West Denver's Morrison Road is diagonal, urban and culturally colorful. As leaders push to reinvent it as a destination instead of a shortcut, what's next for one of the city's most interesting streets?
As streets go, Morrison Road is a distinctive one.
In the Westwood neighborhood on Denver's west side, the 1.5-mile, two-lane thoroughfare runs diagonally southwest from Alameda Avenue and Knox Court to Mississippi Avenue and Sheridan Boulevard on the Denver-Lakewood border.
Named for its long history as part of the most direct route between downtown Denver and the outlying town of Morrison, it's gritty, organic and -- above all -- interesting. There are colorful homes and apartments, and Mexican restaurants and nightclubs, and tattoo parlors and auto shops. It seems every surface is a canvas for street art.
For all of its warts, Morrison Road has that elusive sense of place.
"It's one of the few places in the city you can look right and get a view to downtown and look left and see the mountains," says AnaCláudia Magalhães, community development coordinator for BuCu West. "It's a very special place."
Founded in the late 1980s, BuCu West, short for Business Culture West, is a nonprofit community economic development organization focused on Westwood.
One of the organization's prime initiatives for 2017 and beyond is catalyzing a transformational change on Morrison Road. The goal: Make the auto-oriented street a human-centric "Mercado Lineal," or Linear Market.
The goal is to make Morrison Road a destination, not a shortcut.To kickstart the vision, Healthy Places Westwood has invested more than $350,000 into Morrison Road, and helped finance a stoplight and other improvements. The three-year, $1 million program put roughly $150,000 into the Mercado Lineal design.
"We think Morrison Road has the potential to be a lively, people-oriented space in the heart of a neighborhood," says Rachel Cleaves, executive director of Westwood Unidos and manager of Healthy Places Westwood. "It can become a destination for the city."
Adds Magalhães: "We've set out very bold goals. We think this project is very catalytic to this neighborhood and will become a staple of west Denver's identity."
Paul López, who represents Westwood and District 3 on Denver City Council, grew up just a couple blocks from Morrison Road. "The vision for Mercado Lineal is to create a cultural district," he says. "Westwood is the heart of Denver's Mexican neighborhood and Mexican culture. It hasn't been celebrated in the way that it should. That culture is unique and it's beautiful."
López says the aim is "creating a strip that supports and further advances the community, and also establishes a local economy." The vision draws inspiration from such vibrant neighborhoods as Little Village in Chicago and San Francisco's Mission District, he adds.
Denver architecture and planning firm Studio CPG joined the project in 2016 after "resident-led" outreach helped set project parameters. "We wanted a firm that could connect with the neighborhood," says Magalhães.
Studio CPG's experience with traffic, engineering and landscape architecture was a perfect fit for envisioning the big picture and little details for Mercado Lineal on Morrison Road, says Magalhães.
A primary aim of the plan is transforming Morrison Road from a commuting corridor with high-speed traffic to a pedestrian-first street that's a destination, not a shortcut. "At both ends of the street at Alameda and Sheridan, we're focused on funneling traffic out of the neighborhood," says Heather Noyes, Studio CPG principal. "We wanted to undo the cut-through mentality of commuters. Safety is the number-one goal of the design."
After winning the design bid, "We realized this was no longer simply a streetscape improvement project," adds Noyes. "We needed to reconstruct the street."
In BuCu West's office on the southern midsection of the street, Noyes unrolls renderings depicting the entire length of Morrison Road. There are three divisions: The southwesternmost section of Morrison Road id the Entertainment District, with existing nightclubs and plans for park amphitheatre, then the Commercial Center, and the Arts District on the northeastern stretch.
With the diagonal Morrison Road intersecting at a 45 degree angle with Denver's dominant grid, Noyes says, "You have all these crazy intersections. We propose to close off some of the worst intersections. Where we close them off creates a public plaza, or a placita."
She cites the intersections at Osceola and Newton streets as the top targets. Developing these first two placitas could have a big impact with minimal investment, the very definition of a "quick win" for the city.
The plaza are being designed in concert with such pedestrian-friendly features as accessible crossings and bulbouts to create pinch points and help slow traffic. "We're working closely with WalkDenver," says Noyes.
Denver's Urban Land Conservancy (ULC) bought the long-vacant Thriftway on Morrison Road in 2014 and demolished the building; the land-use nonprofit has since developed an interim use as the Thriftway Pocket Park with a futsal (hard-surface soccer) court.
An aerial view of Del Corazon and Thriftway Pocket Park."It's an increasingly popular sport within the Westwood community," says Christi Smith, ULC's operations and communications director. While the park is temporary, ULC leaders have high hopes for the area in the longer term.
Smith says the abandoned Thriftway building had become a public-safety issue. While that problem was solved with its demolition, improving pedestrian safety remains a work in progress.
Walkability on Morrison Road has "definitely has improved in the last five or six years," says Smith. "They've put in bike lanes so it's less of a highway. People were going 60 miles per hour through there."
Along with the bike lanes, the speed limit fell from 35 to 30 as the city installed a new stoplight at Perry Street (just the second traffic signal on the 1.5-mile stretch) along with a number of bulb-outs for shorter pedestrian crossings, but there's still room for improvement.
"For decades, it's been difficult for the city to recognize Westwood," says Councilman López. "It's really lacked a lot of formal planning and it lacked a lot of infrastructure. . . . We're trying to shape Morrison Road into that 'Main Street.' The first thing you have to do is make it safe."
He says the new stoplight at Perry was the result of a six-year effort. "It took a lot of pushing and shoving to get that done," says López. He says he sees more city officials aligning with the vision for Mercado Lineal. "They're seeing it through our lens."
Next door to Thriftway Pocket Park, St. Charles Town Company is building the 197-unit Del Corazon apartment complex, with buildings on both sides of the street. The first tenants are scheduled to move in by late summer 2017.
The Del Corazon project will be completed in 2018.In 2016, St. Charles commissioned a traffic study that found that only a third of pedestrian crossings on Morrison Road were done during adequate intervals, so the company is installing a HAWK beacon to stop traffic on demand.
"Morrison Road cuts through the neighborhood and there are very few places for pedestrians to cross," says Jordan Zielinski, St. Charles’ director of development. The HAWK beacon will "connect the community."
Zielinski is bullish the Mercado Lineal plan will have a big impact, and points to Tennyson Street and South Broadway as places where municipal investment in streetscaping and infrastructure helped spur economic development. "It really has totally transformed those neighborhoods," he says.
The cultural component of Mercado Lineal includes public art, several Mexican-style plazas, gateway-style signage and outdoor performance venues. There's a possible food-truck park near Morrison Road's western endpoint, aptly adjacent to commercial commissary, the Kitchen Network.
"The community wants color," says Noyes. She describes dual functions for infrastructure such as streetlights and electric boxes, and notes, "We want a bench that's also a piece of public art. We want a lightpost that's also public art."
Then there are the aesthetics that money can't buy -- like the aforementioned sightlines. "One thing that's really special about Morrison Road is the view to downtown," says Noyes.
Stakeholders want to get the Mercado Lineal project funded by way of Denver's 2017 General Obligation Bond (GO Bond) that will be on the Nov. ballot. The budget is currently a work in progress -- López says it's in the $20 million ballpark -- with the possibility of splitting it into phases.
"We're working our hardest to make sure people realize this is a workable project and a much-needed project for the area," says López of his efforts to get the project on the list for the upcoming GO Bond. "It's one thing to have a vision, but it's another to have a plan. We're really honing in and creating a blueprint."
While the final process for determining what will be included in the bond package is still in development by Mayor Hancock's staff, López says the inclusion of Mercado Lineal is critical in garnering his support.
"In the past, these visions had been out there, but there had been no political commitment to fund them and implement them," he says. "It's our expectation this administration and this council will really promote and support forward progress in Westwood and begin to close the gap in terms of equity."
Echoes Magalhães: "It's a catalytic investment for us. We've asked for the bond and asked for capital improvement projects. This is a plan with a funding strategy. It's not going to collect dust."
She notes that the 1995 comprehensive plan for Westwood is now "totally obsolete” and describes the ongoing development of a new one.
"We can only patch this up so long," says Magalhães. "We need a comprehensive plan. The district cannot wait another 10 years for this design to be implemented. There are human rights and safety issues we've been dealing with for 30 years."