Navigating Denver’s Development Boom
Smart development goals for a rapidly growing city
It’s no surprise that commercial real estate is booming in Denver. In Q4 2018 alone, we had 4.12 million square feet of office space and 4.6 million square feet of industrial space under construction (85.4% of which was classified as spec).
While there is unprecedented permit demand for building infrastructure, some critical pieces of supportive infrastructure that create a better quality of life for inhabitants—open space, urban forest, public transit and walkability—have been left out of the conversation.
With the current growth fueling new construction, urban infill projects, and the densification and expansion of Denver Metro Area, our community is racing to address these questions:
- How do we want our city to look, feel, live?
- What changes and policies need to be initiated?
- What values and characteristics need to be preserved?
- How can we build a better Denver?
Downtown Larimer Square. Photo via denver.org.
Planning for a Better Denver
“People love this city and want to live here. This means our challenge is to plan for new residents who will call Denver home over the next 20 years while preserving the neighborhoods, open spaces, and unique places we all love,” says Laura Swartz, Communications Director for the Community Planning and Development department of the City and County of Denver.
And we’re headed in the right direction. In early 2019, the 3-year Denveright planning process culminated in the release of five citywide plans designed to address
- Affordable housing
- Transit corridors
- Commercial development in dense areas
- Protection of historic buildings, architecture and neighborhoods
- Access to green space
- A myriad of other growth opportunities and challenges over the next 20-year period.
The plans were built on 3+ years of extensive research and community engagement. As of April 22, all five plans are approved. Click here to learn more.
Photo by bicycledenver.org
The Perks of a Changing Car Culture
The challenge is: What needs are we planning for? Those of the present? Or those of the future?
As millennials become the dominant workforce population, car culture continues to evolve—albeit slowly—and fewer working professionals either own or seek to own a vehicle. This places a newfound importance and reliability on our public transit infrastructure, and allows us to activate communities now seen as disconnected and removed.
In 2017, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock rolled out the $2 billion Mobility Action Plan designed to greatly reduce emissions, infrastructure deterioration, and traffic deaths by transforming Denver’s public transit system and redesigning streets to be more walkable and bike friendly. The plan also aims to reduce the percentage of ‘solo driving’ commuters from 73 percent to 50 percent by 2030.
Fewer drivers. Fewer cars. Reduced need for parking.
If successful, the plan would create an opportunity to repurpose existing parking spaces to instead address some of the needs of our community—housing, greenspace, urban forest. Projects like the High Line in New York City showcase the potential to reimagine remnants of neglected transportation infrastructure into vibrant, community spaces.
A rendering of North Wynkoop, a 14-acre project that’s transforming an industrial warehouse district into a vibrant community.
Crafting Walkable Communities
We’re seeing more and more projects like North Wynkoop—a 14-acre project conceived and currently being executed by Westfield Company, Works Progress Architecture and Mortenson—that promise to provide all the necessary amenities within a walkable, bikeable environment.
Neighborhood developments like 9+CO will feature a variety of housing options, entertainment, restaurants, open green space, retail, and office buildings all within close proximity.
Once-industrial spaces are also being converted into cultural hubs. Coming later this year, LOT Twenty Eight—an adaptive-reuse development created by Formativ—will turn a historic manufacturing plant in the heart of RiNo into a hub for retail, makers, restaurants, creative offices and entertainment.
“For us, we always approach projects with placemaking in mind,” says Sean Campbell, principal at Formativ. “We look at the user experience and how we can help them be more productive, efficient, engaged, happy and vested in their community.”
Photo via Downtown Denver Partnership
Accelerated Growth = Changing Communities
Denver’s rapid growth has propelled the city into a new economic and developmental era, but not without fallback. As Denver native and Westfield Partner Jonathan Alpert puts it, “We’ve been on a rocket ship for the past decade without a chance to take a breath. We’ve gone from being a manageable city to being expensive.”
Similarly, Campbell cites affordability, mobility and thoughtful design as the three main challenges for Denver development. “Construction is very expensive now; the state bird should be the construction crane,” he says. “Dollars and cents can get in the way of lofty visions, but you have to think about how to work within the budget without sacrificing creativity and design.”
Alpert believes this invites an opportunity for innovation. “Design can solve for a rising cost by getting creative.”
So do we.
An aerial view of Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods, where a massive interstate expansion is currently underway. James Chance via the Colorado Trust
The First Neighborhoods to Grow
From a growth standpoint, Denver is blockaded by mountains on the west, but has ample room to grow to the east, north and south. This means that we’re seeing very different approaches to architecture and development depending on where the project is located.
Central, often industrial neighborhoods like RiNo, Globeville and North Wynkoop are being “activated” while outskirt areas like Fitzsimmons in Aurora and DTC are breaking ground on massive mixed-use development projects.
“We are in the process of reviewing five different projects currently in development which will be excellent catalysts for the new Fitzsimmons Innovation Campus,” says Robin Ault, Clutch Design Studio’s director of design and a board member of Fitzsimons Redevelopment Authority Design Review.
For the space in between, development projects are largely focused on transit corridors, both interstate and light rail, with several projects popping up adjacent to light rail stations.
But, in the rush to get structures built and occupied (amidst rising construction costs), few projects are fully capitalizing on the opportunity for design to address both the needs of investors and of our community in the 5, 10, 20 years to come.
A green roof on top of a residential parking structure on Little Raven Street. Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Designing for the future
Architecture and design play a major role in shaping our city, especially during a time of rapid growth. At Clutch, we believe creating spaces that adapt to change and promote a healthy and happy community start with:
- Shifting the program. Folding value-add design choices like green roofs, efficient windows, and hospitality-driven communal areas into the program makes for healthier structures and communities while protecting an investment in the long-term.
- Building for longevity. “Sustainability” and “resilience” can sound like buzzwords, but mark the difference between a building that needs to be scraped and/or retrofitted in 10 years, and one that needs minor cosmetic upgrades. Similarly, trend-driven design can quickly look dated. Thoughtful design, on the other hand, may be rooted in the vocabulary of a certain decade, but offers something distinctive that outlives the rise and fall of passing trends.
- Folding in flexibility. Though we can’t fully anticipate our future needs, we can be nimble and responsive in tailoring design to the shifting culture of our community. Parking ratios can be reassessed. Parking structures can be built to allow for future renovations (into commercial or residential space). And buildings can be designed to allow for the increasing role of technology.
- Creating a sense of place. With multi-national, publicly traded development companies buying real estate in Denver, many “carbon-copied” buildings with lackluster architecture and design elements will continue to crop up. But for every cookie cutter building that goes up, a local firm is working hard to design one that’s thoughtful, innovative, relevant and responsive to Denver’s unique demands.
Like Schwartz said, “People love this city and want to live here.” But it’s important that our patterns of growth continue to serve the needs of our community while adding to the character of Denver that attracts and maintains so many residents.