- Chris Nevitt has been Denver’s District 7 councilman for 8 years.
- A million more people coming to area, Nevitt notes.
- Nevitt: Denver needs to navigate between density and sprawl, without losing its soul.
By Chris Nevitt
Special to Denver Real Estate News
As we’ve come out of the Great Recession, all the development pressure that was suppressed since 2008 has come to the fore with a vengeance.
This development is anticipated by long-established City of Denver plans.
Still, many of these new projects, often at much greater densities than surrounding neighborhoods, are provoking angry backlash from existing residents.
I have been characterized as a heedless advocate for more development and greater density, deaf to the protests from neighbors and oblivious to the challenges these new projects pose for traffic, parking, and city amenities.
I do understand where opponents of development in Denver are coming from. Frankly, I share many of their anxieties.
At the same time, I know that if we fail to face realistically the dilemmas of growth, if we fail to make affirmative choices about how we grow, we will imperil the very qualities of life in Denver that we are trying to protect.
The kernel of our problem is that, since the advent of the automobile, the prevailing American image of “the good life” is a quiet street of single family homes, an ample yard for kids to play in, space for a garden in back.
This is an entirely reasonable ambition to reach for. It’s equally reasonable to protect and defend it too, as many of our neighborhoods are committed to doing.
Unfortunately, however, we have a problem of scale.
At the level of the individual, the pursuit of that image of “the good life” is wholesome and positive.
However, multiplied across a large enough population the result is, perversely, the opposite: sprawl.
We already know what this looks like.
It looks like Los Angeles. It looks like Phoenix. It looks like Northern Virginia.
Nobody in Denver wants to be those places, but at the same time, nobody wants to compromise their image of “the good life” either,
It’s something of a bitter joke that the only thing people hate more than sprawl… is density.
But failing to come to terms with this cognitive dissonance will be no laughing matter.
Here in Denver, we face the pressure of this dilemma in the extreme.
People are moving here in droves.
We can complain and lament it, but since most of us are immigrants to Denver ourselves, we can hardly blame those following us to the promised land.
Over the next 20 years, more than a million people will move here.
When the baby born today heads off to college, the population of Denver will have more than doubled.
It is urgent that we answer this question: Where, and how, will all these people live?
I believe there are three possible answers, three paths we can follow to this future.
The first is to maintain our cognitive dissonance: we hate sprawl, but we hate density more, and we’re not going to sacrifice our image of “the good life.”
We’ll keep Denver a relatively low-density city and the bulk of the population growth will simply have to go somewhere else.
The million people moving here will move here anyway, of course, but they’ll live in surrounding suburbs.
But they won’t stay out there.
They’ll still come in to Denver to work, to have fun.
Most of them will drive. And it will be awful. This is the path to Los Angeles, to Phoenix.
We will have preserved the built environment we cherish, but destroyed the quality of life that made us love it. This is a poor bargain, in my view.
The second path is to make a radical course correction.
If density is the solution to sprawl, then we’ll have to dramatically densify our city. There is no room here for sentimentality.
Single-family homes need to be replaced with row-houses, row houses need to be replaced with towers.
The million people moving here can be accommodated in a much more dense, much more sustainable, and much more radically urban environment.
And it will be awful.
This is the path to the urban dystopia of modern China.
We’ll have avoided the sprawl we hate, but lost the soul of the city we were trying to protect. This, too, is a lousy bargain.
The third path is the path I prefer.
It is, in many ways, the path we are already pursuing, but we need to have the courage and conviction to stay on it.
We need to preserve and protect the homes of Denver’s stable existing family neighborhoods, for they are a key component of Denver’s unique and eclectic character.
At the same time, we also need to take advantage of every single opportunity we have to maximize density with redevelopment – in areas around light rail stations, along transit routes, in our commercial districts, and on our major arterial roads.
We need to preserve and protect the core of our stable family neighborhoods, but in the interstices between them, in all the connective tissue that binds them together, we need to maximize density and the transit, bicycle, and pedestrian infrastructure that supports it.
The million people moving here can be accommodated in dense, more sustainable, more urban structures. And we don’t have to sell our souls to do it.
I believe this is the right course for navigating the demographic dilemma we face.
This is the path I’ve worked hard to walk as a policy-maker.
In the Council District I represented for eight years in south Denver, I was a staunch defender of our stable single-family neighborhoods and led the first neighborhood-scale down-zoning in Denver history.
At the same time, I was also a relentless advocate for dramatically greater density around our light rail stations, in our commercial districts, and along our transit routes.
No neighborhood is too precious, too perfect, that it cannot be asked to participate in what must be a city-wide project.
Each of our little slices of “the good life” can be protected, but we will all have to learn to live with modern urban density between our neighborhood and the next.
We cannot indulge the cognitive dissonance of abhorring sprawl, while rejecting density.
We have a responsibility to deliberately choose the future of our city, not just end up there.
In the words of the old Arabic proverb: take what you want and pay for it, or eventually you will be forced to take what you don’t want, and pay for that.
In that context, the third path I recommend is a bargain.
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