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Groundbreaking on Brighton Boulevard Signals Fever Pitch for RiNo Development

by Camron Bridgford

The rapid transformation of Denver’s River North (RiNo) District from industrial thoroughfare to successfully modish commercial, residential and artistic district took another major step this past week with the groundbreaking of the Brighton Boulevard Corridor Redevelopment on October 13.


Hosted by Mayor Michael Hancock, City Council President Albus Brooks—whose district includes RiNo—and the RiNo Art District, the redevelopment project will be completed in four phases and is touted by the City of Denver as another critical opportunity to revitalize Denver’s downtown neighborhoods in an increasingly competitive and vibrant urban environment.

Located along the northern strip of Denver that inelegantly connects downtown to the I-70 corridor, Brighton Boulevard and its history is nearly as old as Denver itself, with its first developments taking place in the mid-1870s. By post-World War II, the boulevard was primarily sprinkled with industrial, commercial and automobile businesses, which over time slid from a cohesive streetscape into an area wrought with growing inattention and vacancy.


In more recent years, as nearby streets in RiNo—primarily Blake, Walnut, and Larimer between 25th and 34th streets—began to receive city-wide attention for their artistic, gritty vibe and potential as a collective haven for innovative businesses, restaurants and galleries, Brighton Boulevard began to develop in a similar yet distinct pattern, one that favored creative and eclectic mixed-use spaces such as The Source, Industry and nearby Taxi across the South Platte River.

However, despite the success of its several artisan markets and shared spaces, Brighton Boulevard still lacked many aesthetic, safety and transportation features necessary to make it more attractive for investment that could result in a proliferation of residential, commercial and business use. Such amenities include improved sidewalks, adequate street lighting, landscaping and infrastructure, such as bike lanes, that encourage multi-modal transit.

This will soon change with the now-launched redevelopment project, which will take place in four distinct phases, the first of which will address improvements from 29th to 40th streets, including the addition of six signalized intersections at 29th, 31st, 33rd, 35th, 38th and 44th streets; 80 on-street parking spaces; sidewalks on both sides of the boulevard; a continuous bike lane in both directions; pedestrian crosswalks; street lighting; and light fixtures, benches and native plant landscaping. Further, it should be noted that an affordable live/work and mixed use building for creatives is being developed at 41st Street and Brighton Boulevard so as to preserve the artistic character that originally made RiNo an attractive place for investment.


Phase one of the project—which includes three distinct stages of construction to tackle the noted improvements—is anticipated to take 18 months to complete, with the final stages of landscaping wrapping by Spring 2018. Kiewit Infrastructure Company out of Omaha, Nebraska will serve as the builder.

The final three phases of the redevelopment—not yet slated with many hard dates, but which will address 40th-44th streets, 44th-47th streets, and 47th Street to Race Court—includes addressing the part of Brighton Boulevard that serves as an underpass underneath I-70 (in concurrence with the I-70 reconstruction), as well as the fourth and final phase coinciding with enhancements made via the National Western Center Master Plan. Construction for this final phase is expected to begin in 2019.


Typically, the largest hurdle that public infrastructure investments of this size face is coming up with the financing to realize its intended vision. However, that river appears forged for Brighton Boulevard, with a committed $26 million investment from the City and County of Denver, including $2.5 million proposed in 2017 alone. The Brighton Boulevard Corridor Redevelopment will also benefit from an additional $3 million raised by the RiNo General Improvement District, which is responsible for financing the pedestrian-scale lighting, plantings and benches along the boulevard, in addition to maintenance costs once the project is completed.


Overall, this contribution signals a significant financial bet for the city, with Brighton Boulevard being one of largest Capital Improvement Funds projects in the city’s 2017 proposed budget. Comparatively, other capital investments projected for 2017 include sidewalk gaps and safety repair budgeted at $2.5 million; bike infrastructure at $500,000; South Broadway multi-modal improvements at $470,000; and traffic signal infrastructure across Denver at $3.6 million. For further comparison, one of the highest-profile expenditures for 2017—increased funding for the development and rehabilitation of affordable housing—may include $5 million from the city’s reserves, but will primarily be funded by $10 million garnered from new tax and impact fees.

Overall, the city’s vision for Brighton Boulevard sees residents and visitors no longer needing to make do with an underdeveloped backdoor in and out of downtown, but rather having access to a mainstay gateway between the airport and the urban core that lends itself to increasingly vibrant residential and commercial uses. With the opening of the University of Colorado A Line earlier this year, including the 38th and Blake commuter rail station that lies adjacent to this project, we are eager to see if the intended return on investment occurs, and look forward to monitoring its progress.


Camron Bridgford is a master’s candidate in urban and regional planning at the University of Colorado Denver, with a particular interest in the use and politics of public space as it relates to urban revitalization, culture and placemaking, and community development. She also works as a freelance writer to investigate urban-related issues and serves as a non-profit consultant.

The Garden Plot City

It’s axiomatic that you reap what you sow. A garden will produce those plants for which you plot, plant, and care. You’re never guaranteed a good harvest but you can put effort into actions which have been proven to produce great results. You can also plant different types of gardens. Formal florals, wild naturals, truck vegetables, or industrial corn to name a few.

It works the same way when citizens and their elected representatives attempt to plot, plan, and care for their neighborhoods. We lay out rows, we plan where we want certain things to be, and we use taxes and zoning to encourage certain things to grow. What many people are beginning to question is whether we’re getting that for which we’re planning and whether that’s a good or a bad thing. Are we planning for the right things? And should we attempt to force things which don’t fit into the plan to conform to it?


Many people want to plan for what they know, for that with which they’re comfortable, and for what they like. This is perfectly reasonable. The trouble occurs when the garden plot is shared, complex, and naturally evolving, as is our city. Some people want to plan for single family homes and plenty of space for cars. Other people want to plan for compact residences and plenty of places to which to walk. We’re beginning to see the discord which occurs when these competing visions of how to grow the city come into conflict.

Personally, I liken the neighborhood of single family homes to the garden of industrial corn. It’s one thing, done in neat rows (when done well, or in cul de sacs when done poorly), and requires enormous resources in order to support in any capacity. No other plants are allowed in the garden and are ruthlessly culled. Every plant is specifically given its own few inches of space, carefully measured to ensure maximum growth of that single plant. Fertilizers and heavy equipment are needed to maintain the system or else it completely falls apart under its own fragility.


I liken old-style neighborhoods, built a century or more ago, to a wild garden. Different plants are put into the ground next to each other and lightly tended. Volunteers sprout up and surprising combinations of color and life make beautiful tapestries. Some plants die but are immediately replaced by others that thrive. Done well, very little work is needed. The plants support each other and roll through their life cycles naturally. Each is cared for and mourned when lost. Each new plant which replaces one lost is celebrated as a new life, and a new beauty. The loss of one plant doesn’t damage the whole garden.

I want Denver to be lightly tended. I want new and interesting tableaus to pop up and surprise me. I want to see how the system adjusts itself rather than force it to conform to a plan which only allows for one prescribed thing. I want to mourn the losses and celebrate the births. Now I just have to convince others that the great adventure is to help it happen rather than to fight the unknowable future.

Denveright Update: Blueprint Denver

As promised, this is the first post in our up-close examination of Denveright’s planning initiatives. We’re starting off with Blueprint Denver, probably the most well-known planning document that falls under the Denveright umbrella.

For a little context, Blueprint Denver is an integrated land use and transportation plan. It contains no ordinances or codes; it has no “teeth” to ensure compliance with its recommendations. It is a supplement to the City’s Comprehensive Plan, meant to be used as a guiding document to ensure thoughtful coordination between land use and transportation policy. The document outlines the City’s intent to link real estate development to transportation corridors and transit centers, channel job growth toward economically depressed neighborhoods, and stimulate residential activity in new and developing neighborhoods.

The principles underlying the first iteration of Blueprint Denver were developed during the late ’90s, when the City held workshops and visioning exercises for Metro Vision 2020 and the Denver Comprehensive Plan 2000. Though the influx of new citizens was not occurring at the rate we’re seeing today, Denver was in the midst of a population renaissance driven by a strong local economy. The existing zoning code at that time was a convoluted mess, having undergone countless amendments since its last formal overhaul in 1956. It did little to support transit-oriented or mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly development. A comprehensive city-wide approach to change management was viewed as an essential component to the city’s long-term sustainability, and Blueprint Denver became the solution.

The most defining, and arguably most controversial, characteristic of Blueprint Denver was its categorization of small areas and neighborhoods as either Areas of Change or Areas of Stability. Areas of Change were defined as “areas that will benefit from, and thrive on, an infusion of population, economic activity and investment. Areas of Stability include the stable residential neighborhoods where no significant changes in land use are expected over the next twenty years. The goal is to maintain the character of these areas and accommodate some new development and redevelopment that maintains the vitality of the area.” Twenty-six Areas of Change were identified, depicted on the Blueprint Denver map below. Downtown, Lowry, Stapleton, Gateway, and areas around transit stations were highlighted as key Areas of Change.


The theory was sound. A simple, binary system to target infill and real estate investment toward areas of the city that most need it, while the stable areas were left to maintain their steady state with the occasional incorporation of minor improvements. And from a city-wide economic and land use perspective, the strategy has been successful. A 2015 article published on Denver Real Estate Watch cites an analysis of residential and commercial building permits issued in 2014. Private investment in Areas of Change outpaced investment in Areas of Stability by a ratio of 5.2 to 1.  But when we experience this Change or Stability land use labeling system through a different lens, as many have in the past 15 years, some negative consequences come to light.

Since its adoption, Blueprint Denver’s Area of Stability label has frequently been used as a rationale to oppose development—NIMBYs can point to a map and argue that the City’s approval of a particular development goes against the plan outlined in Blueprint Denver—blocking what could be the organic evolution of a neighborhood. Even though it is merely an advisory document, Blueprint Denver has become a piece of evidence that proves proposed Development Plan X in an Area of Stability is a zoning violation, will harm the character of the neighborhood, increase traffic, lower property values, or carries any other of a number of negative consequences.

Conversely, the Area of Change label has been used to justify aggressive rates of development that can bring about gentrification, funneling luxury housing and amenities toward low-income areas, with harmful repercussions for the existing residents. The neighborhood has been categorized as an Area of Change, hence, any change in land use should be acceptable.

In hindsight, such applications of the Blueprint Denver labels seem obvious—even predictable. As in-migration has continued to rise, and the demand for housing has become increasingly frenzied, tensions have risen between so-called “pro-” and “anti-” development camps, and any evidence that can be brought forward to support one argument and refute another is considered fair game.

So, that brings us to today. Now that Blueprint Denver is back in the hands of task forces and advisory committees, how should they address the way the document has been interpreted? Is it simply a language issue, where some clarifications need to be made to the intended application of the labeling system? Or is the system itself flawed, and do we need to go back to the drawing board to redesign our framework for future development?

Share your voice at the Denveright survey portal.

Why Washington, DC’s Commuter Train Was Parked at Denver’s Union Station

If you’ve been at Union Station over the past week, you might’ve seen an unusual sight: A double-decker train from Washington DC’s MARC commuter rail system parked behind Denver’s Union Station.

MARC train in Denver. Photo by Ryan Dravitz.

What gives?

Turns out the train was in Colorado as part of the testing for new locomotives getting ready for MARC service. Officials wanted to test the new locomotives with actual MARC rolling stock, to evaluate how the locomotives performed in real-life conditions.

The Federal Railroad Administration has a test track in Pueblo, CO, so this train had been there, undergoing tests.

The train was moved to Denver in preparation for its trip back east. Amtrak is carrying the train on its regularly scheduled run from Denver to Chicago (#5, the California Zephyr) and then from Chicago to DC (#29, the Capitol Limited).

The Healthy Side of Denver’s Affordable Housing Progress

by Jenny Niemann

Denver will soon have its first-ever dedicated affordable housing fund. On September 19th, the Denver City Council authorized the Denver Fund for Affordable Housing, which will support the construction or preservation of around 6,000 affordable housing units, as well as emergency financial assistance to help families stay in their homes. Through a property taxes and developer fees, this fund will provide an estimated $150 million over 10 years and will add to Denver’s existing efforts to address Denver’s growing affordability challenges: home prices in Denver have increased over 50% in the past six years.

While 6,000 units makes a small dent in this problem, it is a significant step towards ensuring Denver remains a livable place for families of all ranges of incomes. A second initiative also just passed the City Council, allowing for density bonuses around the 38th and Blake rail station (in the form of taller buildings) if the development includes affordable housing. While many details still need to be finalized, this could prove an effective way to get many more affordable units constructed, as it has in many other cities.

This is an exciting move for our growing city, not only because this will help some of the estimated 87,000 families in Denver who are cost-burdened by housing. Affordable housing also provides dividends for the entire city over the long term by improving the health of its residents. People who are not cost-burdened by housing spend more on both nutritious food and essential health care services. Families who are in affordable housing also have lower stress levels, which helps them to avoid a number of negative health impacts including high blood pressure. On the other hand, housing stress has been associated with poor mental health, negative health behaviors like smoking, and poor overall health. Oakland found that their affordable housing crisis was leading to a public health crisis of its own, leading in increases in hypertension, asthma, depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia.

On a larger scale, it also means that families of all incomes can have access to some of Denver’s best neighborhoods, which promotes health through their walkable and accessible nature. The River North and Cole neighborhoods around the 38th and Blake station, where the density bonus will take effect, provide a wide variety of  transportation options including rail transit, are bikeable to downtown, and are walkable to services like the Eastside Family Health Center. A city that provides affordable options in its transit-oriented neighborhoods is ensuring that the many benefits of walkable, transportation-rich neighborhoods accrue to residents from many incomes.


Affordable housing’s benefits go far beyond the borders of its walls: cities who support housing are more regionally competitive and its businesses have greater employee retention. They also save money, too: a recent study of California’s affordable housing found that providing housing for homeless individuals saves general funds—taxpayer dollars!—as demand falls for other social services. Affordable housing can also lead to lower health care expenditures by Medicaid recipients. Children that move to affordable housing in low-poverty neighborhoods even have higher incomes as adults.

The Denver Housing Authority (DHA) recognizes these benefits: it integrated health into its plans for the award-winning Mariposa District housing development, a mixed-income community with a walkable transit-oriented design, a community garden, community health classes, a healthy food care and public art. Other DHA properties help seniors and disabled residents connect to health care. A new DHA program will focus on residents who are frequent users of Medicaid services, in an effort to reduce the use of health care while providing improved quality of care. This program could result in significant cost savings for the health care system.

Affordable housing is an important piece of the puzzle that will help Denver remain an inclusive city as it grows. Denver’s new affordable housing fund will help house more people. But it’s worth remembering that these 6,000 units will improve health and create benefits far beyond cost savings for low-income households. Denver has the potential to become a stronger city overall when it makes affording housing a bit easier for its residents to obtain.


Jenny Niemann is a graduate student in the University of Colorado Denver’s dual-degree in urban planning and public health. Her graduate work involves alternative transportation and healthy food systems and how the benefits of these sustainable city services can be accessed by households of all incomes. A native of the suburbs of Washington, DC, Jenny enjoys exploring Colorado’s growing cities and mountains by bicycle.

Lipstick on a Pig: Painting the I-70 Viaduct

This weekend, urban artists took to the streets to paint a stretch of aging Denver infrastructure. With only a limited amount of life left, the I-70 viaduct now has a splash of color, adding beauty to a steel and concrete beast.

The stretch between Brighton Boulevard and York was closed on Saturday for this event. There were multiple booths with fall activities, and Q&A about the future of the highway. A stage sat in the center of the closed-off section with performances echoing throughout the area. I never took the time to explore around here but there was a beauty to it; a hulking old structure, with a gathering of people adding wonderful colors was a great sight to see.

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From colorful portraits to realistic three dimensional scenes, there was a lot to see. Kids, adults, amateurs and professionals were lined up painting their own canvas along the concrete walls and curbs.

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With the streets closed, echoing music, and cars driving overhead, this was a great experience; even with the potent smell of dog and cat food. Here are two ‘aerial’ perspectives of the art.


Art gives personality to any part of the city, even in the most unlikely places. As strange of a place as this is, this art really livens up this dark, drab corridor.

What’s next for the viaduct? Via CDOT: “The Central 70 project proposes to reconstruct a 10-mile stretch of I-70 East, add one new Express Lane in each direction, remove the aging 50-year old viaduct, lower the interstate between Brighton and Colorado boulevards, and place a four-acre cover over a portion of the lowered interstate.”

McNichols Brings New Place to Historic Space in Civic Center Park

by Camron Bridgford

During a time when new development is ballooning throughout Denver’s urban core at breakneck speed and redefining both the physical boundaries and culture of downtown, there is something refreshing about investment in time-honored but often overlooked buildings that capture a distinctive slice of Denver’s history.

Such is the case with the just-completed revitalization of Denver’s storied McNichols Civic Center Building—the second phase of a two-part renovation project on the civic structure—that nobly sits on the northwest edge of Civic Center Park.


While much time, funding and talent of Denver developers, architects and planners focuses these days on revitalizing real estate at the periphery of downtown, such as Confluence Park, River North and Five Points, the McNichols project is a clear reinvestment in the city’s long-standing roots, and reminds Denverites that intertwining our history with progress and growth creates more authentic place, not just space, for the city’s future.

Built in 1910 and originally serving as Denver’s first public library with funds from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie—for whom the building was originally named—the McNichols building has gone through several iterations over the past 100 years. Uses have included serving as home for the Denver Water Board, Denver’s Treasury Office, and later in 2010 as the inaugural site for the Biennial of the Americas, a conference of cultural, civic and business leaders from the Americas originally envisioned by then-mayor John Hickenlooper to showcase Denver’s investment in intellectual and creative capital.

In 2012, the building came under its current management by Denver Arts & Venues—the City and County of Denver’s agency that manages cultural and artistic venues, public art and programs—which established the space as a municipally-led setting for contemporary art and culture shows. While the building has been the backdrop for more than 30 exhibitions and 800 events since that time, there has always been the sense that aesthetically and functionally, the building had unfinished business in order to be used to its greatest and brightest capacity.


The building’s classic Greek-revival style architecture (and one of only a large handful of classically-oriented buildings and structures in the city, many of which are located in Civic Center Park) pays homage to Mayor Robert Speer’s investment in the City Beautiful movement during a time when Denver was going through a different growth spurt—one that incorporated expansive parks and boulevards to grow the city’s grandeur and recognition through beautification. Numerous renowned architects and designers of the time lent their talent to the park’s plan, including Edward H. Bennett, Frederick MacMonnies, Charles Mulford Robinson and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.

The significance of the McNichols building to Denver architectural history is further emphasized by Civic Center Park’s 2012 designation as a National Historic Landmark, where it sits among the likes of celebrated buildings and places such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City and the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Civic Center Park is also one of only two civic center designations of its kind in the country, with San Francisco’s Civic Center holding the other title. Overall, less than three percent of properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places are designated with even greater iconic status of National Historic Landmark.


With the renovation completed in early September by local architecture firm Humphries Poli Architects, the building now features a refashioned, ADA-compliant main entrance; a reproduction of the building’s grand entry doors; new contemporary glass walls; and restoration of artistic ironwork on the original stairways that was discovered during reconstruction, among other changes and upgrades.

Visiting McNichols today, the building stands as a revamped cultural center dedicated to using its space for art exhibitions, civic engagements and other collective uses that, rather than serving as another development project highlighting the shiny and new of Denver’s urban growth, takes stock in the importance of a city maintaining a collective identity through its architectural history.

All photos by Steve Hostetler, courtesy of Denver Arts & Venues.


Camron Bridgford is a master’s candidate in urban and regional planning at the University of Colorado Denver, with a particular interest in the use and politics of public space as it relates to urban revitalization, culture and placemaking, and community development. She also works as a freelance writer to investigate urban-related issues and serves as a non-profit consultant.

Everything is Made Up

Life is the story we tell ourselves. This is why you can hear stories about people in the worst circumstances with the best attitudes and people who you would think should be pleased beyond their wildest dreams being miserable and on meds.

This of course means that the story of our city is also made up. It’s a collective agreement about what’s important to us, on how we got to where we are now, and on where we should go next. It’s hard sometimes when people don’t agree on how the story should go—arguments occur not only over the meaning of certain history but sometimes over the history itself. Sometimes we forget what happened. Sometimes we choose to forget. Sometimes we simply misinterpret.


It made me think about our recent decision to put a moratorium on allowing small lots to be redeveloped without providing any parking spaces. The exception was originally intended to allow the rehabilitation of buildings on lots too small to make parking economical. Since the exception was put into place, the city has seen dramatic growth and some developers saw an opportunity to build dense housing on these small lots that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. The moratorium was enacted in order to review and fix the problem.

And that’s where the story begins. We’ve told ourselves that allowing housing without parking is a problem that needs to be fixed. We’ve told ourselves that Denver has always been a city where a car is required and will never be New York so we shouldn’t allow it. We’ve told ourselves that the exception was never intended to be used that way (which is true) and we’ve also told ourselves that the dramatic changes we’ve seen in our city don’t or shouldn’t change the story of our need for parking.

But like I said, these are all stories. We can tell ourselves that we need more parking or we can tell ourselves that we have way too much parking. We can tell ourselves that the city will never be dense enough to make living without a car possible or we can tell ourselves that making the city dense enough to make living without a car possible is imperative and start building as though it is. We can tell ourselves that it was never meant to be done this way or we can tell ourselves that creative developers have figured out how to solve some small part of our housing problem for us.

I’m telling myself to look for the opportunities instead of the threats. What are you telling yourself?

Stability or Sameness?

What do you seek from your city? If you were to move across the country and had your pick, what characteristics would you seek out for your new hometown? Good schools? A strong economy? Perhaps exciting nightlife, excellent parks, or good transit? What about constancy? How important is a place’s resistance to change?

I read yet another article today about the astonishing number of people who have and continue to move to Denver. Absent some calamity, it doesn’t seem as if this pattern is going to change any time soon. This brings to question the necessity of growth and our reaction to it as a city. Time and again I’ve read articles and comments suggesting that the growth occurring in Denver is shameful, annoying, bad, or even a conspiracy. People take affront to the change occurring next door.


The euphemism I’ve heard used to resist the influx of new neighbors into old neighborhoods is “stability.” As in, “if we allow this new, larger building it will be destabilizing to the character of the neighborhood.” Or when a new mixed-use development goes up, “I bought this house thirty years ago. Don’t I have a right to a peaceful, stable neighborhood?” Or even, “without a stable neighborhood our schools will suffer”—a classic “won’t someone think of the children” refrain.

But stability allows for change, even growth. A child grows into a teenager who grows into an adult and remains a stable person. A building grows from a hole in the ground to a scaffolded construction site to a skyscraper and doesn’t fall over. And before our completely zoned and litigious modern times, a neighborhood grew as well—from a collection of homes to a retail corner to some small apartments to a commercial corridor and finally to a dense and vibrant district where all types of living, loving, commerce, salesmanship, and industry occur. Not all at once but piece by piece, every city in the history of mankind has grown in this way. Until today. Until now, with our complaints about traffic and our insistence on parking and our baked-into-the-code resistance to change.

But this resistance doesn’t fight against instability, it fights for sameness. It fights so that a person sees the same thing every day, forever. That home across the street will only ever be a home across the street and never anything different—unless someone tears it down and builds another home just like it. Literally, it’s in the code.

But this isn’t the character of a living city. These are not the actions of a growing metropolis embracing its destiny and welcoming the inevitable change and vital growth that makes a city great. It isn’t a guarantor of stability, it’s an imposition of sameness, a codification of bland, a legal requirement for stagnation. A place which fights the arrival of change is doomed to heartache because, good or bad, change is coming. We as a city need to make the distinction between stability and sameness. We need to allow new growth and new ideas, and welcome new neighbors rather than fight change and appear to be the unwelcoming and selfish people we claim we are not.

Can we accept this change? Can we look to the future and be grateful for our opportunities rather than resentful of our need to adjust? I hope we can.