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Archive of posts filed under the Blocks category.

#1: No More Surface Parking Lots!

Does this #1 come as a surprise to you? I should think not. Really, what could be more anti-urban than surface parking lots? Those of you who have been reading DenverInfill for many years now knew this was going to be #1 in the Top 10 list, right?

As I’ve said many times before, think about the cities that people choose to travel to solely for the urban experience (museums, shopping, culture, history, architecture, etc.): New York, San Francisco, Paris, London, etc.—no surface parking lots! There seems to be a direct correlation between the appeal of a place as an urban destination and the lack of surface parking lots at that place. As a tourist destination, Downtown Denver is doing pretty well considering the number of surface lots we still have. Over the past twenty years, as surface lots have been replaced by shops, hotels, offices, and condos, we’ve seen Downtown Denver’s appeal as a destination in its own right improve commensurately. To reach true urban excellence, we must eliminate all surface parking lots in Downtown Denver.

Unlike some of the other items on the Top 10 list, the city alone cannot accomplish this goal of surface parking lot eradication. Demand for the uses that would occupy new buildings built in place of surface lots must first exist, and the private sector must then respond to that demand by implementing the appropriate supply of vertical development. Consequently, since we’re at the mercy of the free market, it’s going to take a while—many decades—before we get rid of all of our surface lots in Downtown. But one thing that the city can do that it currently isn’t, is proactively readying parking lot sites for eventual development through land assemblage. One of the biggest barriers we have in Downtown to replacing parking lots with new buildings is the fractured ownership of so many parking lot sites. The problem is particularly prevalent in the Arapahoe Square and Civic Center districts. Take, for example, Blocks 045-E and 046-E in Civic Center:


On Block 046-E, the only building on the block that’s new is the 1200 Delaware townhome project, visible in the aerial under construction at the corner of 12th and Delaware. Everything else on the block could be scraped. So, excluding 1200 Delaware, on the west half of the block, there are 10 parcels owned by 8 different owners. On the east half of the block, there are 8 parcels owned by 4 different owners, with only one owner common to both halves. That means that to assemble all of Block 046-E except for the 1200 Delaware project, one would have to negotiate the purchase of land from 11 different owners.

On Block 045-E, the only building on the block that’s not expendable is the relatively new Balustrade Condos at the corner of 12th and Cherokee. Everything else on the block could go. Excluding the Balustrade then, on the west half of the block, there are 7 parcels owned by 6 different owners, and on the east half of the block, there are 8 parcels owned by 5 different owners; once again, only one of those owners common to both halves. For this block, you’d have to negotiate with 10 different owners.

So, here we have two blocks in a prime location, just steps from the Art Museum and the Civic Center’s other cultural amenities, that should be developed into a nice mix of mid-rise housing projects featuring ground-floor retail and restaurant spaces. But what developer in his or her right mind would want to tackle assembling even a portion of these blocks? Several of the parcels are owned by “family trusts” or by families known for their recalcitrance, and once the word got out that developers were trying to assemble the block, everyone would double or triple their asking price, rendering the effort unfeasible. It’s unlikely we’ll see anything of appropriate density built on either of these blocks any time soon unless the city gets serious about land assemblages in the Downtown area.

Anyway, most new Downtown projects typically include structured or underground parking for themselves, and perhaps some parking for the general public. Public parking garages can pick up some of the slack, with transit hopefully serving as the main means of moving people in and out of Downtown. But as surface parking lots are removed, parking your car Downtown will become more difficult–and that’s just fine with me. Time for a few quotes:

Anyplace worth its salt has a “parking problem.” -James Castle, public policy consultant

The car is not the enemy, nor is the elimination of cars the solution. It is our societal bias toward cars that must be questioned. – Anne Vernez Moudon, University of Washington professor of urban design

Anything you do to make a city more friendly to cars makes it less friendly to people. – Enrique Penalosa, New York University urban scholar

And finally, this from Dan Malouff, the mastermind behind BeyondDC and a friend and urban planner who I respect:

Downtowns will never be able to out-suburb the suburbs. It will never be able to play the suburban game of drive-up-and-park better than actual suburbs. Since downtown will never be able to make parking as easy as the suburbs, “easy parking” will never be the reason people choose to go downtown. Instead, people will choose to go downtown based on something downtown has that the suburbs don’t. The one thing downtown has that the suburbs don’t is quality urbanism (i.e. “walkability”). Walkability, therefore, is downtown’s primary competitive advantage over the suburbs. Since walkability suffers when land is used for parking, it stands to reason that more parking would HARM downtown Denver, because more parking would dilute downtown’s walkability, and walkability is the only reason to go downtown instead of to the suburbs. Put simply, easier downtown parking would make downtown more like the suburbs, which would be counterproductive because the reason people go downtown in the first place is because it ISN’T like the suburbs.

Nobody likes to walk next to a surface parking lot. They’re ugly and boring and they diminish the pedestrian experience. Eliminating surface parking lots gives us two bangs for our buck: we remove something that is a deterrent to walkability, and we add something that (hopefully) makes the pedestrian experience engaging and memorable.

Anyway, that’s it, folks! I hope you enjoyed the Top 10 countdown, and thanks for all the great comments—keep them coming. Here’s to a better Downtown Denver!


#2: More Two-Way Downtown Streets

Much like the number of traffic lanes discussed in #3, the fact that virtually all of Downtown Denver’s streets are one-way streets is reflective of the outdated mentality that the public right-of-way is all about moving the maximum number of cars from Point A to Point B in the shortest amount of time.

Given that the 16th Street Mall is not accessible to cars, three blocks separate 15th and 18th as parallel northwest-bound streets, and three blocks separate 14th and 17th as parallel southeast-bound streets. Add in the fact that the named cross streets are also alternating one-way streets, and it is quite easy to find yourself in a situation where you may have to drive four or five blocks out of your way just to get around the corner. The superblocks created by the Colorado Convention Center and the Denver Performing Arts Complex, also bordered by one-way streets, further complicate the matter. I’m not necessarily proposing that every one-way street in Downtown be converted to two-way, but many of them could be, particularly the named streets.

Wynkoop, Wazee and Glenarm seem to function just fine as two-way streets, and I can easily envision Larimer, Lawrence, Arapahoe, Curtis, Champa, Welton, and Tremont converted to two-way streets as well. Stout and California would probably have to stay as one-ways given the presence of the light rail tracks, as well as Market and Blake given how they feed into Auraria Parkway. On the numbered streets, even just one lane in the opposite direction on 15th, 17th, 18th and 19th would be a big help in avoiding the multiple-block “loop around” due to the Mall. Finally, 14th Street would make a great two-way street. With the plan to rebuild 14th and streetscape it as Downtown’s pedestrian-friendly cultural corridor, slowing down traffic and providing two-way access along 14th would be a logical complement to the planned physical improvements.

Again, this is a situation where our Downtown infrastructure has been designed to accommodate the automobile to such a degree that street name signs don’t even appear on the “back” sides of traffic signal mast arms since, one would hope, no cars would ever be traveling the wrong way on one-way streets to see the back sides. The only problem, as you know, is that pedestrians are not restricted to walking only one way on the sidewalk. Nevertheless, here we are in 2009 and if you’re a pedestrian walking on the sidewalk in the opposite direction of traffic on a Downtown Denver one-way street, in order to know the name of the cross street you’re approaching, you still have to cross the street and then look back over your shoulder to see the street name sign. How silly is that?

It’s a well-known fact that cars travel more slowly on two-way streets; a benefit to pedestrians. And while there is a certain easiness and predictability about crossing a one-way street as a pedestrian, having to look both ways before venturing into the crosswalk on a two-way street is hardly a big deal. Cherry Creek North thrives as a pedestrian-oriented district, and all its streets are two-ways. The time has come for us to reclaim Downtown Denver’s streets and make the pedestrian the priority in Downtown. A slight inconvenience to drivers? Perhaps, but too bad. Cars rule just about everywhere else in our society, why can’t we identify a few special places where the pedestrian can rule?


#3: Eliminate One Lane (at Least) from Every Downtown Street

Well, maybe not every Downtown street. A few streets, like Glenarm and Wazee, are already just one lane in each direction. But the majority of streets in Downtown Denver have too many lanes. They have been designed to maximize peak hour automobile traffic volumes, at the expense of pedestrians, bicyclists and transit. The number of through lanes on Downtown Denver’s streets reflects the 20th Century mentality that the public realm—the space between the buildings—belongs to the automobile and that traffic engineers should have absolute authority over what to do with that space.

Most of Downtown’s streets have three through lanes and, at many intersections, bloat to four or five when counting right or left turn lanes. Yet the vast majority of the time, these lanes are virtually empty. When walking down the 16th Street Mall, think about all the intersections where you look down the cross street and don’t see an oncoming car for blocks. Even during rush hour, cars are stacked up at a red light usually only three or four deep per lane. Remove one of those lanes, and they’d be stacked up five or six deep. So what? Yes, there are those times during rush hour or when a big event lets out when cars stack up to where they could create gridlock. But do we really need, or want, to have our Downtown streets be designed for situations that, out of the 1,440 minutes in a day, last for perhaps only twenty or thirty of those minutes? Meanwhile, the remaining 99% of the time, pedestrians are forced to suffer an infrastructure not built for them.

Now, when I say eliminate a lane, you can do that in different ways. It could mean a literal removal of the lane, where we move the curb and gutter in and expand the sidewalk on one or both sides of the street. But it could also mean converting a through lane into a parking lane, if one doesn’t exist there already, or converting a through lane into a “transit-bicycle-right turn only” lane. There are plenty of options, and which ones to do would need to be evaluated on a block-by-block basis. But those double-right and double-left turn lanes–get rid of them! They have no place in a Downtown environment. They are an insult and a physical threat to the pedestrian.

Narrowing streets and widening sidewalks is an expensive effort. In some places Downtown, it’s what we need to do and we should commit city resources to doing just that. However, we can do many relatively inexpensive things like restriping streets to add bike lanes, building bulb-outs at intersections to shorten pedestrian crossings, etc. that will help improve Downtown Denver for the pedestrian in the near-term. It will take a long time to reverse a half-century of infrastructure that’s been designed around the automobile, but we’ve got to do it if we want our Downtown to thrive beyond the 16th Street Mall.


Welton Place: Linking Curtis Park-Five Points With Downtown

One of the key urban infill projects currently under construction in Downtown Denver is the Welton Place project by Century Real Estate, which previously developed the Broadway Plaza Lofts and the Blake Street Apartments projects nearby. Except for a couple of historic homes that will remain, Welton Place will cover the entire city block bounded by Park Avenue West, 24th Street, Welton, and Glenarm–right where the historic and thriving Curtis Park-Five Points district meets the Arapahoe Square (Northeast Downtown) district. Even better, Welton Place is located one block from the 25th & Welton light rail station.

Work has started on the first phase–townhomes at 24th and Glenarm, with future phases consisting of office, residential, and retail uses in three multi-story buildings along Welton and Park Avenue. Here’s a recent overview shot of the whole block showing the townhomes now under construction:

Welton Place is the first of many projects to be located along the Welton Street corridor that will mend the parking-lot gap between Curtis Park-Five Points and the Central Business District. Imagine being able to walk from the soon-to-be-revitalized historic Fontius building at 16th and Welton all the way to the soon-to-be-revitalized historic Rossonian Hotel building at 26th and Welton and experience nothing but 10 blocks of mixed office, hotel, and residential uses with engaging ground-floor storefronts. That is our goal, and Welton Place represents a big step in getting us there.

Downtown Denver: Rebuilding the Core


Downtown Denver Theatre District

City leaders announced yesterday that the area centered around 14th and Curtis Streets in Downtown Denver has been designated as the Denver Theatre District. The district extends from Arapahoe to Champa and from the 16th Street Mall to Speer Boulevard, and at its heart is, of course, the Denver Performing Arts Complex, reportedly the largest of its kind in the nation with 11,260 seats in 11 performance venues.

Curtis Street was once known as “Theater Row” or the “Great White Way” and featured an impressive lineup of theaters with signs and marquees that blazed in bright lights. Here’s a neat 1927 photo of Curtis Street from the Denver Public Library’s Western History collection:

Part of the new Denver Theatre District program is to install illuminated signs and screens on the sides of buildings in the district in a “Times Square” fashion, improve the streetscape, and activate the Performing Arts Complex park along Speer. These improvements will also nicely tie in with the planned streetscape enhancements for 14th Street from Larimer to Colfax.

This focus on Curtis Street between 14th and 16th is the first step in implementing one of the recommendations of the new Downtown Area Plan, which identified Curtis Street as one of several Downtown named streets that will function as a Priority Pedestrian Connection to help link Downtown Denver’s various districts. Curtis Street will connect the Theatre District with the retail spine along 16th, the Financial District at 17th, the Federal District at 19th, the future Arapahoe Square District between 20th and Park Avenue, and then on into the Curtis Park neighborhood.

A key infill development opportunity that would greatly improve the pedestrian-friendliness of Curtis Street lies on Block 109, where an entire half block of surface parking lots face Curtis Street. Not only is the corner of 17th and Curtis a super-prime location in the heart of Downtown, but sharing the block with this site is the Hotel Monaco and the new Residence Inn hotel… darn good neighbors if you ask me.


Denver’s Union Station… Awaiting the Decision

Any day now, the city will announce which master developer team it has selected to implement the billion dollar Denver Union Station Master Plan. In the running is one team led by Continuum Partners and East West Partners, and the other team (known as Union Station Partners) is led by Cherokee Investment Partners and Phelps Development. Which team will win? Hard to say… but the good news is that, regardless of which team prevails, Denver’s Union Station is poised for a remarkable transformation into the region’s multi-modal transportation hub.

First, here are some images from each plan. You can download the full plans at: http://www.denverunionstation.org/master_developer/

Continuum/East West Partners (left to right): 1. Transportation elements; 2. Shuttle/Circulator plan; 3. Development program; 4. Build-out rendering

Union Station Partners (left to right): 1. Transportation elements; 2. Transit cross-section; 3. Development program; 4. Build-out rendering

Here are a few thoughts about the competing proposals:

Commuter Rail. Both the Continuum/East West (CEW) proposal and the Union Station Partners (USP) proposal place the commuter rail station underground immediately behind Union Station, as recommended in the Master Plan. Both teams also promise to complete the commuter rail portion up front, and not as a future phase as suggested in the Plan. A good choice by both teams, and great news either way for Denver commuters.

Light Rail. The CEW plan puts the light rail station at grade at the end of 17th Street by the Consolidated Main Line tracks. The USP plan has the light rail tracks coming in under 17th Street, with the station underground below Wewatta Street. If you’re making a light rail/bus or light rail/commuter rail transfer, the extra two block walk or shuttle ride required by the CEW proposal could be a pain if it’s nasty weather out, if you’re in a hurry, or if you’re lugging around a suitcase. Plus, there’s the issue of having to cross busy Wewatta Street at grade as well. On the other hand, the USP layout, with its light rail station spanning Wewatta Street underground, provides vertical access to the station from either side of Wewatta, eliminating the need to cross the street at grade, and has connections to the other transportation modes very close by as well.

The additional pedestrian traffic generated from light rail riders by the CEW plan would help activate that stretch of 17th Street, but partly at the expense of transit efficiency. (Ironically, because members of the CEW team already own land fronting 17th Street between Wewatta Street and the Consolidated Main Line tracks, if the USP plan is selected, CEW would still be responsible for creating a dynamic pedestrian environment along that stretch of 17th Street anyway). Given that the goal is to create a convenient and efficient transit hub and to reinvigorate the historic terminal, putting the light rail station several blocks away is not ideal. I think the USP light rail configuration is best.

Bus Terminal. The CEW proposal places the bus terminal underground next to the commuter rail station behind Union Station. The USP plan has the bus terminal as part of the structured parking facility across 18th Street from Union Station, and connected to the rest of the complex by a pedestrian bridge. The CEW bus terminal location is about as close and convenient as you can get. The USP bus terminal location is almost as near, and I like the idea of putting all the cars and busses together off to the side and reserving the prime space behind the historic station for the trains.

16th Street Mall Shuttle/Downtown Circulator Stops. The CEW plan has the end-of-the-line stops for both the shuttle and circulator systems at the end of 17th Street near their proposed light rail station, with an additional stop for each system next to Union Station as well. The USP plan simply ends both systems with a final stop for each on either side of Union Station. Consequently, both plans provide shuttle and circulator stops relatively close to their respective light rail, commuter rail, and bus station facilities. The main difference between the plans is that CEW uses two sets of stops to provide access to their various transit facilities, instead of one set of stops under the USP plan. Again, the USP plan provides better efficiency between the different transportation modes. The CEW layout, however, does allow the shuttle and circulator systems to penetrate deeper into the Valley, providing a convenience for people heading to or coming from the booming Riverfront Park, Platte Street, and Highland neighborhood areas.

Development. The USP plan provides roughly a million square feet more development than the CEW plan. The tallest building in the CEW proposal would top out around 20 stories, with most of the rest in the 10-12 story range. The USP plan features dramatic 46-story and 36-story towers, along with several shorter buildings. Given that this site should be the mother of all Transit Oriented Developments, it seems to me the CEW plan doesn’t go far enough in providing density around the station. We have one shot at developing this site and doing it right. It would be disappointing if we found ourselves a decade from now wishing we hadn’t been so conservative in the development program at our greatest TOD location. We should seek to maximize the development at this site.

Urban Design and Architecture. Based on the rendering, the CEW plan seems to create a pleasant environment, but lacks a “wow” factor and doesn’t seem particularly visionary. The public spaces under the CEW plan would no doubt be nicely done, but this site needs more than just a great pedestrian environment. This site needs a great pedestrian environment and something bold and iconic to reflect its significance to our city. With Union Station surrounded by the low-rise buildings of LoDo and the mid-rise buildings of the Central Platte Valley, the two dramatic skyscrapers in the USP plan would ascend above everything else around them, and would stand as a landmark feature in our Downtown skyline and as a beacon for millions of transit riders over the coming decades. The USP plan has some punch and ambition to it. The CEW plan seems overly cautious.

Cost and Implementation. This is obviously a critical issue, as the CEW plan is about $75-$100 million less expensive than the USP plan. Some people question whether the USP financial plan will work, and the city’s Union Station committee even recently asked USP to provide more details about their financing plan. I don’t know the details of the teams’ financing plans or if they might work or not. But both teams are comprised of firms with extensive real estate development experience, so I doubt they would jeopardize their collective firms’ reputations by advancing a plan that simply cannot be implemented. Therefore, I assume that if each team says it can make the financing work without seeking additional public money, then that is the case.

We shouldn’t select the winning plan simply based on which has the smallest private-sector investment requirement. We should select the plan that provides the most efficient and dynamic transit hub and associated development that can be achieved without additional taxpayer subsidy, regardless of the final cost. Opportunities like Union Station come along once in a lifetime. We need to be bold and forward-thinking about the development of this important site, and find the resources to make it happen.


Lessons from London

When I travel, it’s impossible for me not to view the city around me from an urban planning and design perspective. While I’m having fun and enjoying the sights, I’m also still thinking about things like the spatial arrangements between the streets and buildings, the sidewalks and other public spaces and how functional and attractive they are, the types and intensities of uses and how they are integrated, and so on. I try to evaluate the urban environment around me and gauge how it makes me feel. Does it make me feel comfortable? Intrigued? Confused? Excited? Safe? And if so, why? What are the urban attributes and design elements that contribute to making me feel the way I do about a particular place?

So, while in London last week, undeniably one of the greatest cities on the planet in virtually every way in which a city could be judged, I found myself in a happy state of sensory overload. Countless people and buildings and vehicles and every form of urban accoutrement, all jumbled together in a messy yet organized manner, running like a well-oiled machine. It was awesome. Note: my experience was in central London only—from roughly Earls Court on the west to The City on the east, and Regent Park on the north to the South Bank on the south–an area slightly larger in size than greater Downtown Denver.

First, a few quick observations. After extensively exploring central London for a full week, I observed:

1 surface parking lot
4 homeless persons lying on the sidewalk
5 instances of graffiti

Can you imagine saying the same about Downtown Denver?

Now some additional observations…

Buildings:
Denver has more tall buildings concentrated in a central area than does London. So shouldn’t that make Denver a more vibrant, urban place than London? Of course not. Probably the number one lesson we can learn from London is… skyscrapers alone do not a great city make! You must have people—lots of them—and a well-maintained physical environment that has been thoughtfully designed for people, not vehicles. If you have those two things, then you can have a dynamic, thriving urban center with nothing higher than five-story buildings. Now there’s nothing wrong with having skyscrapers too as long as they relate well to the street and sidewalk in a people-oriented way and provide ground-floor uses that are welcoming and engaging to the pedestrian. But Denver’s future success does not lie in filling our core Downtown with 60-story towers. Our success lies in filling surface parking lots and undeveloped parcels throughout the greater Downtown area with four- and five-story buildings. Additional skyscrapers in the core simply become the icing on the cake. Plus, studies have shown that the ideal street-width to building-height ratio for creating an optimal pedestrian environment on an urban street is 1:1. In most cities, including Denver and London, that’s about a five-story building.

Ground-Floor Retail:
One of the core principles of contemporary urban planning is that you put ground-floor commercial uses in your multi-story buildings. Doing so not only provides space for needed retail services, but it also creates an appealing and engaging sidewalk environment and helps generate pedestrian activity. But we also have to be strategic about where we require ground-floor retail (especially outside the Downtown core) because we could never sustain that much commercial space if every infill project throughout the greater Downtown Denver area had ground-floor retail. Even in central London, most of the streets are not lined with storefronts. What you do find in London outside of the core office and commercial zones are little clusters of retail that serve a particular residential area. These are typically a few blocks in length and offer simple every-day commercial services like restaurants and coffee shops, newstands, markets, and some professional services. They are similar, in fact, to the little neighborhood commercial areas that Denverites love so much: Old South Gaylord, Old South Pearl, Highland Square, etc. What we need in Denver is a Downtown Area Retail Plan. We need to identify exactly where we want to require ground-floor uses in new developments, particularly in the Downtown residential districts, so that we create a well-defined retail area to serve each district. Where should the “Old South Gaylord” of the Ballpark district be? Where should the the “Highland Square” of the Golden Triangle be? We need to make sure we’re requiring ground-floor retail in new infill projects in Denver not as an automatic response to some urban planning trend, but as a means by which a Downtown resident can easily access by foot a compact neighborhood shopping area where they can find most of their daily commercial needs.

Parks:
Central London is loaded with parks. A few are huge, on the scale of Denver’s City Park or Washington Park, but most are relatively small and vary in size from a few acres to a single lot. In looking at my map I count well over 100 parks in central London. In the greater Downtown Denver area, I count about 20. If we’re going to ask people to live in attached or stacked housing with no private yards, then we must provide enough green spaces for them to find respite from the noise and harshness of the city. Parks are the shared “back yards” of the Downtown dweller, and in Denver we don’t have enough of them. They must be well-maintained, safe, relaxing, and attractive and, most importantly, they must be numerous. A Downtown Denver resident should not be more than a two-block walk from a green space, even if it’s just a shady little courtyard with a few benches and a flower garden. We must begin to invest heavily in establishing a grid of small urban parks throughout the Downtown Denver area while we still have so many undeveloped parcels to choose from. We also need to identify a long-term permanent revenue stream for their ongoing security and upkeep.

Travelways:
In central London, land not covered by a building is primarily used as either a park, or as a travelway for vehicles and pedestrians (streets and sidewalks). Consequently, travelways are equally important as elements of the public realm as parks, if not more so. The quality of the travelway environment in central London has been given great care and attention, with not only plenty of pedestrian amenities, but well-marked travel lanes, pedestrian crossings, etc. In central London, walking down the sidewalk can be just as pleasant as strolling through a park (although you do have to watch out for those crazy British drivers). With no empty lots and all buildings built to the sidewalk’s edge, every street becomes a unique open-air public “room” and the turn of every corner presents the pedestrian with yet another new room to discover. In Denver, our travelways have not been built as important public spaces to be viewed from the pedestrian perspective, but as mere conveyances for the motorized vehicle. Denver’s streets have been designed to be experienced from 30 m.p.h., not from 3 m.p.h. I’d say the few exceptions in Downtown Denver would be Larimer Square and a few of the streets in LoDo. At least for the Downtown area, Denver needs to turn its traffic engineering over to the urban designers and pedestrian/bicycle planners and fundamentally change the way in which it views the role of the street. We also have to make additional investments in public transit beyond FasTracks that will connect our urban neighborhoods with each other and the core Downtown. We need to rebuild the urban streetcar network we had 70 year ago.

1. and 2. Typical quiet residential street in central London
3. Typical mixed-use commercial street with the occasional high-rise
4. Typical commercial district in a residential area