Stand at the corner of 17th and Wynkoop streets, in front of Denver’s Union Station, with its iconic red-neon “Travel by Train” sign and monumental windows, and you can almost imagine the depot’s glory days in the 1930s, when as many as 80 trains a day stopped here. Today, the 1914 Beaux-Arts-style station is surrounded by chain-link fencing as it undergoes a $48 million restoration. When it reopens next year, the building will continue to serve train passengers—Amtrak’s California Zephyr stops twice daily—but it will also include a 110-room boutique hotel, restaurants, shops, and offices.
The redevelopment of a historic train station isn’t particularly unusual these days, as urban centers across the country continue to come back from the dead. Denver—including the area surrounding Union Station, known as Lower Downtown, or LoDo—has been part of this urban revival for several years now. But the real story at Union Station is what’s happening behind the historic terminal. There, the station’s former rail yard is being transformed into a 20-acre transit hub for Amtrak trains, commuter rail to Denver International Airport, buses, taxis, and light rail. The $500 million public–private project, much of which will be completed in 2014, will also include office buildings, apartments, and public plazas. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill did the master plan and designed the transit architecture; Hargreaves Associates is the lead public-realm designer.
City planners call the Union Station project “ground zero” for transit-oriented development, or TOD, which is sprouting up all over the Denver metropolitan region, mostly along light-rail corridors. Denver’s first light-rail line opened in 1994, and other routes have been added since. Starting in 2004, however, the Regional Transportation District has been engaged in a $6.5 billion, voter-approved mass-transit effort called FasTracks, which will add 122 miles of commuter and light rail, plus 18 miles of bus rapid transit. The first official FasTracks line, which runs from downtown Denver to the city of Golden, opened in April. For much of its path, the light-rail line follows an old streetcar route that existed until 1950. From the start, FasTracks was envisioned as more than just a transit system. It’s also a land-use plan designed to encourage TOD development in a region that long considered “density” a dirty word. According to University of Denver geography professor Andrew Goetz, higher-density TOD is already having a “recognizable impact” on the region’s land use and urban form.
It’s a surprising turn of events given Denver’s decades-long love affair with the car. That love affair hasn’t exactly ended—I-25 and I-70 are still choked with traffic during morning and evening rush hours—but more Denver residents are commuting by rail, and more are choosing to live downtown, where there’s a full-blown residential building boom under way.
Denver today is a very different city from the one I remember from the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, misguided “urban renewal” projects had decimated large swaths of downtown, leaving an urban core pockmarked with an abundance of surface parking lots. Downtown largely emptied out at night as commuters retreated to their single-family homes in Denver’s outer neighborhoods or close-in suburbs. Civic Center, a stately park from the City Beautiful movement of the early 20th century, became a haven for drug dealers. Making matters worse, on some winter days, an ugly “brown cloud” of air pollution would settle in over the entire city.
Today, Denver “has completely rediscovered its historic urban roots,” and transit is a big reason why, says Ken Schroeppel, who teaches urban planning at the University of Colorado at Denver. Schroeppel, 49, chronicles the city’s rebirth on two must-read blogs, denverinfill.com and denverurbanism.com. In mid-April, I met Schroeppel near Union Station. We could see the large white canopy structure that will cover the new train platform, as well as workers who were busy constructing a 13-story residential project called the Cadence Apartments, scheduled to open in the fall with 219 studio, one-, and two-bedroom apartments.
By Schroeppel’s calculations, about 1,200 residential units—primarily apartments—have gone up downtown since the start of 2012. Currently, there are more than 4,000 new units under construction, with another 1,800 or so in the planning stages.
So who’s moving downtown? For the most part, young people who are drawn to the area’s mix of restaurants, shops, sports facilities, museums, and transportation options. “They want to live as much of a car-free lifestyle as possible,” Schroeppel says.
But, as in many revitalizing urban areas around the country, there are downsides to the current boom. While some empty-nesters have migrated downtown, families largely have not. “Developers build to the market,” Schroeppel says, “and nobody’s building for families.” Meanwhile, the greater downtown area has become “more white and more affluent,” and that gentrification is pushing many working-class residents out of close-in neighborhoods.
Most of the new downtown apartment buildings, he says, are renting for about $2 a square foot. According to the Apartment Association of Metro Denver and the Colorado Division of Housing, the average monthly rent in the entire six-county metro Denver region is $992, which translates to $1.16 a square foot.
“Housing downtown is always going to be more expensive than in the suburbs,” Schroeppel says. “And there’s really no good way to fix it from a pure market perspective.” That also applies to the region’s growing number of TODs located outside of downtown, says the University of Denver’s Goetz. To date, he says, metropolitan Denver has added nearly 18,000 residential units within a half mile of a transit station. “But these facilities are pretty expensive,” he says. “Not everyone is in a position to live in these developments.”
A Denver nonprofit called the Urban Land Conservancy (ULC), founded in 2003, is tackling this issue head-on. In 2010, the organization worked with the City and County of Denver as well as a nonprofit called Enterprise Community Partners to establish a $15 million fund specifically to “create and preserve” affordable housing near transit lines. Backed by public and private investors (including the MacArthur Foundation and Wells Fargo), it's the nation's first such fund. Essentially, it enables the ULC to purchase properties near light-rail stations and then sell them to developers who promise to build affordable housing. In turn, the developers earn tax credits from the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority.
I met Debra Bustos, the director of real estate at the ULC, at a construction site located just across the street from the Evans Light Rail Station, on the southwest line. It’s about 6 miles south of downtown in Overland Park, an older, working-class Denver neighborhood with a mix of light industry and small clapboard houses. In 2011, the ULC bought the 1-acre parcel for $1.2 million and then sold it to Medici Communities, a development company in the nearby city of Lakewood that specializes in affordable housing. Medici is building a five-story, red-brick apartment building called the Evans Station Lofts. When it opens in July, it will have 50 one- and two-bedroom apartments for families with incomes ranging from 30 to 60 percent of the area median income, or AMI.
Troy Gladwell, Medici’s founder and president, showed us around. The week before, masons had installed bricks on the building’s south side. Gladwell and architect Harsh Parikh, president of Parikh Stevens Architects, wanted it to look like an old 19th-century warehouse, with a slightly irregular surface, so they had the bricks tumbled in a cement mixer to give them a weathered look. “That probably cost us an extra $150,000,” Gladwell said, “but isn’t it gorgeous?” Inside, Gladwell showed off some of the apartments. They were spacious, with 10-foot ceilings and large windows. The rooftop deck boasted a million-dollar view, with downtown unfolding to the north and the Front Range looming to the west. “The built-in barbecue will go over there,” Gladwell said, pointing. “There will be an outdoor sofa here, with one of those overhead heating units. And we’ll put a big table back here. It’s really a rooftop party deck.”
Subsidized housing, Gladwell made clear, doesn’t necessarily mean cheap. He’s a true believer in affordable housing—that’s all his company does—and he’s willing to pay for some amenities out of his own bottom line. But because he receives tax credits for developing the project, he has to follow certain guidelines, and that includes materials and design.
“It has to be really high quality,” Gladwell said. “If we came in here and did a really mediocre project, it would hurt the area, not help it. You’ve got to do it right.” He hopes the building will spur additional development in the neighborhood, which has started to attract first-time home buyers. He’s even going to move his company’s office into the building.
“Hopefully, we’ll get some more density here [to] help move things along.” It’s a long shot, but Gladwell said he’d love to see a microbrew open in the first-floor retail space. “I want something in here that creates some activity, with people coming and going,” he said. “It’s the old Jane Jacobs thing: Get some eyes on the street. That makes people feel safe.”
When I asked Gladwell who will live in the Evans Station Lofts, he told me about a woman who works with his wife at an elementary school in nearby Englewood. “She’s a teacher’s assistant, and she’s great at her job. She’s a single mom with two daughters, 11 and 14. She was taking home $1,300 a month after taxes. No food stamps, no rental assistance. Nothing. Then her hours got reduced, and she ended up taking home about $1,000 a month. How do you raise two teenage daughters on $1,000 a month?”
Gladwell and his wife told her about the Evans Station Lofts. “She’s applied to live here,” he said. “I hope she moves in. It’s perfect for her.”
Correction, June 13: A previous version of this story reported that the Urban Land Conservancy (ULC) established the TOD fund that helps preserve and create affordable housing. In fact, the organization worked with the City and County of Denver, as well as a national nonprofit called Enterprise Community Partners, to help create the fund. It was established with $15 million in capital, not $30 million, as previously reported. The ULC and its partners are currently working to increase the fund to $30 million to support projects in the entire region. See the second graph below the photograph of the Evans Station Lofts project for the corrected sentences.