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What Smart Cities Can Learn from Denver

Union Station originally opened in the heart of Lower Downtown (LoDo) Denver in 1881.

A half-century later, Larimer Square is one of the city's most vital places and a national model for urban preservation.

Civic Center Park.

Tom Noel, a.k.a. Dr. Colorado, teaches history at the University of Colorado Denver.

Light rail in Denver.

Brad Buchanan is Executive Director of the Denver Department of Community Planning and Development.

Big Blue Bear.

Fueled by collaboration, the Mile High City is investing in transit-oriented development while also preserving its historic neighborhoods. Denver has gained 50,000 new residents in the past four years, outpacing its suburbs and most other metro areas.
Think big.
 
That might as well have been the Denver mantra for the last quarter-century.
 
It started with Denver International Airport (DIA), and continued with four new pro sports venues, new and expanded museums and the nation's largest investment in light rail. Now the just-completed $500 million redevelopment of Union Station -- complete with a hotel, restaurants, shops and transit hub -- is the latest and greatest project.
 
The city is aggressively using its investment in light rail to foster development of once-distressed real estate, but the concept only functions because the suburbs have participated in footing the bill. But these long strides are not just about the big picture -- they are ultimately about incremental steps along the way.
 
Denver has "an uncanny ability to achieve very significant goals," says Tami Door, President and CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership (DDP). It's not about the endgame so much as the road map, she argues. "It's a combination of thousands of tiny goals that project 20 years into the future."
 
Door pitches a baseball metaphor. "Some cities look to hit a home run," she says. Not Denver. While Union Station might look like the city's latest four-bagger, Door says that isn't the case. "In reality, we've been bunting year after year after year."
 
Transit as catalystLight rail in Denver.
 
Union Station originally opened in the heart of Lower Downtown (LoDo) Denver in 1881. As rail travel declined in the second half of the 20th century, the depot and the surrounding area became moribund.
 
Now it's at the heart of one of the country's most vibrant downtown neighborhoods, and the half-billion-dollar redevelopment project once again puts Union Station at the forefront of Denver transportation. The station offers Amtrak service, a 22-gate bus pavilion and a light rail stop that’s at the center of a regional system, with lines running to the south suburbs and west to Golden, and another under construction that will connect to DIA in 2016.
 
In Denver's urban core, light rail is "a game-changer," says Brad Buchanan, Executive Director of the Denver Department of Community Planning and Development. "The impact of the transit system is huge. It makes a mixed-use, mixed-income type of place viable."

From the heart of the city at Union Station, "There are rings, or tiers, of impact," he adds. The most pronounced effects are on the city's poorest neighborhoods, many of them food deserts that were once friendly to car traffic above all -- a mismatch for the local residents.
 
"You can jump on the light rail for a job, for an education, or for groceries," says Buchanan. Tempering Denver's steeply rising housing costs, "The ripple effects of connecting GlobevilleMariposa and Sun Valley [some of the city's poorest neighborhoods] to Union Station are just remarkable. It's going to be the story over the next 12 months."
 
But Denver's commuters have yet to leverage this massive investment -- only about six percent of the city's workers utilize rail or bus to get to the job, about half the rate of  Minneapolis, Portland, or even Los Angeles. Getting people out of their cars is the next big hurdle for the city.
 
Nonetheless, light rail is spurring development in a big way. The city's newly unveiled Transit Oriented Denver plan provides a platform for public-private collaboration near the city's light-rail stops.
 
"Our TOD plan is about where those stations are and the context around those stations and setting direction for development," says Buchanan. "They're all different personalities."
 
The goal is to balance the "hardcore infrastructure side of rail” with the "softer, people-focused components of placemaking," says Buchanan. "That's the magic and we're doing it for real."
 
Take the soon-to-open station at 38th Avenue and Blake Street in River North, or RiNo, the once-desolate warehouse district northeast of downtown. Touts Buchanan: "That whole corridor -- wow! You see all of these cool buildings that are getting renovated and reused."
 
Regional collaboration and cooperationA half-century later, Larimer Square is one of the city's most vital places and a national model for urban preservation.
 
None of this would be possible if it weren't for buy-in from the entire Denver metropolitan area.
 
The light-rail expansion known as FasTracks has been financed by a .4 percent sales tax on an eight-county district approved by voters in 2006. While cost overruns have caused for the plan to be scaled back, FasTracks is just the latest in a long line of projects in Denver to be supported by the broader metro area.
 
Highlighted by Jennifer Bradley and Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution in their 2013 book, The Metropolitan Revolution, this kind of cooperation is old hat for Denver.
 
A whole host of initiatives, including FasTracks, DIA, the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District and the Denver Broncos home stadium, Sports Authority Field at Mile High, were all supported by municipalities beyond Denver city limits.

But the collaboration doesn't begin and end at the City & County Building, and that's a key lesson. Explains Brookings' Bradley: "We find these collaborations tend to be more robust when it's not just one sector collaborating and it's not necessarily being led by the government and political class. Often people are waiting for politicians jumping in and taking the first step, but often [political leaders] are more comfortable taking the next one."
 
The DDP's Door seconds that notion. "How do you create a culture of trust of inclusiveness?" she asks. "You truly create an environment where all of the best ideas come forward."
 
When leaders decide first and ask questions later, everybody loses. "If they've already predetermined a vision and don't let other ideas come forward," Door says, "it's impossible for a city to grow."
 
Preserving the "good stuff"
 
While what's new in Denver grabs the headlines, smart cities can learn from what's old in the city as well.
 
Tom Noel, a.k.a. Dr. Colorado, teaches history at the University of Colorado Denver (CU Denver), points to 52 historic districts in Denver and 334 individual landmarks -- numbers that are said to be higher than any other city with a comparable population.
 
"When you go into the old neighborhoods, you have a really fine housing stock here," Noel adds. "We've saved so much good stuff."
 
Exhibit A: Larimer Square. In the early 1960s, the birthplace of Denver at 14th and Larimer streets a stone's throw from Cherry Creek had a date with the wrecking ball before preservationist Dana Crawford spearheaded a push to restore the 1880s-era storefronts lining the block. A half-century later, Larimer Square is one of the city's most vital places and a national model for urban preservation.
 
Union Station is another prime example of this ethos. "It's wonderful for downtown. It makes Union Station the heart of the city again, which it was for all those years."
 
And saving the good stuff means you might not have to invest as much to rebuild what was lost. "The city originally expanded with streetcars,” which ran from the 1870s until 1950, says Noel. "They spent the 19th century building streetcars and the 20th century ripping them out. Now we're replacing them with an $8 billion system."
 
Making the most of infill opportunities
 
Noel calls Denver is a rarity in the country's urban landscape. "It keeps growing, unlike a lot of core cities," he explains.
 
The population has jumped from roughly 600,000 in 2010 to more than 650,000 today. Denver's growth curve has been notably steeper than that of its suburbs -- not that they aren't adding plenty of new residents as well
 
But even the city's newest infill developments are taking a page from Denver's past. On the east side of the city, "Lowry and Stapleton are aping the old Queen Anne style, like they're trying to duplicate Capitol Hill," says Noel.
 
While Capitol Hill is one of Denver's oldest and densest neighborhoods, Lowry is a former U.S. Air Force base and Stapleton was the predecessor to DIA. Both were opened up to redevelopment in the 1990s, and now there are more than 15,000 residential units between the two.
 
Noel credits the city's planning process. "It has been good planning," he says. "For all of the bitching and griping about government planning, it's what's made the difference."
 
Buchanan points to the Central Platte Valley, the neighborhood along the Platte RIver just west of downtown. Twenty years ago, it was a blighted railyard. Today it's one of the toniest areas in the city, and Buchanan projects it will be completely built out by 2020.
 
Placemaking 101: Parks and public art

Right at the heart of the city, Civic Center Park was designated Denver's first National Historic Landmark in 2012. Established in the early 1900s after Mayor Robert Speer pushed the "City Beautiful" movement in Denver, Civic Center Park is unique, says Noel. "You get downtown and see this great park. You have elbow room."
 
The lesson at hand? "You plan parks ahead of growth," says Noel.

This is true for all three of the aforementioned infill gems. There are 1,100 acres of parks in Stapleton and more than 800 acres in Lowry, 25 percent and 20 percent of their respective land areas. The Central Platte Valley features the 30-acre Commons Park, a former brownfield, and three other parks on the Platte River established during the tenure of former Mayor Wellington Webb in the 1990s.
 
Citywide, there's more than 6,000 acres of parkland in all, not to mention 14,000 trail-laced acres in the city-owned Denver Mountain Parks system in the foothills just west of the city.
 
A 2010 study by the Trust for Public Land pegged the annual economic impact of Denver's park system at $575 million.
 
The open space is complemented by a certain visual flair. Denver's prodigious public art program -- the city's collection of about 400 pieces rivals New York City's -- stems from a policy established in the early 1988. Any project over $1 million is required to set aside one percent of its budget for art.
 
Denver Art & Venues has installed more than 250 public artworks in the 26 years of the program, more than half of the city's collection, including such iconic pieces as I See What You Mean, a.k.a. The Big Blue Bear, at the Colorado Convention Center.
 
"It's pretty amazing," says Denver Public Art Program Manager Michael Chavez. "The city has invested about $30 million in that time."
 
Chavez highlights a couple of defining takeaways: All of the public artworks are unique -- "We don't purchase existing artwork," he says -- and the city does not set parameters and define public art -- sometimes the works are "experiential or performance-based."
 
One such example is Patrick Marold's sculpture, Virga, a series of stainless-steel cylinders atop a historic downtown bridge. "The artist had a few thousand dollars left over," Chavez explains, "so he decided to use the extra money to commission a composer to write a piece that was performed live at the dedication."
 
Then there's one last unavoidable distinction: Denver famously became the first major city in the United States with legal recreational marijuana on Jan. 1, 2014 and hundreds of dispensaries now line the streets around the city.

Not much is different, except for the facts that crime is down and city revenues are up. The jury might still be out the long-term impact of legal marijuana, but the lesson that's emerging looks to be about accepting democratic change -- don't fight it, embrace it and collaborate to create the smoothest path to the future possible.
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