Front-Range Foray: Denver and Its Suburbs
by Richard Risemberg (July, 2012)
Rowhouses along Cherry Creek in downtown Denver
As wildfires, reinforced by global-warming-nurtured heat waves, march seemingly at will through Colorado this week, and parts of Colorado Springs are under evacuation orders as houses burst into flame on the nightly news, it is perhaps a good time to study the contrasts in development offered by the nearby Denver region. Denver is under no direct threat from the fires, though its economy and its residents, who will have friends and family and memories in the burn areas, will be affected.
But Denver itself, ensconced though it be in sprawling suburbs that make those of LA seem urbane by comparison, is beginning what looks to be a successful process of turning its own growth inward and upward, and building a city where the car can be an afterthought, and community is based more on face-time than Facebook.
Pedestrian bridge to E-Line station
I hadn't been in Denver for decades when Gina and I loaded a couple of folding bikes onto the Southwest Chief and rolled through the desert to visit relatives just south of the Mile-High City. I'd heard a lot about the bicycle scene there from Internet friends, but not much about the city itself, and I was both delighted and dismayed when we arrived: Delighted by Denver itself, but less than pleased by the distant suburb where we would actually be staying. Nevertheless, said suburb was served by the RTD's almost-excellent light rail system, and getting into town to document development and bicycle infrastructure would be easy. I put a lot of miles on light rail and folding bike in doing so, and found a city that confounded my out-of date expectations.
The light rail system, while not comprehensive, is effective. One leg parallels I-25, the north-south interstate that enabled the development of Denver's southern sprawl. This is the line we used, and it is packed Tokyo-tight during game days, as it serves the stadiums area. It is odd, though, in that some of its stations are accessible only by passing through private property. Handsome pedestrian bridges cross the freeway regularly to serve E-Line stops, but finding one from the street is difficult.
Suburb of Denver, with Denver itself in the distance
I had to weave all around the Denver Technology Center area, across I-25 from where we were staying, before I finally realized there was no choice but to enter a parking lot and cross it to a sidewalk, which led across a lawn to a gate, which led to another sidewalk hard up against the freeway soundwall, which finally led to the bridge. The last gate was labelled "Private Property" on the far side. Likewise, on the other side of the bridge, the station was between a private parking lot and the freeway. There is no sign on the public street indicating the presence of a light rail stop—but there is a sign in the private parking lot threatening to tow away train users who park there instead of in the nearly-indistinguishable RTD lot next to the platform itself.
It's as if the train is seen primarily as a convenience for the office parks that dominate the area. There is a total of six parking spots for bicycles at this particular station.
The view from our relatives' balcony shows miles of flat-roofed sugar cubes set on megablocks and separated by tree-planted lawns that never see a footfall other than the groundskeeper's. The sidewalks were empty day and night, ditto the bike paths, though it was truly fine weather while we were there. I heard that this particular suburb mandated large lawns and setbacks for its office parks—which of course pushes destinations even farther apart and ensures that no one will actually use those lawns, as they will be driving from garage to garage in cars for nearly everything they do.
Cherry Creek bikepath
In the city of Denver itself, the scene is quite different. I found a thriving urban center, clean and full of people walking, cycling, riding the trains and buses, and driving around as well. The old warehouse district around Union Station is being reimagined as live/work spaces with small retail, dining, and service establishment on the ground floors, and Union Station itself is being restored to its original glory, as well as being updated to serve as a bus/rail hub for the city. Condo towers are going up everywhere, and bike lanes, sharrows, and bike parking abound on nearly every street. There is also a major and very beautiful "bicycle freeway" along Cherry Creek, which cuts through the center of town to debouch into the Platte River—which itself sports a long-distance dedicated bike path running north and south.
Denver has a bikeshare program, known as B-Cycle, which was certainly well-used when I was there; I saw B-Cycle's distinctive cruiser-style bikes with their baskets, fenders, and permanent self-powered headlamps all over the central city, being pedaled about by...well, just about everyone.
Bike racks were full even in front of stuffy finance center skyscrapers, and sidewalks were busy everywhere.
Pedestrian street in downtown Denver
A centerpiece of Denver's newfound urbanity is the pedestrian mall along 16th Street, which includes special lanes for free electric shuttle buses which run the several blocks of the mall and connect to a light-rail station. Benches, planters, and fountains decorate the center of the former car street, small shops and restaurants line the sides, trees shade the strollers, and there are even public pianos available for anyone who can to play on. Carts and kiosks enrichen the gustatory offerings—there was even a döner kebab stand!—and the strip is undeniably popular.
The aforementioned Cherry Creek connects handsome new rowhouses with a magnificent arts center where the museums cluster, and of course the rest of downtown, and only the spaces in the shadows of the three stadiums seem a bit blank—but then, they were still under construction during our visit. Denver receives only a few inches of snow during most winters, when the average daytime temperatures are in the forties (Fahrenheit); reports are that all this outdoors-oriented infrastructure is well-used all year round. The local bike shops even offer studded tires for night riders who may encounter black ice in the coldest months.
Suburban street by condos and office parks
Back in the suburbs, the streets are empty of much of anything save hurrying cars, foreboding steel and glass beasts lined up in quivering rows at stoplights, and rushing down their asphalt sluiceways at twice the speed limit whenever they can. There are occasional bike lanes, which start and stop seemingly at random, and one rarely sees pedestrians except for the severely temporary sort encountered in shopping mall parking lots. There is a reverberant emptiness in the air that is all too familiar to anyone who has spent time in the western reaches of the San Fernando Valley over the hill from the older part of Los Angeles. The Valley, though, is changing—bike lanes, a dedicated express busway running from North Hollywood, soon to be joined by north/south lines, and a smattering of rail access, along with a bit of TOD and infill development, are making SoCal's former symbol of suburban ennui a bit more lively.
Perhaps the same pleasant fate awaits Denver's southern reaches. But for now, city life exists only in a broadening circle around that stunning new downtown, where strolling the sidewalks means encountering smiles instead of silence, and a stack of bikes in front of a busy coffeehouse is nothing remarkable any more. These changes make the city's contributions to global warming much less than they would be in a purely car-oriented area. They also make it much more difficult to decide where to eat in downtown Denver now--because there are so many choices.