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Denver Urbanists Unite! MeetUp #5 Coming March 26, 2014

Do you love cities and consider yourself an urbanist?

Please join us for Denver Urbanists MeetUp #5 on Wednesday, March 26, 2014 starting at 5:30 PM at Wynkoop Brewing Company at 18th & Wynkoop, 2nd floor. There is no program or anything formal, just a bunch of friendly people getting together to chat, collaborate, and advance a positive urban agenda for Denver! It’s a great way to meet like-minded people and build relationships. At our Denver Urbanists MeetUp #4 in January, we had a huge turnout (over 60 people!) and the conversations were awesome. For those of you who joined us in January, thank you!

For MeetUp #5, let’s talk walking! As in, how can Denver’s pedestrian environment be improved? What can we do to promote walkability in our city? How can we make our streets more friendly and engaging to people on foot? Come to Denver Urbanists MeetUp #5 to discuss these and other topics.

Click on the link below to see all the details and to register. It’s free! Registration just helps give us an idea of how many people to expect.

Denver Urbanists MeetUp #5 Eventbrite RSVP

We hope to see you at Denver Urbanists MeetUp #5 on March 26!


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.


Sneak peek at MetroRide buses

The first RTD MetroRide buses are just about ready, and looking great at their assembly plant in Minnesota.

MetroRide will run on a special downtown Denver circulator route similar to the 16th Street MallRide shuttle, except it will only operate during commuting periods on weekday mornings and evenings.


Photo from RTD.

The stations are also visibly under construction.


Left: Bus stop construction photo from RTD. Right: Bus stop rendering from Krische Construction .


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.


Welcome Back to Denver Union Station, Amtrak!

As mentioned earlier, Amtrak has now moved its operations back to Denver Union Station, and are using their new platforms under the new train hall canopy. I was able to make it tonight to take some pictures!

First off, let’s start out by walking around the new platforms under the canopy. This structure, especially at night, is absolutely incredible. Some of the station was still under-construction but we were able to access a good portion of it including the 18th Street pedestrian bridge.

 

 

 

 

 

My perch to watch the train come in was on top of the 18th Street pedestrian bridge. In the second picture, the California Zephyr Amtrak train is pulling into the station!

 

Photos are always great but I have something very special to share with you: A time-lapse of the California Zephyr train pulling into the station. The time-lapse is not very long but is still neat given this is the first train to pull into the new station! It’ll be great to see all of the action going on around this station once the commuter rail lines are done!

Welcome back to Denver Union Station, Amtrak! We are glad to see you back!