Planning Downtown: Creating a Distinctive City

Obstacles often equal opportunities for the next distinctive spaces of downtown Denver. Planners look to the bookends of the city center, Auraria and Arapahoe Square, to create the city's next great places.
Denver developers are on a perpetual quest to create a one-of-a-kind urban experience. With national attention on the 16th Street Mall, the Central Platte Valley and Denver Union Station, we can collectively agree these remarkable features of our city add up to a well-defined civic identity. Ahead, city planners and designers have their sights set on the next great spaces of our city.

"How do you create a unique identity for a portion of downtown?" asks John Desmond, executive vice president of the Downtown Denver Partnership (DDP). "When you look at large, successful cities, typically you think of different areas that have their own unique characteristics and identity. That's what we're striving for with our downtown neighborhoods."

The 2007 Downtown Area Plan established the goal of developing Denver into a "Distinctive City" that encourages a diverse patchwork of districts that build on exclusive features. With Denver's enviable climate, its blend of mountain backdrops with urban infrastructure and cultural richness, the bar is set high for future projects that aim to enhance the city center.

According to Desmond, a fundamental driver for the Downtown Area Plan is the formation of anchor points for the city. "You can't just Acknowledging the obstacles and opportunities for new district formation, DDP and its supporters have agreed that "connecting the Auraria Campus and Arapahoe Square have become the greatest transformative projects in our city at this time . . . [which] coincidentally were the least connected [areas] in downtown," says Desmond.

Connecting Auraria

"Just by virtue of what this campus is, it is distinctive," says Barb Weiske, executive vice president for administration and CEO of the Auraria Higher Education Center, describing the urban campus in the heart of downtown Denver that is shared by three public institutions: Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU Denver), University of Colorado Denver (CU Denver) and Community College of Denver (CCD).

Opening on the Auraria campus in 2014, CU Denver's new Academic Building activates Speer Boulevard.As defined by the Downtown Area Plan, integrating the campus to the city core is crucial because the educational amenity has the power to fortify downtown's economy by providing employment and knowledge transfer.

However, "Auraria did not have a strong, central identity," says Desmond, of the 2007 time frame when the Downtown Area Plan was published. "What the Auraria piece of the plan strives to do is establish economic, programmatic and cultural links between campus and the commercial core."

Auraria was originally designed in the 1970s as an "inward-facing campus" with suburban planning, set back from Speer Boulevard and surrounded by parking lots.

As such, a refined vision was set forth to refocus design objective with the Auraria Campus 2012 Master Plan Update. "What was basically said was we need a more outward-facing campus," says Desmond.

"If you look back to what we've accomplished in the last five years, more than $500 million has been added to this campus," says Weiske. "We're building to the edges on all three sides." She describes Auraria's goal to "match the fabric of downtown with seamless transition."

In terms of connecting people, she says the average age of students on campus is 27, and that population makes up a significant portion of the workforce "at the doorstep of every business and industry in Denver."

Further connecting academia to the downtown economy are such partnerships as MSU Denver working with Sage Hospitality at its on-campus SpringHill Suites hotel, which doubles as the school's Hotel and Hospitality Learning Center. According to President Everett Freeman, CCD partners with the Denver Police Department, Mile High Montessori and Medicaid for internships and employment opportunities.

Furthermore, the Downtown Area Plan specifically mandates that Speer Boulevard morph into an urban gateway and connector for adjacent streets. Calling Speer a divider, rather than the link it could be, Desmond was approached by Ken Schroeppel, an instructor in the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program in CU Denver's College of Architecture and Planning in the fall of 2015 to see if his advanced planning studio class could help advance any of the Downtown Area Plan's implementation.

What emerged was an assignment with outlined goals to "reimagine Speer as a seamless connector between Auraria and downtown; reimagine Speer as a grand boulevard; and reimagine Speer as a living street, with multimodal initiatives," according to Schroeppel. Students delivered their final presentations and recommendations for DDP and other community stakeholders in early May.

This is not the first time Schroeppel's class has worked collaboratively on real-world urban plans for DDP. As a result, he says, multiple alumni have acquired positions at the Denver Planning Office. "For CU Denver, with our location in the heart of the city, we as an academic institution are greatly affected by our location, and can't help but want to be intimately engaged in making the downtown area and the city of Denver better," Schroeppel says.

Adds Weiske, "In five to 10 years, as we move forward, we will develop more public-private partnerships and independent projects. We have not yet tapped the possibilities that are out there, but we hope to continue the extraordinary momentum."

Making Arapahoe Square a destination

In early May, East West Partners Managing Partner Chris Frampton spoke to the crowd at DDP's annual State of Downtown Denver breakfast, emphatically declaring that downtown's next frontier is the Arapahoe Square neighborhood.

The plan to revitalize Arapahoe Square is a decade in the making.Nearly 10 years ago, the Downtown Area Plan laid out the same suggestion. "Back in 2007, Arapahoe Square was one of the most underdeveloped districts of downtown," recalls Desmond, calling it the "hole in the doughnut of all the neighborhoods around it," including Five Points and Ballpark, thanks to its multiple surface parking lots, few commercial properties and poorly executed zoning.

In order to take concept to reality, the goal for the largely underutilized area, bounded by 20th, Lawrence and Welton streets, as well as Park Avenue West, including constructing a cutting-edge, densely populated, mixed-use area. 

"It's not quite a blank slate, but the it's the closest we have," Desmond says. He explains that with the upturn in the economy and real estate boom, there is a chance to invest in the reinvention of the neighborhood in ways many have been dreaming of for years. To do so, the Downtown Area Plan requires the reinforcement of the authentic character; improved streetscapes; revised land use codes and regulations; and new building space and amenities. Many of these bullets have already been checked off.

The Arapahoe Square Zoning and Design Standards and Guidelines call for a consistent but flexible design overlay, minimally visible parking (and incentives for commercial builders to achieve that), and smooth transitions to adjacent downtown neighborhoods. City council will vote to adopt the new zoning and design guidelines in late June.

"I think there's a pretty high level of consensus," says Abe Barge, a senior planner with the City and County of Denver. Also on the calendar for this summer, though closer to August or September, will be the demonstration of a "living street," according to Barge's colleague and fellow planner Steven Chester. Though still in the planning phase, he indicated that space between Arapahoe and Lawrence streets will be closed or limited for vehicular traffic to make way for establishing what Desmond calls a "festival street."

Barge says the greatest difficulty for the projects in Arapahoe Square is the inability to predict economic cycles. "Denver's been on this roller-coaster ride. If the development market were to soften, it would create a challenge. We have to remember why we did all of this and hold to that vision."

Regardless of market ups and downs, Desmond says what's most important for current downtown development is to ensure that it reflects Denver's distinctive values and history. "Denver's determination, our mountain and urban views, our 300 days of sunshine, our snowstorms in April, are all a part of what makes us unique," he touts. "We're not Kansas City or Chicago, we're not a cookie-cutter town. There's a beautiful interplay here between old and new."

In 2005, two entities -- the City and County of Denver and the Downtown Denver Partnership -- developed what would become the 2007 Downtown Denver Area Plan, a comprehensive strategy establishing five overarching vision elements with 19 strategy elements -- all meant to guide decisions and actions affecting the form and function of approximately 1,800 acres divided over eight districts. In this series, we're examining each of the plan's five vision elements.

Read more articles by Gigi Sukin.

Gigi Sukin is a Denver-based writer-editor. She currently works as an editor at ColoradoBiz and previously worked as an editorial intern at 5280.
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