- Guest column.
- Elizabeth Schlosser is a long-time historic preservationist.
- She argues that Denver is a world-class city, that needs to be protected from greed and fads.
By Elizabeth Schlosser
Special to InsideRealEstateNews.com
Denver is a world class city.
Some recent visitors from Europe told me that Denver is everyone’s fantasy of an ideal city, with its lakes, parks, cozy homes, mature trees, nighttime quiet arched over by a big blue sky.
Now they dream of retiring here!
Denver has many asset
However, these assets are fragile and subject to ignorance, political dealing, greed and fad.
One of the world’s leading urban thinkers, Anthony Tung, has described Denver’s downtown as “fractured”.
“Chaos,” is the only style that describes our new buildings in downtown.
This is not a good direction; we want an attractive Denver that works for people.
Denver needs a plan
All healthy enterprises need a plan.
Properly formed and administered a plan can help protect Denver while healing our “fractured” and chaotic downtown.
“If you can’t count it, you can’t fix it”, is an old saying from business.
A brief snapshot of Denver:
- A city founded in 1858, straddling the Platte River and Cherry Creek at their confluence;
- A city of 634,000 in the middle of a metropolitan area of three million people;
- A city the shape of a square, ten miles by fifteen miles within the streets of Havana, I-70, Sheridan and Hampden;
- A city laid out in a grid of straight streets perpendicular to intersecting streets. In downtown, let’s call now the “center city,”streets parallel the Platte River and Cherry Creek forming a distinctive sub-area at a 45 degree angle to the rest of the city’s streets
This is our canvas — a 10 mile by 15 mile square piece of mostly developed land within a grid system of streets with a distinctive “center city.” A plan for Denver needs to reflect the following five policies.
The first policy to establish a plan for Denver: the entire town should be considered inviolate, historic. Most of Denver’s buildings and streets, parks and parkways are more than 100-year-old intensively built between 1880 and 1960. We’re dealing with a city that our forefathers have already built and, generally, beautifully engineered.
Denver was the second largest city west of the Mississippi after San Francisco at the beginning of the 20th century.
The city of Denver is historic and could be listed as a historic district in its entirety if proposed to America’s National Register of Historic Places.
We are just as historic and important as San Francisco.
My European guests like us better than San Francisco. “More American,” they say.
We have to make a plan that protects the whole city.
Growth need to respect Denver’s heritage
We’ll want a plan that allows change such as increased density and tall buildings while protecting Denver’s historic character and the places where people live, so that our city isn’t stunted or too-much changed.
The Blueprint Denver plan and zoning categories go a long way toward this. Now we need to abide by the plan rather than giving every developer a variance from the Blueprint plan.
I’ve trained my children to squint and look at Denver when I ask, “What color is Denver? Red,” they say. Yes, we are historically a brick city and should require some red and red brick on all of our major buildings.
We have completed several inventories of Denver and are at this time refining them by doing another inventory. We need to additional generalize from these inventories Denver’s unique urban character.
Denver is a one and two-story city with standardized front and side setbacks.
Denver has a typical brick “Denver square” house and a gridded street plan. We build tall buildings along our major transportation routes in the “center city,” along Interstate-70, I-25, Colorado Boulevard, Broadway, 1st Avenue, Quebec, and Hampden.
We should build intermediately tall buildings to connect the high rise areas to low-rise areas creating a graduated building profile. We should mostly designate our residential neighborhoods as areas of stability and not allow much change to the basic building pattern and house size.
The second plan policy we should adopt is that Denver will have design review for all major new buildings. A commission of leading Denver architects, planners and preservationists working with city staff should review all plans for major buildings to advise developers on what changes will be required.
This should be a permanent, non-political, panel of design professionals, say five to nine members strong, to add predictability to the review process. There should be promulgated design requirements and guidelines, so that developers can know exactly what to expect. Design review should be expeditious. A building permit must be issued faster than the current situation’s long delay.
There needs to be an agreed upon design for our major new buildings within sub-areas with a predictable footprint, height, and setbacks that reinforce the Denver street system. Frigid, frying hot and wind-swept plazas are too often the norm at the street level of our current high rise buildings’ bases. Only through working with a group of peers and with stated goals can developers and architects be led to come up with good design.
Denver: Embrace being a cow town
Policy three: Denver will work to strengthen our uniquely creative and artistic city. A city that encourages creativity attracts young people and entrepreneurs.
The image or “brand” for Denver should be an environmentally-aware high mountain desert filled with artists and cowboys. “Howdy pardner, let’s go for a hike!”
The cowboy story is the greatest myth the world has ever known. We should do everything we can to underscore Denver as a cow town. Market the stock show worldwide, advertise our cowboy bars, and promote our cowboy poetry readings and western wear shops.
I’d plan a cowboy shoot out at noon every day in the “center city” and arrange for Native American dances at the History Colorado complex. Our city flower should be the tumbleweed. The whole world goes crazy for the romance of cowboys.
We’ll need new highway signs that announce the entrance to Denver. Along Interstates 25 and 70 we’re going to place some tasteful signage that announces you are in historic and vibrant Denver.
Try and find a sign that announces Denver today.
There could be a subtext for Denver’s brand called “Hike Denver.” We should connect the old Smoky Hill and Santa Fe trails to Denver’s bicycle trails to trails up our mountain parks. A visitor or resident could hike, bike and camp on our many connected paths including a new trail up Mt. Evans. It will take several days to hike and camp along the way up Mt. Evans, our own kind of Mt. Rosa or Matterhorn.
Denver has a lot of artists who need one thing to prosper and to grow in number: sales and patronage. We should host every Friday night an evening of open art galleries and artists’ studios. In conjunction with the Denver Art Dealers Association, let’s have a dozen limousines or vans connect these venues with guides on board that can explain the art.
Rice University professors do this in Houston. It’s a big hit. Nobody can remember which night this kind of event is, including hotel concierges, unless it’s every week. This kind of focus should also be applied to our musicians and actors.
The Mayor’s Commission on Cultural Affairs, now part of the department of Arts and Venues, should spend its budget advertising existing events and galleries. The commission doesn’t need to do its own events; just market what’s already here.
Several non-profit groups in other cities are throwing their own downtown, block-parties every Friday afternoon. They close a city block to traffic, sell beer, and offer an opportunity for people to socialize within the context of celebrating good architecture, historic preservation and community fun.
We need to stimulate private sector bus tours of Denver. Serve Denver water and issue hats and sunscreen underscoring our brand and geography as a high mountain desert. These tours should show our public outdoor sculpture and the landmarks within the “center city” and inner-city neighborhoods.
Policy four: encourage walking. We’ve come a long way in Denver with bicycle paths, bicycle lanes, free bicycles and a few pedestrian streets. (Actually I can’t think of any pedestrian-only streets.) There are more cars than people in metro Denver, so we’re really going to have to go to work on this policy.
We need to encourage walking.
The center city is located at a 45 degree angle to Broadway, Speer Boulevard and the Platte River. We should capitalize on this situation and let people know they are in the “center city,” somewhere special to walk. Use signage, banners and maps to identify the “center city” and close a few streets, perhaps Curtis and Glenarm streets, in the daytime.
We could reverse the one-way streets of Champa, Stout and Welton from 23rd to 32nd streets knitting together the Curtis Park/Five Points neighborhood and easily encourage more walking there.
We should creative an urban walk from the Platte River and Chapultepec/ Centennial Park up and down the 16th Street mall, past Skyline Park to Civic Center. This would be an amazing, inner-city hike.
It would be good to have more food and small-scale events along Speer Boulevard and within Civic Center Park: art booths, book stalls, a bird market, antique and flea markets, food stalls, a flower market…all the things that great cities offer and that get people out of their cars. Consider closing East 16th Avenue to cars.
Finally, policy five is making connections.
This concept of making connections would enliven Denver and cost next to nothing.
Connect downtown to Cherry Creek
I would continue the 16th Street mall bus to East Colfax Avenue, loop it to Cherry Creek and back along the same route. This would instantly connect the downtown, Capitol Hill, Congress Park, Country Club and City Park neighborhoods to Cherry Creek and the “center city.”
The connection will grow commerce and housing density while encouraging more of a sense of community through connection.
I would build a pedestrian bridge over First Avenue in Cherry Creek at Fillmore or St. Paul linking visually the Cherry Creek Mall with Cherry Creek North. This would emphasize the closeness of the two shopping areas and relay the message that it’s an easy walk between the two. You need not move your car to access these two areas.
In summary a plan that protects Denver as a city inviolate/historic with design review that fosters creativity and encourages the arts, that encourages walking and makes connections will go a long way toward healing Denver and moving us into a prosperous and healthy future that respects our human desire for beauty and community.
Elizabeth Schlosser is a long-time historic preservationist. Schlosser, who used to own an art gallery, unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Denver in 2003. Schlosser has a master’s degree in planning.
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