By Gideon Berger (first published by WalkDenver)
Last month, a group of 13 interdisciplinary volunteers came to Denver from cities across the county to help advise the City about how to attract new investment to West Colfax, that also supports existing residents and businesses while enhancing the area’s unique identity. They had a lot of great observations and ideas about the role of walkability in the broader context of community and economic development for the corridor and its neighborhoods that I’m excited to share.
While in my “free” time I chair WalkDenver’s board, my day job–when I’m not helping run my partner’s East Colfax cheese shop and bistro New World Cheese-is directing the Daniel Rose Fellowship program, which advises a cohort of four large US cities each year on a local urban development challenge. Denver-along with the cities of Birmingham, AL; Long Beach, CA and Rochester, NY-is part of the 2015-2016 class of fellows. Mayor Hancock selected his Deputy Chief of Staff Evan Dreyer, City Council President Christopher Herndon and Transportation Director Crissy Fanganello to represent Denver in the program and Transit-Oriented Development Manager Chris Nevitt to be the project manager for West Colfax. The Rose Fellowship is a program of the Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use, operated by the National League of Cities-which represents elected and appointed officials from more than 19,000 cities, towns and villages across the nation including the Colorado Municipal League here in our state–in partnership with the Urban Land Institute–which has 37,000 members from the myriad professions that comprise the real estate design and development community around the world, including ULI Colorado.
Over a four-day visit, the panel was briefed by Mayor Hancock and his team, toured the study area and met with community, business and civic leaders and other stakeholders. The key questions the panel considered were:
* What is the vision for the West Colfax area?
* What is the distinctive role of the West Colfax corridor within the life of Denver?
* How can new development be inclusive?
* Is there a missed opportunity around the Colfax viaduct and the Colfax/Federal cloverleaf interchange?
* How do we leverage recent transit investment (i.e., the West light rail line)?
* How do we move forward?
While their recommendations addressed the gamut of community and economic development issues these questions pose, in terms of mobility and connectivity the panel saw the viaduct and cloverleaf as imposing physical barriers for pedestrians traveling east-west, a generally harsh pedestrian environment along West Colfax, competing modal demands for a constrained roadway, limited north-south connectivity across West Colfax, a physical and psychological barrier posed by the Lakewood Gulch, and the West light rail line being disconnected from residents and nearby commercial uses.
They recommended streetscape elements to improve the public realm along West Colfax, such as trees, planters and landscaping; bike facilities, sidewalks cafes, on-street parking, and more signage, wayfinding and urban design identity (which the West Colfax Business Improvement District has been implementing with financial assistance from the City). But it could take as much as 100 feet to add all these elements to West Colfax and keep four travel lanes plus a turn lane, and the right-of-way is generally only about 80 feet wide. The panel said this physical constraint sets up a discussion among stakeholders, advocates and the City about what are the right combination of trade-offs among these elements to create a new public realm for West Colfax.
In terms of north-south connections, they emphasized the importance of Knox Court, Perry Street and Sheridan Boulevard because they all cross the Gulch and connect to light rail stations, and recommended those intersections along West Colfax deserve priority treatments. Perry is particularly important because it links Sloan’s Lake Park to the Gulch and will connect the light rail to the Sloans redevelopment at the former St. Anthony’s hospital site, which will include new commercial destinations for the area. They also suggested that the Colfax-Federal cloverleaf interchange could converted into a normal at-grade urban intersection and open up new development destinations and improve connectivity for pedestrians.
The panel was chaired by Denver’s Rose Fellowship faculty advisers: urban planner Andre Brumfield, regional director of planning and urban design at Gensler’s Chicago office; and real estate market analyst Kate Collignon, a managing partner at HR&A Advisors in New York City. It included Rose Fellows from the other three cities in this year’s class: André Bittas, director of the Department of Planning, Engineering & Permits for the City of Birmingham; Sean Crumby, City Engineer and deputy director of the Department of Public Works for the City of Long Beach; and Bayé Muhammad, commissioner of the Department of Neighborhood and Business Development for the City of Rochester. And additional subject matter experts Seattle-based architect Juan Calaf of Rolluda Architects, infill multi-family developer Rick Dishnica, president of the San Francisco Bay area-based Dishnica Company, Yianice Hernandez, Active Living program director at New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Sarah Lovell, transit-oriented development planning manager for Sound Transit, Seattle’s regional transit agency; Emeke Moneme, deputy executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Federal City Council, a non-profit organization comprised of private-sector and civic leaders that collaborates the District and federal governments to address local community challenges; housing expert Manuel Ochoa, a senior analyst and program director Enterprise Community Partners in Washington, D.C.; emerging market real estate developer Mott Smith, a principal at Los Angeles-based Civic Enterprise; and Minnesota Housing Finance Agency Deputy Commissioner Barbara Sporlein, former planning director for Minneapolis.