Planning Downtown: Creating a Diverse City

The 2007 Downtown Area Plan put forth an aim of making Denver's city center a more diverse place. Nearly a decade later, the vision is emerging as reality, but it remains a work in progress.
Years ago, Terry Hershey lived in New York City. On her daily subway commute, she recalls hearing dialects originating from every corner of the globe on a single transit car.

Since its gold-flecked beginnings, Denver has managed to attract a blend of people and establishments. Today, though Denver remains a work in progress to attain New York City's level of diversity, urban planners and downtown enthusiasts have actively committed to increase the inclusivity of the Mile High City with infrastructural transformations, programming, amenities and a contagious attitude shift.

And that includes Hershey, chairwoman of the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, the first elementary school in the central business district in more than 100 years.

"Rather than shield students from differences, we embrace them," she says. "The city is our campus. With children from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, from different ethnicities, religious upbringings, we can learn from each other and emphasize the advantages of that. We're building a cohesive community at an early enough age, we hope that mentality spills into the rest of Denver."

With the 2007 Downtown Denver Area Plan, developed by the Downtown Denver Partnership, the City and County of Denver and other local collaborators, a structured plan of attack was outlined to diversify the city's core. Setting out to invent the Denver of the future, one of the tenets of the plan is to be "socially and economically inclusive."

"Downtown thrives on a diversity of people and opportunity," the plan reads. "[A]ttracting more jobs and residents, amenities and visitors is key to the future."

To construct a more diverse downtown, Denver's business and civic leaders have honed a short list of strategic maneuvers and developments, including a broad array of household types for a range of income levels, a variety of employment opportunities, education and early-childhood care offerings, recreational programming and connectivity to adjacent neighborhoods as well as the global community at large.

Inclusive livabilityThe rare urban senior housing development, Balfour at Riverfront opened in 2014.

"When you look at creating a diverse city, affordable housing is critical," says DDP President and CEO Tami Door. "We understand the importance of trying to seek housing for a variety of demographics, from low-income to high-income. We want to make sure that people can work and live in the center city area."

To increase diversity in downtown Denver, one of the deliberate goals of the plan was to "expand housing options to broaden the array of household types and income levels . . . and provide amenities for a range of people."

Door points to the Downtown Area Plan's goal to develop 18,000 new housing units by 2027, established two decades prior with the Area Plan. Thus far, more than 10,000 units have been built.

"I think the apartment industry has really responded to the shortage of affordable housing in and around downtown," says Mike Zoellner, CEO of RedPeak Properties. His 15-year-old firm has worked downtown since its formation, building multi-family and mixed-use high-rise and low-rise projects, and renovating antiquated buildings.

"The profile of our properties are changing all the time," Zoellner says. "Certain locations are more attractive to different demographics for different reasons." He notes that more than 15 percent of the residents in his 1600 Glenarm property are 55 years or older.

Indeed, Paul Washington, executive director of the Denver Office of Economic Development, says Denver is improving from an age-diversity standpoint, also highlighting the Balfour at Riverfront Park retirement community that officially opened its doors in 2014.

Still, "There is a housing challenge," Washington says. "Obviously, it's expensive to live in downtown Denver, so that narrows the socioeconomic levels that can live here." He says the average monthly cost of a one-bedroom unit in the heart of downtown is $1,400. "The more we have a concentration of affordable housing projects, the more likelihood there is of a healthy mix of socioeconomic, racial and other kinds of diversity."

Washington also highlighted affordable projects in Arapahoe Square, near 18th and Chestnut streets and along the Welton Corridor.

Susan Powers, president of Urban Ventures, an urban redevelopment company, echoes Washington. "To meet the challenges of cost, urbanites may consider looking to adjacent neighborhoods in rings around the core of the city," she says. "There are desirable neighborhoods in close proximity and you can jump on the light rail and be downtown in one stop. With that in mind, you get a lot of distinctive personalities from each of those neighborhoods."

Washington says that city and state lawmakers are continuing to chip away at reforming the state's construction-defects law, or, as DDP Senior Manager of Economic Development Brian Phetteplace calls it, "construction-liability law," this legislative session, making it more difficult for homeowners to sue for flawed building practices.

Meanwhile, the city's for-sale housing market, including urban condominiums, is limited and thus, problematic as well. "We clearly have an imbalance today, with more rental units than for-sale units and we have to fix that," Phetteplace says.

"It's one of the areas we focus on and continue to improve, for young families in particular to have the urban pace of life as an option, an opportunity for wealth creation and a level of stability you don't necessarily get with a rental," Washington adds.

Nevertheless, Phetteplace says the biggest shift he has noticed is the desire -- from families, downtown employees, senior citizens, and of course, Millennials -- to live, work and play downtown. "We're seeing a net-migration that has changed market fundamentals and dynamics," he says. And still, Denver remains a "relative bargain" compared to other metropolitan areas.

Family-friendly urbanismCity leaders are planning for a downtown middle school.

"To have a vibrant downtown, we want families down here," Door says, explaining the reason behind attracting the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, a Denver Public School charter which opened in August 2013 as a K-2 elementary school and has expanded by one grade each year since.

The school was founded by a group of parents, community members and business leaders seeking a high-performing school to serve a diverse range of families who live and work downtown. According to Hershey, the project was 30 years in the making.

"What we are finding is that a lot of downtown employees are sending their children there," Door says, noting there is no bus service to the location, so instead, "parents are walking their kids, taking public transit, riding bikes, all in front of the school for morning drop-off."

With its centralized location, "Parents who work downtown who wouldn't get to school activities can be more involved," Hershey says, noting the mix of low- to middle-income parents who make up the school's community. She says the school has a goal of 50 percent free or reduced lunches, and is closing in on that target each year.

And with the success the program has experienced, the DDP, DPS and others are proactively working to plant a middle school in the city's core in the next 36 months.

The DDP and Downtown Denver Business Improvement District have, in recent years, added an ice-skating rink at Skyline Park and experimented with pop-up playgrounds to encourage families and other downtown dwellers and visitors to get outside and enjoy the amenities of the city.

Washington attributes increasingly diverse groups of people in Denver to cultural amenities, such as the concentration of art in the theater district as well as sporting facilities and teams.

Global city

While young families may newly have a collective foot out to the door in the direction of downtown, "Denver needs to be and is becoming a global downtown," says Washington.

He likens the significance of diversity in a city to the reason one might intentionally diversify an investment portfolio, so that "not one single phenomenon will devastate a community. A diverse population can absorb and adjust to grow more resilient."

According to a 2013 DDP report, Hispanics and Latinos accounted for 18.4 percent of the population in the city's central neighborhoods, while African Americans made up 7.4 percent. However, a 2015 report showed those respective numbers decreasing slightly to 16.8 percent and 6.6 percent. 

Though on the edge of the center city, Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU Denver) launched a bold goal of achieving the federal designation of Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) to increase its Latino student enrollment from 13 percent to 25 percent, noting that one in five Coloradans is Latino, and the population is the fastest growing in the state.

According MSU Denver President Dr. Stephen Jordan, the diverse student population on his campus spills into downtown Denver, as the average student works about 30 hours a week while enrolled.

Powers also noted the influence of the Auraria campus and study-abroad programs that can draw foreign students and new demographics to downtown Denver. She recommends building metaphorical bridges from campus to the city center.

Washington says international signage can be a welcoming touch for international or foreign language visitors, to which DDP heeded that request. Door calls interactive wayfinding kiosks with Spanish translation a "small but important" step toward a global downtown.

Other additions to the city are international brands, such as the first-to-market H&M at the Denver Pavilions and soon-to-open UNIQLO in the same complex. "When international retailers are looking at our center city, we see big opportunity there," Door says.

Washington says that diversity "without question has improved and increased in our downtown." He also notes that "right now, we are a magnet city," highlighting the influx of people into Denver and more specifically into the city's core.

Yet he says that defining the city and its growth will require more work. "How do we maintain the attractiveness of Denver as we grow and demographics change?" Washington asks.

"With all the Millennial attraction we're experiencing, we're thinking a lot about how we become a city where there's true diversity that's attractive wherever you are in the income, racial, ethnic spectrum," he adds. "I think Denver has yet to settle upon its brand, and that's going to occur thoughtfully and organically. There will be interesting development over the next decade."

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.
Signup for Email Alerts