Arapahoe Square: Revitalizing Denver's Urban Crossroads

Arapahoe Square is a roughly 30-square-block rectangle in northeast downtown Denver that has been late to the urban-core revival party. But there are signs it might be arriving.
While surrounding neighborhoods have been the object of considerable investment and revitalization over the past 20 years, Arapahoe Square has been largely bypassed by developers and other would-be catalysts for transforming this area predominated by surface parking lots, vacant or neglected buildings, confusing one-way streets, and social-service organizations that tend to the area's homeless.
"The fundamental issue with Arapahoe Square is that it has – well, there are a number of issues -- but it lacks a cohesive identity, an organizing element," says John Desmond, Executive Vice President of Urban Planning and Environment for the Downtown Denver Partnership. "So it's kind of been a hole in a donut, especially in the last 20 years as some of the neighborhoods around it have filled in."
There's evidence, however, that Arapahoe Square's time may finally be arriving, as infill opportunities in surrounding neighborhoods -- Ballpark, Curtis Park, Five Points, Uptown and others -- grow scarce and builders are compelled to take a look within this area bounded by Park Avenue and 20th, Glenarm and Larimer streets.
"Arapahoe Square for a long time was competing with those areas and was less successful," says Courtland Hyser, Senior City Planner with the City and County of Denver. "And I think that as those areas have been successful themselves, the sites that are easy to develop have been developed and are no longer available. People are looking to Arapahoe Square more because the development opportunities here are going to exceed what you have in other places. There aren't a lot of other neighborhoods now where you can find a full block just sitting there with surface parking on it waiting for a building. And the zoning will allow you to do a good amount of density as well. So those few things can line up to make redevelopment here more attractive."Empty lots in Arapahoe Square are waiting for development.
Back in 2011, Hyser pointed out that 36 percent of the land in Arapahoe Square consisted of surface parking. That's slowly changing, as a number of residential developments have been completed or are underway. On 19th and Lawrence, Zocalo Community Development completed Solera, a LEED-certified, 11-story, 120-unit apartment complex, in 2010. Early this year, the same developer completed 2020 Lawrence, a 10-story, 231-unit apartment building, also LEED-certified, with 9,200 square feet of retail space at ground level.
A block away on 21st and Lawrence, Legacy Partners Residential Development broke ground in March on a five-story, 212-unit residential complex that will include one level of below-ground parking.
Yet another development under way in Arapahoe Square: The Renaissance Stout Street Lofts on 22nd and Stout streets. The five-story, 78-unit is a project by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless that will provide affordable rental apartments for a variety of incomes. It also will include a social-services component within the building.
Besides Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, social-service organizations in the area include St. Francis Center, Salvation Army and the Denver Rescue Mission. Addressing their needs in a way that's compatible with other stakeholders in the area -- residents, business owners, developers and other investors -- has been one of the chief challenges in plans for Arapahoe Square.
The Northeast Downtown Neighborhoods Plan finalized in 2011 included a sub-area plan for the area called the Arapahoe Square Charette in which planners put forth a number of concepts and invited feedback from the varied stakeholders. An Arapahoe Square Urban Redevelopment Plan defining long-term objectives for the 93-acre area was approved by the Denver City Council in 2011.  Some of the plans may be implementable in the short-term; others are more speculative and may be 30 years out. For example, the Arapahoe Square plan icludes three possible scenarios for Broadway, which cuts through Arapahoe Square diagonally, creating a number of “triangle parks” too small for development as well as confusion for motorists and challenging navigation for pedestrians.

The Arapahoe Square plan includes possible changes to Broadway.The three scenarios for Broadway:
  • Keep it as is, with improvements to sidewalks and curbs;
  • Eliminate a stretch of Broadway, in which case property would return to the adjacent property owner and become available for development;
  • Put the street on a "diet" -- that is, eliminate some lanes to make way for modifications such as a median or wider sidewalks.
Another recommendation was to make 21st Street leading to Coors Field a "festival street" -- or as Desmond of the Downtown Denver Partnership explains, "a shared street between pedestrians, cars and bicycles. It could really be a focus for Arapahoe Square, so that was definitely an agreed-upon element," he says.
Still another aspect of the 2011 recommendations called for consolidating some of the homeless facilities and providing a courtyard space or protected space for homeless individuals waiting to receive services at adjacent shelters.
It wouldn't be stretching it to say Arapahoe Square has been something of a not-in-my-back-yard repository over the years, what with the preponderance of parking lots and social services. But Desmond doesn't buy the notion that surface parking lots are a necessity.
"People say, 'Well, we've got to have surface parking somewhere.' Well, actually, no we don't," he says. "You look at a really successful major city like Chicago, San Francisco, New York; there's very little surface parking. We do have to have social services somewhere. But the problem with social services is that their concentration [in Arapahoe Square] is magnified because we have no other uses that sort of dilute their impact. We don't have a critical mass of residents, workers, visitors, et cetera that dilutes that impact. I'm not advocating, and neither is the plan advocating, for dispersing of social services. I'm just saying that's one of the characteristics of this that we have to address, and that it serves as a barrier to development given the fact that there are no other organizing elements for the development right now."
Jynx Messacar is the fourth generation owner of Merchants Office Furniture on the corner of Broadway and Park Avenue, where it has been located since 1961. She sees Arapahoe Square improving along with the local economy.
"There are more commercial-based groups moving in, which is great," she says. "You have people who are spending the day here as opposed to staying in downtown, so they're filling restaurants and staying after work and filling the bars. I think there's been a tremendous improvement. It's probably a little bit more holistic than physical changes. Of course, you have the apartment buildings coming in, and that's been amazing."
David Zucker, a principal at Zocalo Community Development, which built 2020 Lawrence and the Solera complex, says that while Arapahoe Square may be on the upswing, it faces unique challenges. "There are two things that make me cautious about Arapahoe Square," he says. "One is there really isn't a sense of place there to the degree that there is in Ballpark because of Larimer Street; or Highlands, which has a rich, historic context. There isn't much of that in Arapahoe Square. There are proposals for commercial projects that at least may create some sense of place."
Zucker's second concern or hope is that the surge in residential building is balanced with retail and other mixed-use development, along with pedestrian-friendly streets that make an area an attractive destination.
Hyser, the city planner, says it will help Arapahoe Square going forward to have some successful developments to point to. "We have a track record now of a couple major projects that have been completed," he says. "I think they show -- and are showing -- development here can be successful, in particular residential condo development." He points to other projects in the works, including plans by the United Way to build a new headquarters in Arapahoe Square.
"Five years ago we wouldn't have had all those projects to talk about," Hyser says. "It certainly is changing. For a long time Arapahoe Square was losing out in competition with other neighborhoods downtown. Now it seems to be getting its fair share, and it's going to start to turn around."

Photos by Mike Taylor.

Read more articles by Mike Taylor.

Mike Taylor is a freelance writer in Denver. He is editor of ColoradoBiz magazine and previously wrote for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram and The Anchorage Times.
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