Thursday, June 4, 2009

Denver: Building a Strong Foundation


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By Greg

I spent the past few days at a conference in Denver, Colorado. And, I’ll tell you, that city impressed the heck out of me. It’s a medium-sized city (just under 600,000 residents), and you can walk across its downtown in about twenty minutes. While the scale is much smaller than my hometown of Philadelphia, Denver seemed to be doing things other cities are only dreaming of.

Denver has a beautiful and efficient light-rail and bus system. The 16th Street pedestrian mall is vibrant, beautiful, and well-used. A free (!) two-way bus system runs every few minutes to take passengers across the fifteen blocks of stores, restaurant, entertainment, benches, trees, lamps, and chess tables. They also have bike sharing!

Cherry Creek and the Platte River run along the west side of the downtown with an extraordinary set of walking and biking trails. At the confluence of the creek and river, one encounters beautiful Commons Park and a stunning vista of the skyline. The gorgeous Millennium Bridge takes pedestrians from Commons Park to the pedestrian mall. The scenery is beautiful, all the while, surrounded by the Rockies.

The architecture definitely impresses. I am not usually a Daniel Liebeskind fan, but his Denver Art Museum is stunning. The new, edgy buildings of the civic center mix well with the historic architecture of the state capitol and other older government buildings. The Denver Convention Center is also a pretty exciting building (yes, that's a big blue bear pushing against the wall).

Everywhere I looked there was major public art. This is a city that clearly cares about creating a beautiful place for its citizens and visitors. Meanwhile, a host of new condo and apartment buildings are filling in the landscape, bringing more residents downtown.

The Colorado Rockies’ stadium, Coors Field, is right downtown, surrounded by stores and restaurants. It borders the hip Lo Do district and its brewpubs and nightlife. On my first day in town I walked to the ballpark (it took ten minutes from my hotel). Apparently I wasn’t the only one. Families streamed through the downtown streets to make their way to the stadium.

Mayor John Hickenlooper, who gave the keynote address at the conference I was attending, explained that the City did not build new car parking for the stadium. Since it was downtown, people could park in existing garages, or take the train, and walk five to ten minutes to get to the game. On the way they could stop at stores and restaurants.

Well, it works great. Unfortunately the Padres beat the pants off of the Rockies while I was at the game. But you know what? In the long-term a well-placed, downtown stadium will do more good for a city than a winning team.

Mayor Hickenlooper (whom, I will note is a Wesleyan alum from the Philadelphia region), is a newbie to politics. Before getting himself elected he ran the Wynkoop Brewing Company (they make the best milk stout I’ve ever had). In his talk, he told the audience how he runs the city the same way he ran his company – getting to know people, building partnerships, working cooperatively.

Perhaps the most stunning example of regional cooperation under Mayor Hickenlooper’s tenure has been the passage of an eight-county referendum to increase the sales tax to pay for mass transit expansion. Denver already has better light-rail than most cities, but after the FasTracks system is completed in 2016, the region will have 122 miles of new light rail and commuter rail, 18 miles of bus rapid transit service, and 57 new transit stations. All this in the middle of the wild west!

As I walked for hours around and outside Denver’s central business district, it was clear that despite its stunning success stories, Denver has a long way to go. The landscape quickly transforms from urban to suburban. Walking east out of the downtown, I saw the thriving center morph into a landscape of check cashing and fast food restaurants. Even downtown there is not all that much there yet. Parking lots still dot the urban landscape.

However, this is changing… fast. Through my hotel window I could see one brand new skyscraper, another starting to rise from a construction site, and a large surface parking lot that was likely next in line for development. I called up fellow Urban Direction blogger, Ariel, and exclaimed of the light rail and other projects: “It looks like they are laying the infrastructure for a city that isn’t here yet.” Ariel answered, “Isn’t that what we are supposed to be doing?”

Ariel is exactly right, and so is Denver. A few folks at the conference told me that Colorado is a pretty strong property-rights, car-loving type of place. However, here is a region that does not yet have a huge downtown hub, that does not have major congestion, and yet its residents are farsighted enough to vote for increasing their taxes to pay for a light rail system that runs through areas that have not yet been developed! The FasTracks referendum passed with almost 60% of the vote. This sounds to me like a region that has its priorities straight.

As is true anywhere, all is not sunny in Denver. The city has seen new challenges arise over the past 15 years. The city’s foreign-born population nearly tripled from 1990 to 2000. However, only about 8% of Hispanics in Denver hold a bachelors degree, and the city’s poverty rate is about 18% for individuals. Meanwhile, the state of Colorado had major job loss in the beginning of the 21st century. Denver is facing serious issues of inequality between the minority and white populations, a need for more jobs and affordable housing.

Still, Denver has been growing at a pretty steady pace (which is more than some cities can say). According to the Brookings Institution, “Among the 23 Living Cities, Denver had the second-fastest growth in household incomes, the sixth-highest share of college graduates in 2000, and the lowest poverty rate among African Americans.” While Denver tackles its challenges of poverty, education, jobs, and centralizing the region’s sprawling growth, the city is clearly doing a lot of things right. The question is: Will it be enough to really make Denver thrive?

In my opinion, the answer seems to be yes. I think that Denver is moving its way over the tipping point. The city is making the right investments to grow its population, encourage economic development, and make itself the competitive hub of the region. While the city still seems rocky (excuse the pun) in some respects, I would bet that in a decade or two Denver will be the envy of many major cities. Other cities that, like Denver, are only starting to boom, but are not investing in infrastructure are going to be kicking themselves. Denver has challenges to overcome, but it is laying a strong foundation for doing so.

So, to Denver, thanks for a sunny day at the ballpark, some great nights at the brewpubs, wonderful walks around your fair city, a fine conference venue, and a glimpse of what regions can achieve when they dream big, cooperate, and are not afraid to take bold action. I wish you the best and hope to come back soon.

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