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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.  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:  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.

Forgotten Denver: The Train to Golden

This Denver Tramway streetcar ran between Denver and Golden. Photo credit: RTD










T-minus 4 days!!

On the eve of the opening of the first completed line of RTD’s FasTracks transit expansion, it is a good time to pay homage to Denver’s storied history of streetcars and interurbans. During the early 20th century, Denver had one of the nation’s largest streetcar networks, consolidated under the name of the Denver Tramway Company or DTC (not Denver Tech Center!). It was ruled over by the streetcar titan William G. Evans, who had his headquarters in the Tramway Building, today’s Hotel Teatro.  The metropolitan system consisted of over 250 miles of track with an additional 40 miles of track on interurban lines to Golden and Boulder. By 1950, the last of the street car routes were abandoned as the Denver Tramway finalized the conversion of all its system to buses. The company morphed into RTD, or the Regional Transportation District, by 1974 and has been working to put back into place a cohesive system of rapid transit ever since.

The fascinating notion however is that we’ve been there, done that. What was seen as old and out-dated in 1950, is quickly gaining traction as an integral part of comprehensive metropolitan area transportation systems once again. Some Denverites around today can, in fact, still remember riding an interurban train to Golden or Arvada or Boulder!

In honor of the opening of RTD’s new West Rail Line, let us take a quick look at Denver’s past history of transit along this corridor. You might be surprised to learn that for years, RTD kept possession of the right-of-way that the old transit line between Denver and Golden once used. This helped facilitate the construction of the new line, since rail-based transit could more readily be returned to a corridor that had more or less never lost the shape of what it had been!  In 1890, the Denver, Lakewood and Golden Railroad was inaugurated. By 1909, the line was purchased by Denver Tramway and converted to an electric line. The line dropped off downtown at the Interurban Loop at 15th and Arapahoe. The nearby Central Loop took commuters to other parts of the city. If you were riding back to Golden, you’d look for the Villa Park/Golden car. Of course, Villa Park is the name of the neighborhood where the West Rail Line will once again be offering service, with stops at Knox and Perry, as it makes its way down the Lakewood and Dry Gulch greenways.

The Four Seasons Hotel now sits partially on the site of the Central and Interurban Loops near 15th and Arapahoe. This streetcar is bound for Golden. Photo credit: Kevin Pharris











In Kevin Pharris’ new book, Riding Denver’s Rails, he captures some of the long-ago memories of riding the interurban between Denver and Golden and the impression it made on these young people, at the time:

Darrell P. shared some of his memories. “I rode [the interurban] from downtown Denver, the old Loop Market, to go fishing in Clear Creek. The thing that impressed me the most about riding it was when the motorman got it cranked up to its top speed, somewhere in what is now western Lakewood. The car would start rocking back and forth and you would wonder if it was going to jump off the track. It never did, of course.”

Bob P. shared some of these perceptions. “I am sure [everyone who rode the interurban would] remark about the wild ride. Though it had a wider gauge track than the similar streetcars, its ride was so fast and the roadbed so uneven we were sure the lurching would result in our being flung, spinning, tumbling far off the tracks. It was then that I first associated the words MORTALITY and ME. Anyway, it was cheaper than the rides at Elitch’s or Lakeside!”

Some lament the loss of the streetcar after World War II. It was abandoned in cities across the country in favor of the automobile. Investment monies were generally not available to maintain the system, and the public looked at rail-based transit as a tired relic of the past. Without public support, streetcars were pulled out in almost every part of the nation. Consider that this time period also saw the mass removal of another hackneyed and embarrassing reminder of our past: Victorian architecture! The new world would no longer travel at the creeping pace of the streetcar by buildings that had been around before humanity bested the atom; a new era was dawning—the age of the automobile and parking lot. Now we’re putting a lot of it back in place again. Let’s hope our future citizens and leaders will continue to be so forward thinking by offering residents a choice in transportation options and development patterns.

The 16th Street Viaduct no long stands at 16th and Wazee but the Barteldes Seed and Tattered Cover Buildings remain. The sign shows a crying streetcar saying "Good-bye Old Friends: My Last Day is June 3". Photo credit: Kevin Pharris











For more information on this subject, consult:

Pharris, Kevin E. Riding Denver’s Rails:  A Mile High Street Car History. Charleston, SC:  The History Press, 2013.

Or visit with Kevin at the Lakewood-Wadsworth Station Party on Saturday, April 27 to learn more about the city’s past transit history.

Forgotten Denver: Arapahoe School

The ghosts of Denver’s past buildings are fading fast from our collective memories.  For every preserved Larimer Square or D&F Clocktower, there are hundreds of structures that have been demolished since Denver was founded back in 1858.   Unfortunately, detailed photographs of this built environment are limited to the most prominent structures of the time and even then, much of the early residential character of downtown has been lost, both in memory and in any photographic archive.  If we are lucky, some of this early history can be dug up at the library or even on E-Bay.  Such was the case recently when I was searching for early Denver school photographs.  Among all of the Denver Broncos paraphernalia, a photo of Public School #1 (later known as the Arapahoe School), was for sale.  While I had seen many archival photos of this school in library collections, I was anxious to own one for myself.

Public School #1 circa 1875

Denver citizens fought for over ten years to get this structure built but its planned construction for the school children of “east” Denver was tenuous at best.  Ultimately, bonds were issued for its construction but its overall cost was supported by years of collecting property taxes to pay for it.  This new concept was fought vociferously by many citizens of Denver who argued that they were not responsible for educating “someone else’s children”.  The Rocky Mountain News proclaimed it to be the finest school in the territory and it was indeed the biggest school to be found anywhere in the mountain west when it opened on April 2, 1873.  Just weeks before its opening, another fight ensued as elements of Denver society proclaimed that their children would never attend this new public school if black students were allowed to enter the door as well.  Cooler heads finally prevailed as former territorial governor John Evans implored Denverites to allow Public School #1 to be used by all children in the district.  When it opened at 17th and Arapahoe, the school was an integrated facility. It soon served all grades, housing Denver’s first high school as well.  The building itself was only used as a school however until 1890 when the area was fast becoming a commercial zone due to Denver’s explosive growth.

Soon Frank Edbrooke’s grand Club Building was constructed on the front of the site, with the Arapahoe School serving as a back annex to this office building (a sliver of the school can be seen on the right side of the photo).

Club Building circa 1890

In 1955, both buildings were summarily demolished for a big parking lot without much thought given to their histories.  So next time you’re walking through Skyline Park north of 17th Street, nod your head to this ghost of Denver’s past and listen for the screams and laughter of the school children of pioneer Denver.

For more information on this subject, consult:

Snow, Shawn M. “ ‘A Premonition of Our Future Grandeur:’  Building Denver’s First Schools.” Colorado History:  Denver Inside and Out 16 (2011): 21-30.