By Dick Farley
Special to DenverRealEstateWatch.com
- Guest column by Dick Farley.
- Farley, a planner and an architect, says don’t blame density.
- Bad design, not density, often is the culprit.
Denver is a much different city than it was when I came here in 1977.
It’s better, too.
Back then, it wasn’t so much a sleepy town, as a town close to being on life-support.
Urban renewal was tearing up the old fabric of downtown to make it competitive with the suburbs. People were leaving the center of the city for the periphery and the perceived safety and economic health of the suburbs. There were many neighborhoods teetering on the edge of decay, and some were well within the process of decaying.
The suburbs, whether knowingly or not, capitalized on the City of Denver’s ill-health.
The more the city’s population fled, the more the jobs and sales taxes flowed to the suburban cities, and the less the city had to invest in itself.
When I joined the Denver Community Planning and Development office in 1987 the population of Denver was 450,000 and falling.
You could have bought most of the Central Platte Valley – then a 158 acre weed covered, abandoned rail yard between Union Station and a neglected river – for $10 million. For $50,000, you could have bought the old Santa Fe Head House and its two-acre property, now the Denver Chophouse and its adjoining residential condos. That’s how little downtown Denver was valued.
Mayors Federico Peña and Wellington Webb, their appointees, the Downtown Denver Partnership, neighborhood organizations, cty councils, and the people of Denver who were willing to tax themselves with bond issue after bond issue, turned all of that around.
Growth problems beat slump woes
Don’t tell me about the quiet good old days before the advent of all these annoying people and the traffic they bring with them.
I’ll take pedestrians on the sidewalks, bikes in the street, hard to find parking and traffic congestion any day over empty streets and boarded up shop fronts.
This not to say that there aren’t problems with growth.
However, being over-built — in a city sense — is not one of them.
Affordable housing, which used to be plentiful because the city was losing population, is now at a premium.
It’s harder to get around in a car and to find parking than it used to be. Neighborhoods are changing, some parts of them rapidly.
Some of these are real problems and some are more perceived than real.
Take increased density: Higher densities bring the people who ride the buses and light rail instead of driving their own vehicles.
The more our neighborhoods are compact and walkable and the more bus and transit service becomes convenient, the more affordable it becomes to live in the city.
Density tends to bring compactness.
The more people are in a given area, the more grocery stores, hardware stores, shops, drug stores, restaurants, health clinics, coffee shops and so on, want to locate in that area.
The more people and the more shops, the more walkable it becomes.
As we age, having services nearby becomes more important. Having walkable neighborhoods becomes a health necessity.
Traffic congestion also plays a part in this.
Since it is stressful to drive congested expressways and streets, other ways of getting around become more attractive – transit, walking, biking, bike rentals, taxis, Uber, Car2Go from transit stations, etc.
Often, the unhappiness toward changes in neighborhoods is laid at the feet of increased density.
In fact, a significant part of that unhappiness is about how new buildings are designed, not how dense they may or may not be.
Design, not density, the culprit
Well-intentioned zoning ordinances, which allow flexibility in building bulk, spawn unintended building forms that change the character of a neighborhood without changing its density.
Are more controls needed? More design review? There are downsides to those remedies. One of them is the added cost.
Beyond the expense, few of us want to live in an area where our desire to build something new is subject to the collective opinions of our neighbors.
Yet, we hate that abomination that was built across the street.
Enabling good design through education, discussion and peer pressure is better than trying to legislate it.
Of course, that means being involved in your community. It also means having some mechanism for discussion in place before irrevocable design decisions are made.
We do need to continue to refine our new zoning ordinance, but its bones are good and so are our planning efforts.
The 2001 Blueprint Denver’s Areas of Stability and Areas of Change has been remarkably successful in channeling growth into corridors and nodes and largely away from stable neighborhoods.
However, there are always pockets in these stable neighborhoods that become exceptions to the rules.
As controversial and newsworthy as they may be, they aren’t harbingers of doom.
An “Area of Stability” also doesn’t mean that it is dipped in amber to be exactly preserved as it was in 2001.
The new, context based zoning ordinance has tried hard to tie the zoning controls to promote building forms appropriate to the area.
If it needs more fine-tuning, then get involved in pushing for just that.
Don’t fall for the made-for-TV illusion that there is a corrupt collusion between greedy developers and malleable city officials.
Affordable housing needed
Of the real problems of growth, the difficulty of finding affordable housing is probably the single most important problem of the city.
It undermines the attractiveness and health of the city. Without such housing in the city, it is harder for our businesses to attract and hold employees regardless how hip, walkable and bikeable our neighborhoods are.
If you have to live at the periphery of the city because that is where the affordable housing is located, it may force a long distance commute leading to the increase of unavoidable and miserable traffic congestion. Or, it will lead you to find a job closer to you on the periphery.
The city, then becomes less competitive with the suburbs. The suburban cities aren’t dumb either. They are building walkable, hip neighborhoods and commercial districts also to attract those same employees.
The linkage between urban density and suburban sprawl is not as direct is it seems on the surface.
Conventional wisdom would have it that if we increase the density of the city, then there would be less pressure for the suburbs to sprawl into the countryside.
Because of the competition between municipalities over jobs and taxes, the private ownership of land, and the differing markets of city and suburb, not only are densities increasing in the city, densities and sprawl are also increasing in the suburbs.
If you moved to the suburbs to get away from the city, then you’re likely to be as unhappy as an owner of a bungalow in a central Denver neighborhood seeing a pop-top next door, or townhouses down the street.
In a fragmented metropolitan area, cooperation between municipalities generally occurs with large-scale systems that can’t be paid for or coordinated in smaller increments – flood control, transit, highways and subsidies for art and culture.
There is little cooperation over the matter of development.
Water: future regulator
However, water will probably be the great regulator of the future. This may be where the city has an intrinsic advantage with its more compact development and less waste of water.
Finding and maintaining a steady-state equilibrium for a city such as Denver is a fantasy in a country that values the freedom of private ownership and weak government.
Boom and bust cycles may still be with us but for different reasons.
Our future is tied into national and international forces, including the foreseen and unforeseen impacts of climate change.
While it may be dismaying, and needing of management, we, in the City and County of Denver, should welcome but manage the investment and attraction that fuels change within an existing and compact infrastructure.
In a metropolitan area Balkanized by competing municipalities, it is dangerous to the social and economic health of the city of Denver to send the message that we don’t want investment and change.
Dick Farley is principal of Richard Farley Urban Design LLC. Farley was Deputy Director of the Denver Community
Planning and Development office in charge of Urban Design from 1987 to
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