Lessons from Denver

For an urbanist, traveling can evoke jealously, pride in one’s own city, and any number of “what were they thinkings” and “wow, good ideas.” My recent trip to Denver brought all of these. While bigger cities inspire more jealousy, Denver is a more realistic peer than Tokyo, with plenty to learn and compare.

Direct garage access in Denver using sidewalk space. Photo by Matt Hays.

I was impressed. It’s a good, comfortable, growing city that’s doing a lot of things right. It offers many lessons in what Seattle might do better, along with others we shouldn’t do.

On the urbanity front, Denver has historically had less core density than Seattle. It also started the infill trend later and more slowly. But today neighborhoods ringing Downtown and other key spots are sprouting apartments seemingly everywhere, much like Seattle though without large towers and with more (probably too much) parking. A critical mass of residential convenience appears to be forming in greater Downtown, though groceries are reportedly hard to come by.

Axis of skybridges into downtown Denver. Photo by Matt Hays.

Seattle is very rare in that Downtown serves all the major purposes: offices, government, events, vacations, housing, transportation, shopping, and culture. Downtown Denver does all this to some extent except large scale shopping and tourism. The main core retail district is a few miles southeast at Cherry Creek, which has a large enclosed mall plus a sizeable neighborhood of higher-end retail and restaurants that appears to be very successful. Within Downtown proper, retail is generally on the 16th Street Mall (a pedestrian and shuttle bus corridor similar to Nicollet in Minneapolis). This is a fantastic street, lined with restaurants and shops for much of its length. At the center is Denver Pavilions, which is the size and function of Pacific Place but on more than twice the land. The street cries out for stores like Nordstrom and Target. Their problem might be similar to Seattle’s Pine Street – additional stores would like to move in but there’s no easy room on 16th. Streets like 15th have plenty of room but they’d have to create their own critical mass. Also, major stores would have to cannibalize Cherry Creek. On the tourism front, Downtown lacks major draws, and no areas feel touristy though 16th, historic LoDo, and the civic center and museum area get their share.

As Seattle plans a second convention center (or is it called an expansion?) some perspective is useful. Denver often hosts conventions of 10,000 to 15,000 people and has about 7,500 Downtown hotel rooms. Seattle hosts conventions generally below 6,000 people but has 12,000 Downtown hotel rooms in a similar zone. Their hotels are more convention-dependent than ours, with less pleasure tourism. Their way creates a boom/bust tourism economy, a common pattern in cities that use big convention centers to overcome a lack of vacationers. Our way creates steadier demand that augments our larger pleasure tourism economy rather than dominating. Expanding the WSCC would build upon this. Seattle’s typical conventions would still be of moderate size relative to our hotel inventory, while covering more of the calendar. We should build this.

We often lament Seattle’s land prices and availability. From an urbanist perspective, Denver shows the opposite problem – with lots of relatively cheap land, things tend to be too spread out. The convention center, while efficiently atop a light rail line and street, also covers a massive 25 acres. The new football stadium and basketball arena, multi-college Auraria Campus, and Elitch’s Garden amusement park, all on the southwest periphery of Downtown, have something like 100 acres of surface parking between them (based on Google Maps and a straightedge), roughly equal to everything between Yesler and Weller from I-5 to the viaduct. New apartments in some of Denver’s cheaper core districts sometimes have surface parking, and many have above-grade garages next to the housing rather than below it. Even the neighborhood-integrated Coors Field baseball park are has a parking lot extending along the railroad for well over a mile(!) northwest averaging a block wide. The good news (from this perspective) is that things are filling in at a decent clip, which should change the dynamic.

There are other positives to cheap, plentiful land. Denver built its Commons Park, and it’s nicely done alongside the even nicer Confluence Park. At the latter, two streams intersect, each with bike trails. A short stretch has been rebuilt as a rippled stream, a popular spot for kayaks and body boards. The area around both is booming with housing, aided by a sequence of pedestrian bridges that go over train tracks, then the South Platte “River,” then a freeway, into another neighborhood that’s also booming. It’s a pleasant walk and appears to be a popular draw. Overall, Downtown Denver has a lot more places to sit than Downtown Seattle. Many are shady. Seattle has way too many parks without shade. Wouldn’t it be great to have Philadelphia’s lightly shaded Rittenhouse Square, in Belltown maybe?

Denver looks like an easier bike city than Seattle. Being flat helps. It also has a lot of bike lanes, and the converging streams each have long trails leading outward from Downtown. As for walking, Downtown has a lot of “pedestrians all ways” lights, which sound fine in theory but are terrible in practice. At one, pedestrians could cross about 1/4 of the time by my count. Apparently, grouping people gets them out of the way of cars. Seattle should do this kind of signal only where the cycle has two parts maximum – pedestrians-cars-pedestrians-cars, like First & Pike.

Some below-grade parking garages have ramps that go below-grade within the public right of way then curve under sidewalks. This seems fine in practice, but they do it within the sidewalk area rather than in a parking lane. Each has a way for pedestrians to get around. This has good and bad points. They tend to be inconvenient for pedestrians, but might be better than having cars in the way. It must be faster for the cars and seems safer for everybody.

Denver has a growing transit system. Light rail is largely at ground level, running on Downtown streets and freeway corridors. Some train and bus routes terminate at the edge of Downtown, with riders transfering to the free 16th Street Mall Shuttle. This is efficient in some ways (the shuttles are frequent and buses and riders don’t crowd the streets) but transfers presumably reduce ridership. Per the 2011 American Community Survey (confusingly presented at census.gov), the Denver metro had 4.3% transit commuting compared to Seattle’s metro at 8.1%. This suggests that transfers and highway rail alignments might be problematic for ridership, and that Seattle’s spiderweb of buses is useful to a lot more people. It’s also thanks to our higher core densities of residents and jobs. Within city limits, the numbers were 7.5% transit for Denver (plus 4.3% walking) and 18.5% for Seattle (plus 8.9% walking). Denver is building a lot more rail, though another funding measure is needed to build out the full vision. Much of this will center on a refurbished and expanded Union Station, which is half-done but already spurring mixed uses around it along with the Commons nearby.

One of those new rail lines will connect the airport, which is a loooong way into the Great Plains. It’s a fine airport once you’re there, but what a great advertisement for convenient Sea-Tac! From DIA you travel for miles and miles to reach real suburbia, aside from a couple business pods where chain hotels sit in moats of parking. Even the pods are miles from the airport. At Sea-Tac, you can walk from your plane to Link or RapidRide…or even walk to your hotel. Your taxi will be much cheaper too. With Sea-Tac’s consideration of a bridge over planes for International Arrivals, it’s interesting that Denver already has a terminal bridge, though goes over smaller planes.

Another Denver trend is to pick up campuses and move to the suburbs. Malls leapfrogged out, and now several big hospitals have too, a few (Children’s, VA, University of Colorado) moving to the old Fitzsimmons campus in suburban Aurora that’s also the local (lately pretty quiet) attempt at growing a biotech center. They’re presumably making fine decisions, but for urbanists it seems sad to disperse jobs like this. Fitzsimmons has nice buildings but isn’t very integrated into the city.

Now to plug a very good brunch. The Kitchen at 16th & Wazee, near Union Station, was a fantastic meal well served. It turns out that regret equals having just one bite of “Eton Mess,” which is chantilly cream, strawberries, and meringue. And the polenta might be the best ever.

  • RockiesFan75

    Great write-up on Denver! As a Denver resident, I must sat your commentary was pretty spot-on. Denver severely lacks in the large retail format and there really aren’t great tourist destinations downtown(most people go to the mountains). The city is moving in the right direction and to be honest, I see Seattle as a great example for what Denver should aspire to become (sans water and greenery, but with lots of sun!).