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Archive of posts filed under the Land Use & Planning category.

FasTracks Progress: Union Station Transit Complex Opens!

It’s been a long, long time coming, but the $500 million Denver Union Station Transit Center is COMPLETE and will open for transit operations tomorrow! This is undoubtedly a game changer for downtown Denver and represents the realization of nearly three decades of planning efforts, if not more. Ryan D. covered the grand opening ceremonies in two posts (parts one and two) yesterday on DenverInfill.

The Denver Union Station Transit Center (any ideas for a nickname?) consists of three major transit components: light rail (open in 2011), bus (open now), and commuter rail (coming in 2016). Let’s take a look at each of those components and how they fit into one of the most expensive infrastructure investments since Denver International Airport.

RTD has produced (and agreed to share) this great image that gives a general overview as to how the three components fit together and where the different modes provide service to.

UnionStation-Map - Copy

The locations and facilities labeled in orange on the image above are now complete and will be open for the general public on Sunday, May 11, 2014. The Chestnut, Wewatta, and Union Station Pavilions provide the three main entrances to the underground bus station, complete with stairs, escalators, and elevators. The Platform 2 and Platform 4 Pavilions provide access from the Commuter Rail platform with stair and elevator access to the underground bus concourse (no escalators).

The light rail facility was relocated in 2011 and served as the first major component completed at Union Station as part of this massive project. This new station replaced the previous light rail platform which was located just south of Wewatta Street (right about where the Wewatta Pavilion is today). The 16th Street MallRide was also extended 2-3 blocks to serve the new light rail station at the same time.

2014_05_09_DUSLRT01 

The underground bus station (which again….nickname?) is a sight to behold. A behemoth at 140 feet wide and 980 feet long, this 22-bay bus station has more than twice the capacity of Market Street’s 10 bays. The pedestrian concourse isn’t anything to sneeze at, coming in at 44 feet wide and 780 feet long. Every bus that services Market Street Station today will service Union Station, in addition to the free MetroRide. Buses from Greyhound as well as other private bus companies are a possibility in the future (no definitive plans as of yet). CDOT announced this week that its new inter-regional bus system—which will connect Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, and Glenwood Springs (and points in between) with downtown Denver—will serve the underground bus station. This new service starts sometime next year!

DenverUrbanism and DenverInfill have tackled the bus station through several previous posts, so I won’t bombard you with pictures here, but let’s take a look at some before-and-after pictures of the bus facility. Better yet, head on down and take a look for yourself. Honestly, I was wary when I heard about the yellow tile (can anyone say outdated and tacky?) but I think it turned out great. Combined with the seven skylights, it really helps brighten the facility up and makes it seem even larger (if that was possible).

2014_05_09_DUSBefore03 2014_05_09_DUSAfter01

2014_05_09_DUSBefore01 2014-05-09_DUSAfter02

The final and the most visible and stunning piece of transit infrastructure at Union Station has to be the commuter rail platform. Denver is known for lots of things (300 sunny days each year, active lifestyles, marijuana, etc.) but stunning and modern architecture tends to not make most people’s lists. This canopy will serve as an iconic welcome to those who arrive in downtown Denver by transit, whether it be the coming commuter rail lines, bus, or light rail.

2013_11_18_DUSCanopy04 2013_11_18_DUSCanopy09   

2013_11_18_DUSCanopy18 2013_11_18_DUSCanopy10

Union Station is big. It’s expensive. It’s important. It serves as the hub of the $6+ billion, decade-long infrastructure investment that is FasTracks. It will serve as the heart of transit throughout metro Denver. It will change how tens of thousands of people access downtown Denver on a daily basis. Get down there and take a look. Wander around. We all paid for it, and after decades of planning and years of construction, we can finally cash in on this investment.


Let’s Plan Around the Pepsi Center

A defining mission of the DenverInfill and DenverUrbanism blogs has been to report on infill development in and around Downtown Denver. Most of this infill development has come to fruition by replacing surface parking lots with residential, commercial and/or institutional buildings. In recent years, many parking lots in Downtown Denver have thankfully been put to higher and better use through infill development. While there are still many more parking lots that have yet to be filled, I want to suggest that the city begin planning for some of the biggest parking lots in the area: those around the Pepsi Center.

4-25-14_Pepsi Center Lots

Recently the city undertook planning efforts in the Sun Valley Neighborhood south of Mile-High Stadium and suggested conversion of some of the parking lots (especially those south of Colfax closest to the light rail station) to residential and commercial uses. Doing so would activate a highly blighted and underutilized area with good public transit access and proximity to the South Platte River Greenway and help create a more viable and sustainable community in the area. Unfortunately, given the large amount of undesirable infrastructure in the area (e.g. a power plant, electrical substation and massive fuel tanks) and the fact that it is extremely difficult to create economic development around a football stadium with less than 20 large events per year, the goal of redevelopment in the area seems extremely lofty.

Now if the City can plan for such a lofty and questionably obtainable goal, then I have to ask why we aren’t planning for what I consider to be a much lower hanging fruit: the lots around the Pepsi Center. With over 40 Nuggets games, 40 Avalanche games, and numerous other concert and sporting events each year, the Pepsi Center brings a huge number of people into the area on a regular basis. Add to this existing activity the site’s extreme proximity to Downtown and the Auraria Campus and there’s a lot of potential for residential and commercial development on this site. When you consider that the site is flat, has excellent vehicular infrastructure around it and has access to two (very underutilized) light-rail stations, redevelopment here seems very feasible with little added investment. We just need to plan for it.

By my rough calculations there are nearly 50 acres of parking lots immediately surrounding the Pepsi Center (between the railroad, Speer Boulevard and the Auraria Parkway). There is an additional 15 acres of parking shared with Elitch Gardens just north and west of the arena. This represents an area that is equal to or possibly greater than all the infill development between Union Station and the South Platte River and could be a huge economic boon for the city if developed right. What might this redevelopment look like? The following are my thoughts on a plan for the area.

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First I would consolidate a large amount of the surface parking into a few large parking structures (cyan) that are wrapped with residential (yellow) and commercial (blue) structures that form walkable city blocks. Preserving the few existing mixed-use buildings (red) and providing some additional commercial office space in the district would help increase use the parking structures by day while the arena utilizes them at night and on weekends. Second, I would intersperse some green promenades that could be designed to handle and clean storm water runoff before running into the South Platte. These green spaces might be designed so as to provide view corridors to the arena from the major arterial streets for visual wayfinding. The promenades would also provide pedestrian access to and from the Arena, Downtown, the Auraria Campus and the light rail stations on the edges of the site.

As long as were making big plans, let’s also talk about combining the “Sports Authority Field at Mile High” and the “Auraria West” light rail stations into one station along Fifth Street under the Auraria Parkway viaduct (orange above). The two stations are way too close together and extremely redundant; eliminating one station and straightening out the track would speed up the trip into Union Station from points south and west. The city could then use the rest of the property between the tracks for a small park with recreational amenities for the new residents. Finally, I propose that we connect the new development to the South Platte River trail via a bike/pedestrian bridge across the railroad tracks, and thus provide even more recreational access to and from the new neighborhood.

As Denver continues to grow and expand and urban living becomes increasingly more popular, we need to take a serious look at the opportunity for creating a new downtown adjacent neighborhood around the Pepsi Center rather than leave it an asphalt wasteland. If designed and developed right, this corner of the Auraria Neighborhood could become the hottest new address in town.


Density and Mass Tranist Efficiency: A West Denver Exercise

Since the opening of the West Corridor Rail line in my neighborhood, I have been somewhat underwhelmed with how well it seems to be performing in terms of ridership. There are probably several reasons for this, but one of them that certainly plays a role is a lack of residential density along the line.

I recently read Vishaan Chakrabarti‘s book “A Country of Cities” in which he suggests that mass transit rail service is inefficient (i.e. it doesn’t attract enough ridership to pay for the cost of operation) at residential densities less than 30 dwelling units per acre (du/acre). Since it’s sort of difficult to imagine exactly what exactly 30 du/acre looks like,  I thought I’d see how my neighborhood compared.

The West Colfax Neighborhood of Denver, shown outlined in orange in the map below, covers 540 acres. The neighborhood is served by four light rail stations and nearly 75% of the neighborhood is within one-half mile of a station as shown by the larger circles on the map (thanks to DRCOG’s new Denver Regional Equity Atlas from which I took the image). Click on the map for the full-size version.

Currently there are approximately 3,600 dwelling units in the neighborhood. That means that on average there are only 6.6 dwelling units per acre. Sadly this isn’t anywhere close to Vishaan’s suggested density and probably has something to do with why I generally see a lot of mostly empty trains.

Of course I’m not one to take one person’s word as the gospel truth and I seemed to recall my urban planning professors in college quoting numbers closer to 20 du/acre, so I set out to see what sort of numbers I could find with a bit of web research. Sadly, I didn’t find many hard and fast numbers; the numbers I did find varied greatly. On the low end, a study by UC Berkeley’s Center For Future Urban Transit (PDF) suggested that light rail could be efficient between 9 and 12 du/acre depending on the size and strength of the Downtown market it served. Similarly, the LEED ND standards award credit for projects that are within a walking radius of mass transit AND contain 12 du/acre or more, suggesting that this might be an important threshold. The few other numbers I found  ranged upwards from 20 to 40 du/acre. Apparently, there isn’t a clear answer, and I imagine it’s because usage depends on a multitude of other factors.

So how do all these numbers stack up in relation to West Colfax? How many more units do we need before we can cross these thresholds?

Currently I’m aware of about 150 new units that are under construction in the neighborhood. Additionally, the redevelopment of St. Anthony’s Hospital will add somewhere between 800 and 1,200 units of residential housing. Combined, this will add between 950 and 1,350 dwelling units to the neighborhood. At the high end of this estimate, adding 1,350 units to the existing 3,600 units (and dividing by 540 acres) gives us approximately 9.2 du/acre. This is barely enough to cross the 9 du/acre threshold suggested in the UC Berkeley study. To get to the seemingly better 12 du/acre threshold, we’d have to add yet another 1,530 units of housing on top of what’s currently planned. To get to Vishaan’s suggested 30 du/acre, we’d need to add over 12,600 dwelling units to the neighborhood!

Now, that’s a lot of units; just what might that look like?

Currently, Capitol Hill is probably the densest neighborhood in Denver. The neighborhood (bounded by Broadway, Colfax, Downing and 7th Ave), which covers about 430 acres, had nearly 11,300 dwelling units back in 2000 or approximately 26.3 du/acre. I apologize for the old data; it’s what I had handy. The area is probably closer to 12,000 units by now. In any case, one would have to add the entire housing stock of Capitol Hill (and then some) to the West Colfax neighborhood to reach Vishaan’s 30 du/acre recommendation. That is an enormous amount of housing. While it’s probably not very realistic given the current status of land ownership and zoning allowances in the area, I guarantee it would help to fill all those trains.


St. Anthony’s Redevelopment Stirs Zoning Controversy

By Chad Reischl

When St. Anthony’s Hospital moved out of the West Colfax neighborhood to a new facility in Lakewood, it left the community with an opportunity for a large redevelopment project. The property was purchased by EnviroFinance Group, a horizontal developer, which is currently in the process of demolishing the hospital and setting plans in place for individual parcels to be sold to vertical developers. The General Development Plan (GDP) planning process has been going on for nearly a year and a half and is scheduled to go before the Denver Planning Board for final review in mid-November. Recently, a small group of local citizens who has concerns over the size, scale and layout of the project, has latched on to a discrepancy in the interpretation of the city’s zoning code and is rallying together to fight the project on this ground.

The discrepancy centers on the interpretation of the Open Space requirement proposed in the City’s GDP process. Before getting into the issue, however, here’s Denver’s definition of a GDP for those who may not know what it entails.

12.4.12.1  A. A General Development Plan (GDP) establishes a framework for future land use and development and resulting public infrastructure. The GDP provides an opportunity to identify issues and the development’s relationship with significant public infrastructure improvements such as major multi-modal facilities and connections thereto, major utility facilities, and publicly accessible parks and open spaces. An approved GDP provides a master plan for coordinating development, infrastructure improvements, and regulatory decisions as development proceeds within the subject area. An approved GDP also constitutes a master plan that is a prerequisite to zoning within the Master Plan neighborhood

Under this clause in the city’s zoning code, there is a sub-clause regarding open space provision in the GDP. It reads:

12.4.12.5  A minimum of 10% of the total GDP area (including the Primary Area plus any Secondary Ar­eas) shall be included in the GDP as open space.

The statement above seems quite simple and straight forward, but as we shall see, the lack of any subsequent detail allows it to get quite cloudy very quickly. The problems are twofold: how do you define the GDP area and what concessions does the developer get for having to deed back land to the city in the form of streets.

The developer, in this case, wants to not only develop their parcel, but also improve the streetscape on the surrounding streets. Since the streets around the project contain a mixed bag of sidewalk infrastructure (some attached to the curb, some detached, some missing or in poor shape) and at least one street lacks parking on the development side, EFG wants to have control over their half of the street Right-of-Way (ROW) on the surrounding streets for these improvements. Additionally, they are proposing to create bulb-outs at the street corners for an improved pedestrian environment at the entrances to their development. In order to make these changes however, EFG needed to expand their GDP area to include these ROWs. Since this is not developable land and not land they purchased, EFG suggested that it should not be included in the “Total GDP area” that is used to define the amount of open space they need to provide.

The second issue is internal to the site. When the developer bought the St Anthony’s site, part of what they purchased was a super-block within Denver’s existing street grid (they also purchased one stand-alone block). The West Colfax Plan (created after the announcement that St. A’s was moving) insisted that the street grid be reintroduced to this super block. In other words, EFG needs to divide the super-block into six blocks and give a significant portion of their land back to the city as a re-created street grid. By my calculation, this eliminates approximately 15% of the property they purchased. The developer is arguing that the city’s open space requirement should not apply to land that they are giving back to the city in the form of the streets, tree lawns, sidewalks and sidewalk amenity zones that they are creating for the citizens of Denver.

Essentially, the developer is arguing that the total required open space on the property be limited to 10% of the “Net” GDP area (or in other words the land they can physically develop). Consequently, the GDP shows a fraction more than 10% of the “net” project area dedicated to open space. The city planners (at the moment) are in agreement that this is a reasonable application of the standard and the GDP is about to go to the planning board for final hearing on November 20, 2013.

A group of local citizens has recently decided to protest this application on the grounds that the city has an insufficient amount of open space and that the developer should not be allowed to create 10% “net” open space but rather be mandated to dedicate 10% of the total “gross” area to open space. They believe that we, as a city, do not have many chances to increase the amount of publicly accessible open space and that this is one of our best opportunities to get this needed land (essentially for free) from the developer. Therefore, we must do everything we can to ensure that they provide us with the maximum amount of open space dictated by the zoning code.

Another local group is siding with the developer, saying that we have plenty of open space in the neighborhood (the development is right across the street from one of Denver’s largest parks) and not enough quality “urban space” (i.e. walkable streets and plazas for gatherings, which are included in the plan). They feel that using the “net GDP area” to determine open space is being fair to the developer who has been asked to create a lot of streets and pedestrian amenities in the development. They also argue that creating too much open space within the development will not serve to create the kind of dense, pedestrian friendly, urban development they’d like to see in the neighborhood, and create additional spaces that could host the kind of criminal activities (i.e. prostitution and drugs) that currently happen within the neighborhood.

What do you think?

~~~

Chad Reischl is an aspiring urban planner with a background in architecture and landscape design.  He has a Master’s in Urban and Regional Planning from UC-Denver with an emphasis in urban place making and economic development.  Chad is currently a resident of the West Colfax Neighborhood of Denver and is co-president of the West Colfax Association of Neighbors (WeCAN).  He is dedicated to creating sustainable, healthy, and well connected urban communities for future generations to enjoy.


Perspectives on Downtown Denver’s Growth

While downtown Denver is experiencing new population growth at the dawn of the 21st century, a humbling perspective is brought to the forefront when we look at how the city handled growth toward the latter half of the 19th century. Over the past several months, I have been looking into this issue and was provided access to the archives of Central Presbyterian Church, housed at the imposing edifice at 17th and Sherman. Their historical material helped shed light on the amazing story of Denver’s cyclical growth patterns.

Central Presbyterian Church, 1660 Sherman

It turns out that Central’s current building, circa 1892, was the third home for the congregation, which had its roots dating all the way back to the city’s earliest days in 1860. When moving to 17th and Sherman, the congregation sought to escape the growing density of downtown and escape to the suburbs (then located in Capitol Hill). At the dedication of this Frank Edbrooke designed building, built on land purchased from Walter Scott Cheesman for $40,000 by Donald Fletcher (founder of Aurora, whose home stood close by at 16th and Grant), church members reminisced about the remarkable growth of Denver over a short period of 30 years.

With the early congregation’s foundation in the First Presbyterian Church on the north side of 15th Street between Lawrence and Arapahoe, the church initially moved to a permanent structure on the outskirts of downtown in 1876—at 18th and Champa. Within 15 years, they needed to move again, not only because the congregation had outgrown its building but because the city was growing yet again and was well over 100,000 people by 1890—increasing from 4700 people only twenty years earlier. At the new church dedication in 1892, members recalled,

“It seems almost incredible, even to those who have been eye witnesses to this progress, that within thirty years the little hamlet upon the banks of Cherry Creek, containing a few log and frame buildings, should grow in this brief period into a city of perhaps more than 150,000 inhabitants.  The first Presbyterian church building, which was situated upon the corner of the alley on F street (now Fifteenth Street) on the ground now occupied by Clayton’s hat store was completed and opened for regular services in the spring of 1865. At that time it was in the midst of scattered dwellings. There were no store or business buildings above Larimer street on F, and none upon Sixteenth street except the Langrishe theater, a frame building on the corner of Sixteenth and Lawrence, where now stands the building occupied by Skinner Bros. & Wright. The business quarter of the town was on Blake, McGaa (now Market) and Larimer, extending from the creek as far as F street and on F from Larimer to below Wazee. Opposite the new church, where the Evans block now stands, was a lumber yard. On the corner of Lawrence and F, where the building stands, which was recently occupied as the post office, was the Overland stage barn and corral. On the corner adjoining the church stood the brick residence of Wiliam Graham, the pioneer druggist. Opposite on Lawrence was the residence of Mr. D. H. Moffat. Mr. George Tritch lived in a white frame house fronting onArapahoe and fifty feet from the corner of F and Arapahoe. Above this were a few scattered dwellings and beyond were the treeless, barren plains…there was not a growing tree on the town site, except along the margin of the Platte, until the spring of 1865 when a few were transplanted by General Pierce and one or two others that were watered by a small ditch conducting water from a spring on Cherry Creek above the present Broadway bridge.”

When the new 18th and Champa location was chosen, it “was at that time far from business buildings, residences lined Lawrence, Arapahoe, Curtis and Champa streets, and as yet there was little business above Larimer Street. It was believed the location would be quite permanent, business might possibly extend up Fifteenth and Sixteenth streets to Curtis, possibly to Champa, but no one dreamed that during the lifetime of the present generation it would go beyond.”  That building was designed by Robert Roeschlaub and had a seating capacity of 1000, making it the largest gathering place in the city. It was used for concerts, lectures, graduation ceremonies and the like for many years. When the church moved to Sherman Street in 1892, their “old” building was sold to the new 23rd Avenue Presbyterian Church on Ogden, where it was physically relocated (and later burned in a fire).

Central Presbyterian's second location at 18th and Champa

Today, Central Presbyterian Church is one of the few church buildings remaining downtown whose congregation stayed put instead of moving farther out into the suburbs, as many other congregations did after World War II. Its impressive sandstone building stands sentinel over the corner of 17th and Sherman and is one of the few structures remaining from this once residential neighborhood. And while downtown Denver, of which it is now considered a part, is once again growing in population, the church has no plans to vacate its location. This congregation, along with Trinity United Methodist Church, can proudly tie its existence back to the very foundations of the tiny hamlet of Denver over 150 years ago.