The 5280 Loop: Linking Neighborhoods, Rethinking the Way People Get Around Denver

The proposed urban path would tap underutilized streets across the city for a new bike and pedestrian friendly passageway stretching 5.280 miles. The path would be unique to Denver.
The 5280 Loop started with a square, or rather, The Square on 21st, this summer. The public meeting space was the first physical demonstration of the proposed loop, a 5.280 mile-long path that takes underutilized roads throughout downtown and reimagines them as a sort of pedestrian and bike friendly trail, with park-like features, that connects neighborhoods together.

The project would be unique in the US, even though it draws inspiration from the Indianapolis Cultural Trail and New York City’s High Line Park.

“We’re definitely thinking about what makes sense for Denver,” said Adam Perkins, Downtown Denver Partnership’s senior manager of urban planning and project manger for the 5280 Loop. “Nothing has really been done quite like this before.”

Already the partnership has been collecting donations for the project and has received two grants to support its development, according to Perkins. The Colorado Health Foundation is backing the project with a $250,000 grant and the Gates Family Foundation provided an $80,000 grant.

“Every city has its own take on how to reimagine underutilized spaces and think about our streets and sidewalks in different ways. Each one’s going to be a little different,” Perkins said. “In Denver we really have a major connection to outdoor life and nature. People come to Colorado all the time to go skiing and hiking, but they come to Denver first and they don’t see that connection to nature.

“So the question is, how can we build something in our streets that shows our connection to that natural environment and provides those resources and park space to get away.”

The concept has the support of local pedestrian and bike advocates. “We see the downtown loop as a great pilot program that can inform policies that would allow improvements to be made throughout the city,” says Jill Locantore, associate director of the group WalkDenver. “We’re kind of the cheerleaders of the project. Our main focus is on city-wide policies and practices.”

“Even though downtown Denver is probably the most walkable and bikeable part of the city, there are key pinch points where it’s difficult to get from one side of the street to the other,” said Locantore. “The 5280 Loop, we hope, will address some of those key barriers that make it difficult to get, not only around downtown, but into and out of downtown.”

An experimentDenver is exploring how it will convert streets into a pedestrian oasis that winds through the city with The Square on 21st.

Already Denver is exploring how it will convert streets into a pedestrian oasis that winds through the city. The Square on 21st, which launched June 15 and is slated to end on Aug. 15, is an experiment in what features established along the loop might look like. As a pop-up park, it was designed for multiple purposes and includes a bike path, games, a small dog park, a stage and more. It’s been popular.

“Tons of people are utilizing the space throughout the day, utilizing the games," Perkins says. “I was there at 7:30 one morning and someone was playing ping pong already, which was great. Much larger events, like the silent disco, have been a success—with over a thousand people showing up each time they do that.”

Still, the project wasn’t made for the duration. “It was done in a quick, light and cheap manner,” Locantore observes, so planners could observe people’s behavior.

Now, the real work on planning the 5280 Loop has begun. DPP marked out the planned route on July 29 to build interest and, in August, it’s hosting workshops along the proposed route allowing community members to share their input and vision for the project.

"This is such a big idea, a big concept that we need to reach out to as many people as possible and make sure we’re hearing the voices of all the different neighborhoods and districts in and around downtown,” Perkins says. “Hopefully we’ll grab the attention of even more people to get them to come to planning-style workshops in September.”  

The planning process is likely to be long and could see some difficulties. “There’s a concern that people have when you start talking about redesigning streets to function differently than they do today,” Locantore says. “Right now everybody relies on driving as their primary means of getting around and it's hard to imagine how the street could function differently.”

“Even though downtown Denver is probably the most walkable and bikeable part of the city, there are key pinch points where it’s difficult to get from one side of the street to the other,” said Locantore.That’s why things like the pop-up park on 21st Street are so important. “It allows people to experience it and understand what it’s like in real life rather than just in planning documents and that can help people understand how it could actually work — as crazy as it might sound."

Given that the loop will take on the Mile High City’s moniker as its length, it’s going to wind through a diverse and distinct set of neighborhoods, something Perkins is well aware of. “Each of these different districts in and around downtown have their own character and many of them are coming into their own. Arapahoe Square, currently transforming from a neighborhood of parking lots to a residential district, is a good example, he said.   

“We want to make sure we’re celebrating each of the districts that it goes through,” Perkins adds. “So when you’re in Golden Triangle, you know you’re in Golden Triangle. When you’re in Ballpark, you know you’re in Ballpark.”

“We’re trying to figure out what that will look like,” Perkins says. It could be a biking or wheelchair-friendly path—or even a mountain bike trail, or jogging path, he says. “I think working with the community we’ll learn a lot about what people want and what’s really Denver culture.”

Perkins also sees it as an important means of increasing human-powered access to what he calls the “last mile” of transportation heading downtown. “If people are entering from East Denver, like the Park Hill area and they bike downtown, it gets you to your final destination via the 5280 Loop and it is a quick, easy, comfortable walk or ride to your final destination,” he says. “The priority given towards people walking or biking would feel a lot safer than trying to finish that destination on downtown streets otherwise.”

“Ideally, our city streets will evolve into two categories. One being the really busy arterials, where there’s a lot of travel going on,” Locantore says. “The other where walking has its designated space.” She says this will likely be on the less-used side streets in downtown Denver.

“I think the ideal condition is where everyone can mix together, where the design is reinforcing the use,” Locantore said.

The Downtown Denver Partnership has sketched out a preliminary route for the 5280 Loop. Click here to see it.
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Read more articles by Chris Meehan.

Chris is a Denver-based freelance writer, editor and communications specialist. He covers sustainability, social issues and other topics.
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