Skip to content
Archive of posts filed under the Sustainability category.

Denver Union Station Update #6

I’m sure much of Kiewit’s effort to keep the job site clean and environmentally sound is governed by regulation. However, it feels like they may be going beyond simple compliance with rules.  In fact, I sense a compulsion for neatness and cleanliness. Here are some of my observations over the past couple of weeks and learning from my meeting this morning with Hunter Sydnor who is Kiewit’s Public Information Officer.

Scrap materials are sorted by type and recycled. In this picture, you can see four of the seven dumpsters containing materials headed for the recycling plant.

As you saw in Update #4, the granite sidewalk is being removed along 16th Street and is being stacked on pallets. Each stone has been labeled with the “address” of its place in the sidewalk. As of this morning, nearly all of the granite, along with the familiar flower pots, trash cans and benches have been staged for removal to a nearby staging area. They will be stored until that part of 16th Street is reassembled using the same granite slabs in a couple of years or so.

Controlling dust appears to be a top priority. This street sweeper runs constantly for nine hours day up and down the two remaining blocks of Chestnut Street, one block of 18th Street, and three blocks of Wewatta Street. The goal is to pick up dirt left behind by the departing dump trucks. On Friday, I was walking on 18th Street, approaching  the new Union Gateway Bridge when I saw a Kiewit employee with a broom sweeping a sidewalk where nobody walks, on a street where nobody drives. But the wind would find the dirt and blow it around the neighborhood if he hadn’t swept it.

Similarly, this yellow truck sprays water on the open dirt areas of the project to keep dust from blowing. On a windy day last week, I noticed construction workers shielding theirs eyes from a passing dirt devil. The spray truck on was the spot within a minute. Even with construction at a complete standstill over the Easter weekend, the spray truck was at work each day keeping the neighborhood free of dust.

In Update #3 about water systems, I mentioned that 10 dewatering wells pump ground water into the storm sewer. Here’s a picture of the filtration tanks that ensure the water is clean before it heads for the river.

Since this is a transportation project, it is unconventional from the perspective of LEED Certification which is oriented to upright building structures. In spite of that, the Kiewit Western Construction Company is attempting to gain LEED Certification for its work at Union Station with help from its sister organization, the Kiewit Building Group (commercial buildings) which also has an office in Denver. Much of what I mentioned above is part of that effort.

I promised an answer to your questions about bad dirt. I can tell you that the dirt is contaminated with coal dust. No surprise, since the area was a rail yard for well over 100 years. I still do not know exactly what is being done with the dirt, but I will work to find out.

Finally, I’ll share my favorite cleanliness story to date. On the same windy day that I mentioned above, a worker climbed out of his front-end loader just as a piece of litter blew past his leg. The wind carried it for 30-40 feet with him in hot pursuit. He picked it up, stuffed it in his pocket, and went on his way … to lunch, I think.

#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…

Denver’s Underutilized Neighborhood Business Districts

Denverites love their city’s historic neighborhoods and the charming little commercial districts tucked in among them. And, thanks to our once extensive streetcar network around which most of these historic neighborhood shopping districts arose, there are still plenty of these little neighborhood spots that haven’t (yet) attained the gentrified popularity like the Old South Pearls or the Highland Squares.

One of my favorite local journalists, Jared Jacang Maher, recently explored this very topic in his “Denver’s Top Ten Underutilized Neighborhood Business Districts” blog post. Kudos, Jared! Hopefully, as we recover from this economic slump and we head into the next wave of investment in our urban core, some of these spots will reclaim their long-lost status as the focal point of their neighborhood.

CNU Video Winner: Built to Last

Denver just hosted the 17th Congress for the New Urbanism. We’re the first city to ever host the CNU for a second time (cuz we’re so awesome). Anyway, they had a video contest for the best “New Urbanism” video. Here’s the winner:

The video, entitled Built to Last, was produced by the team of First + Main Media from Julian, CA and Paget Films from Buffalo, NY. Members of the team include John Paget, Dr. Chris Elisara, and Drew Ward.

Great video! Funny yet serious and gets the point across.

Denver Leads State Again in Population Increase

For yet another year, the City and County of Denver led all counties in Colorado in numeric population increase, according to the US Census Bureau and their just-released population estimates for July 1, 2008. Here are the numbers:

Source: US Census Bureau

This is a great sign that our core city remains the thriving heart of the region, and that through infill development and higher densities, we are achieving a more sustainable kind of growth.

Cities and their Shapes: Front Range Version

One topic I find most interesting is the politics of municipal boundaries. In Colorado, with cities relying on the almighty sales tax dollar as their main source of income, annexations usually occur not due to any logical basis in regional land use planning, but as a political tool to out-maneuver a neighboring city. In fact, the whole history of how cities come to be in general and how they grow spatially over time is fascinating to me (urban planning geek alert!).

One way to understand the nature of annexations and municipal geopolitics along the Front Range is to look at cities on maps in a different way. Most maps are cluttered with streets and labels and lines and dots and symbols of all types. By stripping away all those things and looking at just municipal territory, we can gain an interesting view of inter-municipal geopolitics.

I’ve prepared the following map by doing just that—showing nothing but just the municipalities of Colorado’s northern Front Range as spatial units (click and zoom to view at full size):

One of the things that immediately stands out to me is the recent territorial growth through annexation of cities in Weld and Larimer counties. They now all touch each other. What this map also shows is that one can now travel from northern Fort Collins to southern Parker (but not quite to Castle Rock) without ever leaving a municipality. That’s a distance of approximately 85 miles.

Now, just because an area is within the corporate limits of a city doesn’t mean it’s urbanized. In fact, particularly in the smaller towns along the I-25 corridor in Weld and Larimer counties, much of the municipal territory is still undeveloped. These areas have been annexed in anticipation of growth. The map clearly shows, however, the degree of jockeying for position taking place along the Front Range, the defensive maneuvers, the flagpole extensions to protect the flanks, the staking of claims at remote outposts to establish perimeters. It’s all about capturing those lucrative sales tax dollars that will surely come from all the shopping centers that will surely be built around the major interchanges.

From a planning and public policy perspective, the obvious question is: Is this any way to run a region? I think you know the answer to that. However, assuming that nothing changes and all this growth occurs in these locations anyway, at least the cities are doing the right thing by annexing these areas. Counties were not created to provide urban services, and providing urban services through a mish-mash of special districts is no way to build a community. Urban and suburban development belongs in cities. At least most of our Front Range cities seem to be getting that message.

But, notwithstanding all the insight about our urban growth and development policies that this map can provide, I also think it just looks really cool. Without cheating, how many of these cities can you name?

#9: More Trees!

We need more trees in Downtown Denver. To explain, I’m going to quote myself from a blog I did in September 2007 about Portland, Oregon’s Downtown treescape:

“Trees. They are such a critical element in a downtown streetscape, given all the concrete, asphalt, brick, and other hard and heat-radiating surfaces found in urban centers. In Denver, our Downtown treescape is in poor shape. The trees along 16th Street are generally in good condition and have grown over the past 25 years to create a relatively nice canopy along the Mall. But venture down just about any other Downtown Denver street, and you’ll find plenty of frail specimens looking all battered and abused, jagged stumps poking up from the sidewalk like broken-off toothpicks, and empty tree grates harboring weeds. Given the ubiquitous sunshine in Denver and our increasingly scorching summers, we need all the Downtown trees we can get.”

We also need to take better care of our Downtown trees. It’s very discouraging to see trees that are dead or severely stressed, but still sitting in their tree grate on the sidewalk. That would be like leaving the carcass of a dead animal on the sidewalk until its body decomposes. We would never allow that, yet we allow dead or dying trees to remain in place for years. Except for the trees on the 16th Street Mall and in parks and a few other places, the maintenance of Downtown trees are the responsibility of the owner in front of whose property the tree sits. So the next time you’re Downtown and you spot a dead tree or an empty tree grate, look at the building you’re standing in front of, and you’ll know who to blame.

How many trees are there Downtown and how do we know it’s not enough, you might ask? John D. at the Downtown Denver Partnership did a partial tree survey this past summer, and he was kind enough to share the data with me. The survey focused on just the named streets, from Cleveland Place to Larimer Street, and the blocks between 14th and 18th Streets (the 1400, 1500, 1600, and 1700 blocks). Also, two assumptions: 8 is the desired minimum number of trees per block face (or 16 trees per block), and the named streets run north-south. Using his raw data, I’ve created the following table:

What does this information tell us? Here are some key conclusions:

  • Based on the minimum standard of 8 trees per block face, the survey area in total has only about 56% of the street trees that it should have.

  • Collectively, the 1700 blocks are the best off, with about 73% of the trees they should have, followed by the 1500 blocks with 58%, the 1400 blocks with 50%, and the 1600 blocks with only 43%.

  • Curtis Street is the best off, with about 84% of the trees it should have, followed by California (76%), Larimer (72%), Arapahoe (62%), Stout (58%), Lawrence (55%) and Cleveland (50%). Having less than half the desired number of trees is Welton (44%), Tremont (41%), Court (39%), Champa (36%), and finally Glenarm, with only 30% of the minimum number of street trees.

  • Of the 88 total block faces in the study group, 27 of them (31%) were at or greater than the desired minimum. Of the remaining 61 block faces with some kind of shortfall (anywhere from 1 to 8 trees) about one-third (22) had a shortfall of 1 to 4 trees, and about two-thirds (39) had a shortfall of 5 to 8 trees.

  • A total of 26 block faces (30% of the entire survey group) don’t have a single street tree!

Keep in mind that this survey did not take into consideration the quality (i.e. health) of a tree, only if a tree was present. In fact, a few of the trees counted were noted as being dead, but were counted nevertheless.

Planting more trees is one goal, keeping every tree in a vibrant state of health is another. Our current system of relying on property owners to maintain the street trees in front of their property is obviously not working very well. We need to either vigorously enforce the current requirements, or make the maintenance of all trees in the Central Business District the responsibility of some entity that can ensure the trees are irrigated, pruned, and cared for on a regular basis. One way or another, we need a Downtown treescape that provides ample shade, shelter, and aesthetics for the pedestrian.

#10: Downtown Public Recycling Program

Denver has had residential curbside recycling for more than ten years now and, from what I’ve heard, it’s a pretty good program. The problem is, it’s only for single-family households and multi-family buildings of seven units or less. Multi-family buildings with eight units or more and commercial/office buildings… too bad!

Since Downtown Denver represents the greatest concentration of high-density residential and commercial uses in the city, one can assume that Downtown Denver probably generates more recyclable trash than anywhere else in the city. It doesn’t make any sense then, that the one place in our city with the greatest volume of recyclables is essentially excluded from our public recycling program. Public, as in your tax dollars pay for the program but you don’t get the service if you live in a condo building. (Same thing applies to regular trash pickup too.)

Of course, many people who live and work in the Downtown area do recycle, but doing so must be arranged through a private waste collection company, and you have to pay for the privilege. Since we’re trying to encourage higher-density living in Denver as part of being a more sustainable city, shouldn’t we be providing incentives (like, you know, free recycling) to residents living in multi-family buildings? In fact, maybe what we should do is make Denver residents who live in single-family homes arrange for private trash collection at their own expense (which is the case in many cities) but provide free municipal trash and recycling collection to residents who live in multi-family buildings. Wouldn’t that represent a more efficient use of our city tax dollars and a policy more consistent with our city’s sustainability goals?

There is some good news, however. In April 2008, the city launched a pilot program for municipal recycling collection in selected multi-family residential buildings in the Capitol Hill district. Let’s hope the program becomes permanent and is expanded to other areas in the urban core. Also, the Downtown Denver Partnership and the city recently launched a “single-stream” recycling program for the 16th Street Mall. Hopefully, that will be expanded one day throughout all of Downtown Denver.

Anyway, maximizing recycling in the region’s most densely populated urban place just makes sense and is the right and fair thing for the city to do. What do you think?

Sustainable Living Roadshow

Have you been to the Sustainable Living Roadshow yet? It’s an eco-fair of sorts that includes dozens of display booths, food vendors, a farmer’s market, and a couple of stages with music and bands. It’s all taking place on 16th Street from the Highland Bridge/Central Street up to Boulder Street and Hirshorn Park in Lower Highland. The Roadshow runs through tonight. Check it out!