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Mile High Development Blues

There has been a surge in the number of critiques of the ongoing development boom in Denver. Is it time for a constructive dialogue -- or is it too late?
Denver is growing so quickly, in places, it looks like they're building another city right on top of an existing city.

"Is this real?" a friend recently asked me over a beer at Syntax Physic Opera. "Can you believe what's happening in Denver right now?"

I told her it wasn't exactly a surprise, but it's a big change and, on the whole, a good thing.

Of course, not everyone is quite so optimistic. As some neighborhoods metamorphosize with the boom, a wave of discontent regarding exactly how Denver's growing is cresting.

First came local writer Nate Ragolia's post on Medium that went viral in March:

Denver is missing its last opportunity to become a world-class, 21st century city. It's choosing, instead, to be an average, 20th century American city, and that means we all lose out on something special.

The insurgence of outside real estate investors and costly condo developments, and luxury apartments in the near-downtown neighborhoods are killing Denver. This boom needs corresponding moderately priced and affordable housing companions, but neither can be found. The near-downtown neighborhoods, once gritty and creative, loaded with passion to make our city an artistic and musical mecca are choking out their young, in favor of high-priced developments and suburb-employed commuters. Vibrant, resurgent and diverse neighborhoods are getting facelifts, but the underlying substance is being swept away. On the balance sheet, this is progress, but it means Denver may become another failed commuter metropolis, packed with discontented and alienated citizens.

Then architect Jeffrey Sheppard issued similar opinions in Denver Post op-ed on April 4:

The rapid growth of Denver's residential urban core is on most everyone's radar today, yet as our city's unprecedented development boom continues unabated, a troubling shift has begun to reveal itself to all but the most casual observer.

As downtown Denver has become increasingly densified with block after block of repetitive five-story, stick-framed rental apartments stacked on top of (or connected to) massive concrete parking structures, banality has begun to quietly replace the well-designed historic buildings that once populated our urban core. Meaningless, uninspiring structures that feature mere surface variation rather than genuine innovation seem to be the zeitgeist of the day.

(A subsequent letter to the editor described the dominance architectural style in the new developments as "pre-tenement.")

And then Bree Davies penned "What's Happening in Denver's Not Pretty" for Westword on April 21:

As I was driving through Jefferson Park yesterday on a short detour to get to the 20th Street Gym downtown, I finally saw the horror with my own eyes. It's one thing to see photographs of it, but to actually witness that kind of destruction is overwhelming. I'm talking about the horror of overdevelopment, something that has hit Jefferson Park particularly hard recently. (If you missed the 9News piece on longtime resident Gail Wheeler's house being essentially destroyed by surrounding development, take a few minutes to watch her story.) The oversized, modern, box-home monstrosities that developers have crammed between modest, early-20th century homes in the tiny hood are nauseating.

Amidst the hundreds of thousands of parcels of property in the hands of a long list of different owners, there's an even longer list of different ideas, visions and motivations.

And there's an undeniable uptick in apartments with "Soviet-style architecture," as described by one attendee at Confluence's housing panel in April, but there are also plenty of creative developers working to make more than just a quick buck.

The current boom was shaped at in part with Blueprint Denver (2002) and the comprehensive update to the city's zoning code in 2010. Some feel  developers are ignoring the spirit of the plans as they plow through the biggest residential boom in Denver in recent memory.

As the critique hit a crescendo in mid-May, I noticed a post by Jared Jacang Maher, a local journalist and filmmaker, on Facebook:

To all you angry Denverites bemoaning the sudden construction build-up of the city: Where were you SIX YEARS ago during the heated, complicated public debates of the comprehensive overhaul of the city's zoning code, which allowed for a form-based standard that directed development toward certain neighborhoods? . . . See? You lost interest during that last sentence. And that's why you're so confused by what's happening now.

There are some painful truths at play here. Capitalism collides with bureaucracy in slow motion, and it's hard to separate chaos from intent, especially after the fact.

How do we balance practice with theory, past with present with future and culture with economics now that Denver development has already hit hyperspeed? And is it too late to change the trajectory of the rocket we're now strapped on?

Maybe, but probably not. It changed before and it will change again. We banned wooden buildings after downtown burned down. Barracks have become bars. Denver Tramway's power plant became the Forney Museum became REI. Lower Downtown slid from vibrancy to decay before it bounced back as the LoDo of today.

But we sure as hell could regret where we land after the fact.

And sometimes it's just a matter of perspective. Denver often feels like seven very different cities in one.

If you've lived between the train tracks and Broadway for a decade, signs of life are probably encouraging. But if your cute Highland bungalow's skyline view just got decapitated by a boring, blocky apartment tower, well, that's a different point of view altogether.
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