More folks but less density
Also true: Plan for more frustration as population grows.
Some of Denver’s most densely populated neighborhoods have packed in more people since 2000, from Lower Highland to the Central Business District and Five Points to Capitol Hill. That much is well known.
But even after the revival of urbanism in Denver and other American cities, it turns out that most of those neighborhoods are, in fact, less populated today than they were in 1950 — which was when the last streetcar in Denver’s once-extensive network shut down.
Six months into a citywide planning review that’s aimed at resetting Denver’s course on several fronts, including land use and transportation, the city’s chief planner, Brad Buchanan, says such nuggets of context have taken him by surprise.
The dynamic holds citywide: Denver’s overall population density stood at nine people per acre in 2014 census estimates, not including the land occupied by Denver International Airport. Yet in 1950, a city researcher calculated, the city’s density was 9.8 residents per acre.
Of course, Denver has grown in land area since, from 66 square miles to 154 square miles, including DIA. The city’s Department of Community Planning and Development says a more apples-to-apples comparison — looking within only the 1950 boundaries — found a population density in 2014 of 9.9 residents per acre in that area, or roughly the same as 1950.
But talk to longtime residents of Denver these days, and you will hear outcries against the densification not only of central Denver but of fartherout neighborhoods. A recent rezoning fight in west Denver’s Villa Park and a brewing historic designation battle in Park Hill — where some people want to create a large historic district — have pit residents who want to preserve what they love about their neighborhoods against redevelopment prospects and pro-
Though census statistics may show that Denver isn’t more densely populated than it was six decades ago, Buchanan says there are important differences in how Denverites then and now live that are influencing today’s frustrations.
Slightly fewer people live in each dwelling, according to city research. They own cars at about twice the rate as 1950. And even after the expansion of metro Denver’s modern transit system in the past 20 years — albeit in directions focused mostly on serving suburban commuters — only about 7 percent of residents of Denver proper use buses and trains to get to work, a slightly lower rate than the 8 percent who did so in 2002.
“The fact of the matter is, if we continue with the same development patterns that have happened in our city since 1950, we will continue to exacerbate the very conditions that appear to be causing frustration,” Buchanan said.
“For example, traffic congestion, affordability, walkability and multimobility” in transportation, he said. “All of those things are further exacerbated by spreading the density over a wider area, and in fact lessening the density of not just the urban core but also within the original configuration of the city (in 1950).”
Buchanan said he asked the city researcher to dive into the data after recently reading about an outside study that called attention to Denver’s lower-than1950 density, even after the city countered its population losses in the 1970s and 1980s with an even larger population surge beginning in the 1990s.
It’s been fueled most recently by millennials, with people ages 25 to 34 accounting for more than half the new residents from 2005 to 2014, according to city research. As of last year, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated Denver’s population at 682,545, up 13.8 percent since 2010.
Making Denver right
Buchanan said such research will become part of the wide-ranging conversations that have been underway since he and other city officials kicked off the multipronged, two-year planning process — dubbed “Denveright” — in May. Those plans will re-examine the city’s approach for the next decade or two in four areas: land use/transportation, transit, parks and pedestrian access.
Already, city officials say they have received more than 3,000 survey responses as part of feedback at meetings and other venues from 7,800 people.
The most prevalent concerns: People can’t afford to live in Denver; it’s tough to get around; there are too many people; people are less safe; and the rapidly redeveloping city fabric — with new apartment buildings rising quickly in many neighborhoods — suffers from poor architecture.
Task forces overseeing each of the four plans are sifting through that feedback and having wide-ranging discussions about ways to improve upon older city plans, including 2002’s Blueprint Denver. That document helped set the tone for much of the recent redevelopment by marking areas primed for change — often near transit stations — and those that should be treated as stable neighborhoods.
Denveright leaders have distilled the general response into a guiding vision for the plans, with six elements that hit at keeping the city equitable, affordable and inclusive, fostering authentic neighborhoods, and creating wellconnected, safe and accessible places, among others.
Buchanan says the task forces could have drafts of the new plans worked out by late 2017 or early 2018.
So far, city officials’ handling of the planning effort — which is being led by consultants — gets high marks from John Hayden, an advocate for pedestrian access. He serves on the Blueprint Denver task force and is co-chair of the task force for the “Denver Moves: Pedestrians and Trails” plan.
“Their public outreach meetings were good, and they seem to be open-ended in terms of what they were asking people — so it didn’t seem to be directing people to the answers that they wanted,” said Hayden, also a Realtor who is president of Curtis Park Neighbors.
After the Blueprint task force met Thursday, he said he was heartened that some participants were urging a change from the black-orwhite designation of each block of the city as an area of “change” or “stability.”
But neighborhood advocates long have argued that opportunities for redevelopment — and drawbacks for longtime residents — often are more nuanced than that.
Neighborhoods need to be kept neighborly
That sort of thinking underpinned the arguments of opponents of the Villa Park rezoning in west Denver at a mid-November City Council hearing.
A developer wanted to build townhomes on a street with single-family homes in one of Denver’s remaining affordable middle-class neighborhoods. That block of Julian Street, between 10th and 12th avenues, is an easy walk from the West Line light rail’s Knox station — making the neighborhood a prime candidate for denser housing in the eyes of some, including several homeowners. In fact, the 2002 Blueprint Denver plan classified the block as an area of change.
But some neighbors wanted to keep the area affordable, fearing new development would push out longtime residents. They fought against a rezoning proposal to allow townhomes on any parcel on the block.
The council ultimately split 8-4 in favor of rezoning.
Jaime Aguilar, who lives on the next block south, had appealed to the council to let the Denveright planning process play out first. He considers the old Blueprint Denver plan out of date.
“With the city’s planning, the efforts of Blueprint Denver, and building upon the character of Villa Park, we have an opportunity here to build a more innovative zoning plan together,” he said that night. “A zoning plan that is not the status quo of highly priced, quick and boxy developments that we see this type of zoning allowing to be built next to well-established singlefamily homes.”
Buchanan said the new plans could reflect some of the lessons learned from that and other rezoning and preservation fights that have been motivated in part by angst over redevelopment.
“Denveright is about figuring out, ‘Where do we want to head in our city?’ ” he said. “Those concerns are very real, and they speak to change in our residents’ experience of their place. And that’s important — and it’s a fantastic thing because it means the citizens of Denver care about our place.”
At Thursday’s Blueprint task force meeting on the Auraria campus, a table discussion that included cochair Kimball Crangle, an affordable housing developer, focused on protecting neighborhoods such as Villa Park and Westwood, where task force member Norma Brambila lives.
Gentrification and rising property values in such neighborhoods are on residents’ minds as they worry about whether their families will be able to stay for long, said Brambila, a Spanish-speaker who participated with help from a translator.
In the heavily Latino neighborhoods, she said, single-family homes are vital for families with five or six children.
“If our affordable housing only gets funneled to multifamily (developments),” Crangle agreed, “then that’s not very equitable.”
The table’s discussion focused on ways to encourage more dense development in places that can support it — helping to absorb Denver’s continuing population growth — without harming residents in nearby neighborhoods economically.
In the coming year, they will develop a land-use plan that will help guide development for the forseeable future.
“It’s been said many times that neighborhoods are the greatest part of Denver,” said Trinidad Rodiguez, a Denver Housing Authority board member who sat at the table. “We don’t want to undermine them.”
Jaime Aguilar was among the most vocal voices opposed to the rezoning at a recent Denver City Council meeting. Aguilar lives in the Villa Park neighborhood, where planners are looking at rezoning. RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post