More folks but less den­sity

Also true: Plan for more frus­tra­tion as pop­u­la­tion grows.

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Jon Mur­ray

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-

change ad­vo­cates.

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

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