attend the final presentations on May 5?  You can get all the program details and register using this form or online at the NAIOP website.

After May 5, the DenverInfill Blog will present the presentations from the two student teams. Best of luck to both schools!


16th Street Mall Concepts

As a follow-up to the public meeting of a couple weeks ago, the consultant team for the 16th Street Mall urban design plan is preparing to bring current concepts to the public in open houses next Wednesday and Thursday.  Three broad concepts are currently on the table.  These concepts have considered – among other things – the history of the Mall and its materials, the observed manner in which people use the Mall, and the value judgments of a number of constituents of the Mall – including retailers, downtown residents, accessibility advocates, police, RTD, and the BID.

The concepts outline three alternatives for the future of the Mall.  These range from little intervention to consideration of a broader downtown context.  It should be noted that the technical details and block-by-block plans have not been developed at this point – with the intent to gather public input before taking a preferred concept to detailed development.  The options include the following:

(please note, all images are courtesy ZGF Architects and in each case the north side of the street is to the left)

Option 1. 

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This concept maintains the existing design of the Mall framework, maintaining the median space between the shuttle lanes through the central portion of the Mall.  Efforts would be made to organize furnishings and vendor operations to improve the overall use of the Mall, as well as to mitigate existing accessibility issues, but the design of the street would be largely unchanged.

Option 2.

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The intent of Option 2 is to enhance the use and social opportunities of the Mall through a reorganization of circulation and amenities.  In this concept, the central portion of the Mall would be reconfigured to the assymetric section currently found on both the east and west ends of the Mall – locating the west-bound shuttle lane within the current median (this would not impact the existing trees or lights, as the width of the median is adequate to accommodate the shuttles).

This option would allow restaurant patios on the north side of the street to expand nearly to the existing flow line of the street, while the existing west-bound lane would be used primarily for pedestrian movement.  In cases where restaurant patios are not found, vendor carts and other amenities would located in the north walkway – with pedestrian circulation shifting to the north (as illustrated in the secend Option 3 diagram below).  In addition, a third row of trees is suggested, providing additional shade to the Mall.

The design team has studied the effect of this concept on the paving pattern, and believes that the historic pattern can accommodate the scheme.

Option 3.

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Option 3 takes the previous option to a whole new level, suggesting the relocation of the west-bound shuttle to 15th Street.  The concept does all of the things that Option 2 does, while also allowing for the potential accommodation of bicycles on the Mall.  Further, it places a focus on 15th Street – a place that is almost forgotten when it comes to walkability and retail viability.

Additional information is available on the Downtown Denver Partnership’s website.

It’s an exciting time for the 16th Street Mall, and it’s our time as a community to have a say in its future.  So get on out to the open houses next week or attend future public meetings!  You can also become a friend of the Mall of Facebook and give input that way.  Whatever the medium, just make yourself heard!


#2: FasTracks and Union Station

I was thinking the other day that it’d be nice to do something big and splashy to celebrate FasTracks/Union Station coming in at #2 on our Denver’s Top 10 Urbanism Achievements of the Aughts list, so I arranged for the feds to give us a billion bucks and I threw in the Union Station movie as a bonus. I hope you liked it!  Seriously though, that was quite a happy coincidence of events as I was about to post that Denver’s FasTracks transit program and its redevelopment of historic Denver Union Station are #2 on the countdown. Friday was certainly a great day for Denver.

Cities around the world have wisely built and maintained balanced transportation systems that include rail transit, cars, busses, bicycles, and a variety of contraptions in between. In the United States, we started out well, with streetcar systems (first horse-drawn, then electrified) running on the streets of just about every major city in the country. But then we abandoned all of that after World War II and went on an automobile binge that we have come to realize may not have been all that wise. Cars are awesome machines and the personal freedom they provide is phenomenal. But just like so many other things in life… too much of a good thing can be bad. So better late than never, cities across the US, including Denver, are bringing back rail transit to provide some balance to our transportation systems. It’s called having a diversified portfolio of transportation assets. I am proud of Denver for taking such a bold step in the right direction.

FasTracks is more than just an ambitious regional public transit program. It will also positively influence our regional land use decisions. Major employment centers, residential developments, shopping malls, and other land uses that draw or produce high numbers of people will be/should be located in the future along our transit corridors. That is one of the principles on which Denver’s regional MetroVision plan is based. It’s also common sense.

But let’s be very clear about what FasTracks is and what it isn’t. FasTracks is a regional transit system primarily designed on the hub-and-spoke model to move people from the suburbs into and out of Downtown Denver. Such a system is absolutely necessary and I wholeheartedly support the FasTracks program, as should you. But we also have to recognize that for those of us in Denver proper, FasTracks is only one side of the transit coin. FasTracks doesn’t provide Denver with the transit connections we need and desire within and between our denser urban core districts. That is where a new Denver streetcar system would come in, but that’s a topic for future blog posts.

If FasTracks alone wasn’t enough, we have the whole Union Station redevelopment to celebrate as well. Many cities destroyed their historic train stations or converted them beyond repair into shopping malls or festival marketplaces or whatnot. Fortunately in Denver, our Union Station remains intact and is now poised to once again serve as the rail hub for the city and region. Along with its associated private sector development, the Union Station project will complete the transformation of the Central Platte Valley as a dynamic transit-oriented extension of Downtown. Downtown Denver just keeps getting better and better…


Possible Funding for Colfax Streetcar?

The Denver Post reports today that State Senator Chris Romer plans to introduce a bill in the Colorado legislature that would provide significant funding for a streetcar line along Colfax Avenue. Senator Romer suggests the streetcar line should run from the Auraria Campus in Downtown Denver to the Anschutz Medical Campus at Fitzsimons in Aurora. For the details, click here for a PDF of the Denver Post article.

Here is the graphic that accompanied the Post article that isn’t included in the PDF version:

Denver Post streetcar map graphic

It is exciting to see a potential funding source identified to help build Denver’s first modern streetcar line. Who knows if this bill will ever get to the governor’s desk, but it is an encouraging sign nevertheless. I’m pleased that at least some of our state leaders are interested in advocating for urban transit.