By Paul Karolyi
Paul Karolyi is the founder and host of local podcast Changing Denver. Listen to Changing Denver's tie-in episode about development in Arapahoe Square here.
More than a million people are projected to move to the Denver metro area by 2040, according to the Denver Regional Council of Governments. For city officials, urban planners, and other stakeholders in Denver’s communities, the expected population boom presents a challenge: How can we uphold our values while managing growth?
John Hayden, the current president of Curtis Park Neighbors, said that the broad goal for the city is to create “neighborhoods that are sustainable over time, that people can live in even though their life circumstances might change.”
Ever since the Denver Urban Renewal Authority demolished 27 blocks of downtown in the late 1960s, the area now known as Arapahoe Square has comprised surface parking lots and a handful of social-service institutions like the Denver Rescue Mission. That makes the neighborhood, which is roughly bounded by 20th Street, Larimer, 24th Street, and Glenarm, a “blank slate” for the kind of sustainable development Hayden supports, according to City Council president Albus Brooks, whose district includes Arapahoe Square.
Although he is a key leader now, Brooks inherited the process by which Arapahoe Square will change and adapt to house new Denverites. In 2007, various neighborhood organizations and other stakeholders came together with the city to produce the Downtown Area Plan. They identified Arapahoe Square as a “great opportunity for another distinct district in downtown” due to its “large amount of underutilized land.” The Northeast Downtown Neighborhoods Plan of 2011 further detailed proposals for the neighborhood’s future and identified the obstacles in the way of their implementation.
Specifically, Hayden and the other stakeholders want to remake Arapahoe Square into a “mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood that people can utilize without having to have their car.” With enough density, an economically diverse population could attract offices and amenities like grocery stores that would allow them to live, work, and play all in Arapahoe Square. At the same time, the city would invest in transportation infrastructure—bike lanes, sidewalks, bus routes—that would allow all these new residents to lead less fossil fuel-reliant lifestyles.
It took a few years, but the vision laid out in those two neighborhood plans is starting to be put into practice. The city instituted new design guidelines, put in place a design review board, and approved new zoning for the area in 2016. The City Council’s new zoning regulations split Arapahoe Square into two districts, allowing buildings of up 20 stories near Park Avenue and up to 30 stories near 20th Street.
In order to make the land even more attractive for developers, they also chose not to require any new buildings to include parking. Less space taken up by parking garages means more space for rentable units (and more of the revenue they generate) and discourages car-ownership.
Hayden says the zoning guidelines have already had an effect. Take the site of the old VOICE headquarters for example. Hayden and some other stakeholders met with the current owners of the land around a year ago. The owners “expressed that they might consider a larger project since the zoning would now allow it,” Hayden said. “They definitely reconsidered their plan,” Hayden added. “Hopefully that will result in a building with residences in it.”
Residences, yes, but will they be residences that can accommodate a mixed-income community? That’s another challenge. The City Council did not make any stipulations for affordable housing in the new zoning rules for Arapahoe Square—Brooks and others argued that their city-wide affordable housing efforts would cover the neighborhood. However, Brooks said there are “a lot of incentives” for developers to build mid- to low-end units. One such project is already in the works. The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless is taking advantage of the city’s Social Impact Bonds program to build 101 units of affordable housing at the corner of Broadway and Stout. ■
For an in-depth look at the history of Arapaho Square and recent development in the area, listen to “The Voice of Arapahoe Square” at changingdenver.com or your preferred podcast download platform.