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Archive of posts filed under the Urban Design category.

The Disappearing Carriage Lot

In a formerly quiet west-side neighborhood, there is a building boom underway. In the area bounded by 20th Avenue, Federal Boulevard, Colfax and Sloans Lake Park approximately 10 single-family homes have recently been scraped, not to make room for “McMansions”, but rather to make room for new 2-3 story, multi-unit townhome projects. Thanks to recent zoning changes, relatively large lot sizes and low land values (compared to the Highlands neighborhoods further north) and shifting demographic trends (i.e. young professionals who no longer desire the “house with a big yard” that their parents had), this neighborhood is suddenly undergoing a major architectural make-over. While there are certainly numerous pros and cons to this type of redevelopment, one aspect that I find somewhat unfortunate is the loss of a very unique land development pattern in Denver. While most neighborhoods in Denver were built with rectangular blocks, this area of town has square blocks with a “carriage lot” in the middle.

Back in 1872 when the Potter Highlands (a thirty-six-block residential district bounded by Federal Boulevard, West 38th Avenue, Zuni Street and West 32nd Avenue) was platted it was laid out in square blocks rather than the rectangular ones that predominate the Denver street grid. According to Historic Denver Inc., “this arrangement allowed for houses to face all adjacent streets and to contain a carriage lot (or carriage turnaround) in the center of the block. Many blocks still have communal garages; others have incorporated the central lot into the adjoining properties. About thirteen of Potter-Highlands’ thirty-six blocks still have a distinct central lot.” This distinct block pattern was extended a few blocks north and east of the Potter Highlands and is only replicated in a handful of areas of Denver: Parts of Jefferson Park, Sunnyside, a 15-block portion of South Park Hill and this portion of the Sloans Lake and West Colfax Neighborhoods. The following aerial photo shows clearly shows the relationship between the carriage lot blocks and the standard Denver blocks platted later.

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2014-03-27_park place XII rendering

Over time many of these carriage lots have been purchased by adjacent landowners and incorporated into larger yards, paved over for church or school parking lots, or in some cases developed into single-family properties in the middle of the block. Many still remain, however, in various states of use: some are simply open gravel lots, some have become more naturalized over the years with trees and grasses, one that I found still contained an old stone garage (that I imagine once contained horses and buggies). In a few cases, however, they’ve been turned into more informal public space. The photo below shows one that has been turned into a community garden.

2014-03-27_Carriage Lot Garden 2014-03-27_Communal Stables

Unfortunately with the new zoning allowing for greater densities in the Sloans Lake/West Colfax section of this square grid, developers have their eyes on these parcels. One has recently been purchased by the adjacent land owner for potential redevelopment and another one that was divided between two land owners long ago is now being built and paved over to make way for the Park Place XII townhomes, a 3-story, 12-unit project that will dominate the center of the block as shown below. In the last few weeks, the unit to the south has also been scraped, likely to meet a similar fate. 

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While were gaining density, and increasing land values in the area, I’m afraid we’re also losing an interesting fragment of Denver history, and an opportunity to create more public open space within the community (something that a good number of people in the neighborhood are calling for in light of the new development boom). Since these lots are publicly owned, they could easily be developed into community gardens, dog parks, pocket playgrounds, and communal places of refuge. If we, as a city, invested in a few of these parcels instead of selling them off to the highest bidder, we might not only preserve a piece of Denver history but create places for this new generation living “without yards” to run their dogs, meet their “blockmates,” grow some vegetables or simply relax and enjoy nature away from the din of the street. With two-three story houses on all sides, many of these carriage lots feel like little enclosed courtyards, and could be wonderfully comfortable and enjoyable open spaces: a pleasant surprise to those who find them and/or seek them out. Until then, I encourage you to seek out and explore this relatively unknown piece of Denver’s urban fabric. Check them out before they disappear.


Suburbs May Scare You, but a Look Under Stapleton’s “Hood” May Reveal a Surprising Amount of Innovation

As the largest urban infill redevelopment project in the country, Stapleton’s name is known both in, and outside, of Colorado. Having the community’s first phases being met with success, countless awards, and even garnering visits from mayors across the world, the development is not slowing down. By final buildout, Stapleton is expected to house 30,000 Denver residents. After watching decades of failed suburban mass developments scar swaths of unscathed land across the US, it’s not shocking that an urbanite’s first reaction is to run from this situation in some Godzilla-like fashion. I stood corrected on a recent trip to Stapleton and actually left feeling embarrassed that I’d allowed myself to be so closed-minded. Stapleton is not every other suburb. In fact, 20 years from now when the outer-ring suburbs are crumbling, Stapleton might just have an offshoot business making manuals for how to bring liveability to fractured surburban American communities.

As Stapleton pushes further north, the project team has kept a fine pulse on the needs and interests of those entering the community. A true emphasis on lifestyle, even if it’s not the one you choose, has been guiding many of the decisions being made by the project team. Progressive urbanism is at work here. It’s already apparent from passing through the solar panel-laden rooftops and pristine greenways that Stapleton has placed a focus on sustainability, but are these more common symptoms our only way to measure comprehensive sustainability?

Beyond simply being “green”, Stapleton has strived to create sustainable lifestyles. Though they’ve achieved becoming the largest EnergyStar community in Colorado, it runs deeper than that. Sustainability has been implanted into the simplest components of city infrastructure to ensure the human experience is always in consideration.  For instance, medians intended for nothing more than asphalt or grass, have been turned into elaborately designed pedestrian paths increasing safety, mobility and drastically enhancing aesthetic. Poachable fruit trees like the MontMorency cherry have been planted throughout the neighborhood to allow people to interact with the environment outside their door. Even the numerous community gardens peppered about have been planned down so intricately that some include organic fences built from espaliered apple trees.

In its newest phase, Stapleton has taken strides to create a place where the Colorado culture and Gen X ideals can be embraced. Homes will now have the option of including chicken coops, green houses and other agro features. Farm to table has been an embraced philosophy throughout the entire development and the team is constantly thinking outside of the box on ways to seamlessly building a stronger relationship between person and place.

  

With 38% of the new residents in the northern portion of the neighborhood being from the previously existing phases, it’s clear that the new phase of development has stepped up its game. Placemaking has become apparent through not only the medians and gardens, but in the street grid itself. Conforming to the grid pattern of the surrounding context, Stapleton has made sure in their new phase to build a heightened level of placemaking within each corridor. To break from the mundane and develop character, the street grid was carefully sculpted into more unique block forms. It was done in a way that retains the grid and connectivity throughout, while also delivering originality. In addition, pocket parks are encouraged to developers for designing opportunities for social interaction and quality of life. To foster community and continue building upon sense of place, homes are corralled around a common greenspace in a dense and intimate fashion. This is one further attempt to create spaces that work for people.

Lastly, in the coming years, Stapleton will continue to leverage its significance as a residential heavy hitter in the Denver Metro Area. It is home to what will expand as the second largest transportation hub within RTD’s network. What will be most exciting to watch is the portion of land set aside by Stapleton to create their TOD (Transit-oriented Development). Though plans have not been firmly laid, we could see some of the development’s highest densities still yet to come.

The takeaway from this piece is simply that Stapleton possesses more than what meets the eye. Though many of us following this blog sometimes get caught up in the urban-only fight, there’s a lot to learn from the community to the northeast. If some of the urban developments currently at work in the inner core cared half as much about the details and creativity of building sustainable living, we might be producing a far better quality of life to experience for generations to come.


“Sneckdowns” reveal street space cars don’t use

Every time it snows, vast sections of city streets remain covered by snow long after plows and moving cars have cleared the travel lanes. These leftover spaces are called “sneckdowns,” and they show where sidewalks or medians could replace roads without much loss to car drivers.


Photo by Anne G on flickr.

The term sneckdown is a portmanteau of “snow” and “neckdown,” the latter being another term for sidewalk curb extensions. So it literally means a sidewalk extension created by snow.

New York’s biggest urbanist blog, Streetsblog, put out a call for photos of sneckdowns in the wild earlier this winter. They’ve received plenty of responses.

Be on the lookout for these as winter continues to roll along.


The Source

Construction is booming in Denver and cranes dot the landscape across most parts of town. We’ve all become accustomed to the growing crowds, higher rents and the abundance of the color neon orange (construction). However, there’s another form of development that’s been happening a bit under the radar. This is Denver’s cultural development. In the past few years, Denver’s identity has continued to blossom through its food culture, breweries and local craft everything. Now, there’s a place in River North that has combined many of these items into one place for you to enjoy. And they called it, The Source.

   

[Photographs by Adam Larkey Photography]

As many of us have been anticipating this development, it is certainly worth a visit. Opened in September, The Source brings a sense of community to an area that is still on the up, but has also created a destination for the entire city. Denver has long lacked a year-round open marketplace to serve as a cultural icon, but that seems to have recently changed. Visiting The Source, one can find day-to-day staples like a butcher, cheese shop and bakery, but can also explore some of the deeper cuts of Denver cuisine. Take the edge off with a beer from Crooked Stave Brewery or craft cocktails at CapRock made with organic fruit and ingredients from the Western Slope. Still, the space goes on to provide a Collegiate Peaks Bank branch, a florist, restaurants and an art gallery. Just when you were still losing sleep over the loss of El Diablo’s scrumptious taco selection, Comida opened up shop in The Source as one of its restaurant anchors. Make sure not to miss out on the bacon & jalapeno grilled tacos!

Beyond the injection of life that this development has provided to the neighborhood, it has also succeeded in delivering the product with a focus on original design. The 25,000 sq. ft. space once functioned as an iron foundry, but was adapted into the current marketplace, still retaining its urban grunge flavor. The space is decked out with numerous aluminum garage door-style panels that not only provide a unique aesthetic, but also allow market tenants to open or close their space independently.

    

In the bigger picture, The Source is helping RiNo to reach a tipping point that is not too far off. The addition of this development to the neighborhood has made the area (and those surrounding it) overall more livable, has upped the cool factor which will inevitably draw new residents, and has also given others a reason to invest in future developments. Things to keep in mind are that the hundreds of new units have been created within just a few blocks of this site, 38th/Blake St. light rail stop is taking form just a handful of blocks away and Great Divide Brewery has recently announced that they’ll build a $38 million brewery right across from The Source to replace their current space. Their new location will be one of the largest brewery spaces in Colorado. With that said, we may have a true example of “If you build it, they will come!” unfolding right in front of us. So, do yourself a favor and get over to The Source now before you have crowds to fight through.

Click here to get a reminder of what The Source looked like one year ago!


Downtown Reinvestment: Denver City Center Final Update

It’s time to take a final look at the Denver City Center plaza as it is now complete! This plaza, situated on 17th and California, has gone through a major renovation and has given new life to this intersection. Here are all the previous updates for this project.

Downtown Reinvestment: Denver City Center 

Downtown Reinvestment: Denver City Center Update #2 

Today I have a huge photo tour covering all the new elements of this renovation. Let’s start off with the 18th Street side. 707 17th Street is a mixed use building with two entrances. Before this project, each entrance looked very different and nothing was uniform along the street. Now, both entrances are clearly marked and the same materials are used on both sides of the building: a steel and glass awning, wooden ledges, and uniform stairs.

 

The 17th Street side is a little bit different because there are no entrances to the buildings along this street. Instead, there are glass awnings and signs attached to the Johns Manville Plaza building clearly marking the entrances to the retail.

The Stout Street side is more or less the same as 17th Street minus a new entrance to Johns Manville Plaza. There is also an inward facing triangular set of benches interestingly placed along Stout as well.

 

Heading towards 18th along Stout you will also find the new bus shelters. The rounded edge steel and translucent glass is a reoccurring theme throughout this whole block and it looks pretty sharp!

 

Here is a closer look at the outer facing ground floor retail pads. Once again, there is a translucent glass awning with ‘Denver City Center’ signage on the outside.

 

There are two entrances to the Denver City Center plaza, one off of California and the other off of Stout. Each entrance will be very well lit thanks to the new sleek street lights that were installed.

 

The entrances off of 17th street are also very inviting. Here you will find the same signage, bike racks, and resting areas.

 

Let’s take a look at the plaza itself. Even though the idea of a plaza in front of office buildings is a thing of the past, this is a great example of what the modernization of an existing plaza should look like. There is ample seating, great tree coverage, tables and chair scattered throughout, and color patterned concrete clearly marking the plaza.

 

The tables and chairs are bright yellow and green adding a nice splash of color.

 

Wooden benches also line the landscaping bulbs for additional seating.

 

The landscaping is very well done with both plants and trees in each bulb. Also included on each side of the plaza is the Denver City Center Signage.

 

This plaza renovation is exactly what this part of Downtown Denver needed and we would all hope that it would help activate this area. Unfortunately, there is a major flaw with this plaza. Did you notice there was not one single person on the plaza even with a very busy hotel right on top of it? This is because we, as pedestrians and passersby, cannot use this plaza; it is not for public use. There is a sign, which can be missed, stating ‘Private Property, No Trespassing’. I was approached, as I was wrapping up my photo set, by a guard from Johns Manville Plaza saying it was in their ‘policy’ that I cannot take photos of the plaza. At this time, I had not seen the sign saying this was private property. Complying with his demands to move along, I put my camera away and decided to take a seat on a bench to enjoy the new look of the plaza. A few minutes later, I was approached by another guard, this time from 707 17th Street, saying I cannot be on the plaza unless I am a tenant of either two buildings. From then on, he watched me from the center of the plaza as I was taking pictures from the sidewalk to make sure I would not enter again. We have this wonderful plaza that is actually deactivating this block during non-business hours. What a shame, there is so much lost potential.