Yearly Archives: 2018

“Denveright” plans chart out new direction for rapidly expanding Denver’s transit, parks over two decades

2040 goals hindered by questions of funding, need for policy changes

By Jon Murray | jmurray@denverpost.com | The Denver Post

PUBLISHED: August 6, 2018 at 8:00 am | UPDATED: August 6, 2018 at 9:27 am

 

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Large cranes can be seen all over the Union Station area in downtown Denver on Aug. 9, 2017.

 

A suite of new plans for Denver chart out a two-decade vision that calls for rapidly expanding the transit and parks systems, filling in the pedestrian network and making smarter development policies.

Those plans, if realized, could help Denver get ahead of a population boom that has overwhelmed some parts of the city since the last time some of the plans were updated more than 15 years ago.

One of them — the first-ever citywide transit plan — calls for Denver to take a more prominent role in paying for, and potentially even providing, bus and transit services in addition to the system run by the Regional Transportation District.

Drafts of all five new plans, each with a different focus, were released Monday, starting a public-review period that lasts through Oct. 31. The plans have emerged from Denver’s largest-ever citywide planning effort, the two-year “Denveright” program. (You can find the draft plans here: land use/transportation, parks, transit, pedestrian/trails and the Comprehensive Plan.)

If current and future city leaders are able to carry out the plans successfully, by roughly 2040 all 78 neighborhoods would have access to a park within a 10-minute walk, and those parks would be designed to be more environmentally friendly.

At least half of homes in 60 neighborhoods, up from 16 now, would be within walking distance of quality transit, jobs and retail.

The share of commuters who drive alone to work would decrease to 50 percent from the current 73 percent, and three-quarters of households would be within a quarter-mile of bus or rail lines offering service at least every 15 minutes.

And 80 percent of new housing would be built in areas that fit with a growth strategy that targets higher-density development to existing and emerging neighborhood centers and corridors.

Standing in the way of reaching those goals are significant questions of money and a need for policy changes.

But most of all money: Billions of dollars would be needed to build new parks and recreation facilities, to fill in an estimated 350 miles of sidewalk gaps while expanding the city’s network of off-street trails, and to vastly improve urban bus routes and other transit services so that they are more frequent and reliable where they’re needed most.

“The devil was really in the details,” said Paul Aldretti, who served on the transit plan task force as well as two others.

Image from Denver Moves: Transit 2018

The Denver Moves: Transit draft plan includes a map of potential transit corridors prime for city investment to boost service.

 

 

 

Of the plans’ aspirational focus, he said, they “are almost written to the point where who’s going to argue with any of it? It’s Mom and apple pie and Christmas. It’s really going to get interesting in the implementation.”

Leaders of the effort for Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration say more than 20,000 pieces of community input helped shape the plans. Task forces led each’s formation, and officials sought opinions at community events and open houses as well as through surveys and online comments.

“It really is an unprecedented amount of coordination and integration,” said Brad Buchanan, the executive director of the Department of Community Planning and Development, during a recent media briefing.

Since 2002, when the last Blueprint Denver plan was adopted, Denver has added 150,000 people, with the population recently passing the 700,000 mark.

In the next 22 years, the draft Blueprint plan projects that the city will add another 189,000 residents, with its population nearing 900,000, and add 136,000 jobs.

The city, in some ways, is at a crossroads: So far in this century, as the Blueprint plan’s draft points out, Denver has become wealthier and whiter as longtime residents of color have shouldered the heaviest burden of displacement and higher housing costs in gentrifying neighborhoods.

All of the proposed plans focus in their recommendations on improving social equity and inclusion through new approaches.

After the public-review period ends, three of the plans — Blueprint, the parks and recreation plan, and the overarching Comprehensive Plan 2040 — will go to the City Council for formal adoption in early 2019. Two others, the transit plan and another covering pedestrian access and trails, will be approved administratively.

The city also is planning a Denveright community event offering more information on the plans. It’s set for 5:30 p.m. Aug. 28 in the City Park Pavilion.

Here is more about each plan:

Blueprint Denver

Denver’s land-use plan is familiar to anyone who’s advocated in favor or against a rezoning change in Denver, since the 2002 version set out general policies and patterns for growth in the city. In the most familiar feature of the old plan, it identified 18 percent of the city’s land as “areas of change,” or where most development should occur, with the rest categorized as stable areas.

Two-thirds of new housing development has occurred in areas of change. The new Blueprint, however, chucks that simple black-and-white designation out the window in favor of a new scheme of designations that are aimed at fostering what planners call “complete neighborhoods.”

 

Image from Blueprint Denver 2018

The Blueprint Denver draft plan includes a map of “future places” that designates every part of the city. Centers, corridors and districts are considered ripest for varying levels of mixed-use development.

 

Buchanan says that will channel the largest-scale development into centers and street corridors categorized into local, community and regional designations. But the plan still envisions smaller-scale growth and change of varying types in quieter areas, where residents prize their peace.

For example, the plan recommends a zoning change to allow for accessory dwelling units, or backyard cottages, in all residential areas. They’re allowed only in certain neighborhoods now.

Kimball Crangle, an affordable housing developer who co-chaired the Blueprint Denver task force, called the new Blueprint’s approach more nuanced than the old version.

“One of the things we have been working on on the task force is to make sure we are contemplating what kind of unintended consequences could happen from the plan,” she said. “We understand that for the city to maintain its livability, all of the places in the city are going to constantly be evolving. In different ways — but all of Denver will evolve over the next 20 years.”

And Buchanan said the plan takes to heart some of the recent frustration over development

“There are strategies outlined that are really about asking more from developers,” he said. “We’re suggesting that we do that by creating improved design-quality tools, and those can range from design guidelines and pattern books to design review in some neighborhoods.”

In its twin focus on transportation, the Blueprint plan recommends that the city expand on recent changes in street design and try out new approaches as it makes more corridors “multimodal.” That means giving more priority on some car-dominated streets to pedestrians, bikes or transit, making them safer for more people.

Game Plan for a Healthy City

The plan for Denver Parks and Recreation focuses on two big themes: access and equity.

As it’s grown, the city’s park acreage per resident has declined, and the money budgeted for parks hasn’t kept up with population — exacerbating longtime inequities in park access in different parts of the city, generally favoring well-off neighborhoods. Among big cities, Denver’s rankings for spending and parkland per capita have suffered.

 

Image from Game Plan for a Healthy City

A chart comparing Denver to other cities from The Game Plan for a Healthy City.

 

The plan charts out recommendations for adding new parks, diversifying the system’s outdoor and recreation facility offerings, and adapting to forecasts of both more flooding and more droughts as the climate changes.

How to pay for the system’s expansion? Already, the City Council has referred a proposed sales tax dedicated to parks to the Nov. 6 ballot. If approved, the tax — 2.5 cents on a $10 purchase — would raise an estimated $46 million next year.

The plan doesn’t endorse that ballot question, but it does propose a couple other ideas for consideration. One is a development impact fee that would assess charges on new building projects based on the demand for parks they create.

Some needs already are being addressed in the city’s voter-approved $937 million Elevate Denver bond program.

Allegra “Happy” Haynes, the parks department’s executive director, said the changing climate and changing demands from residents will result in new approaches to parks. Landscaping that uses less water is expected to be used more, both at existing and new parks.

“The plan calls for evaluating a lot of our current traditional landscaping that is very water-intensive,” she said, “and determining whether, where and how we can introduce more resilient — that’s how we term it — landscapes. Both from a resource perspective, but also from the standpoint … that our community, and our youngsters in particular, want experiences in nature more.

“So we’re creating opportunities to connect to nature with more than just bluegrass.”

Provided by the city of Denver

A rendering shows how East Colfax Avenue would change at North Krameria Street with the introduction of center-running dedicated bus lanes in a bus rapid transit system.

 

Denver Moves: Transit

The transit plan identifies 19 corridors ripe for boosting RTD’s current offerings, with an eye on increasing service frequency to at least every 15 minutes, and sometimes better. The plan lays out options for varying levels of service, from enhanced bus service to bus rapid transit — where buses function similarly to streetcars — to full rail lines.

Depending on the options chosen, those plans could cost roughly $1 billion to $5 billion, the plan projects.

But that’s before the city has done much planning — or figured out the extent to which the city would “buy up” service from RTD by paying the agency to improve its bus offerings in the city or launch its own services to supplement RTDs. All options are on the table, said Eulois Cleckley, executive director of Denver Public Works, and RTD leaders have been part of the conversation.

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Among the highest-profile corridors are Federal and Colorado boulevards, Speer Boulevard/Leetsdale Drive and Colfax Avenue, where the city already has plans for a bus rapid transit line.

“We do need to take the time to do more analysis on all of our corridors to truly understand what all the next steps need to look like,” Cleckley said, pointing to a second phase of the transit plan in coming years.

Aldretti, who works for Mile High Connects, a transit advocacy group, said: “The fact that they’re calling out that transit has to be more equitable is a huge win. … I think the fact that the city is looking at this is tremendously exciting.”

Denver Moves: Pedestrians & Trails

The plan focusing on sidewalk gaps and improvements to the trail system has already been finalized, after the release of a draft in November. But the city is still soliciting comments.

It amounts to a wish list of sidewalk and trail projects — albeit one that advocates for the disabled and pedestrians say is necessary to improve basic infrastructure and quality of life. The plan prioritizes sidewalk projects that could cost up to $1.3 billion and trail projects amounting to $400 million.

A handful of suggested projects will benefit from the bond program, and the city is starting a sidewalk inspection and repair program. But the challenge of funding will be significant in coming years.

Comprehensive Plan 2040

Unlike the other plans this one — shorthanded as the “comp plan” — is an overarching document that seeks to incorporate other city plans and the Hancock administration’s priorities into a coherent vision. The comp plan was last adopted in 2000.

Under six “vision elements,” the plan outlines strategies to reduce the number of “cost-burdened” households that can’t afford housing; to increase the number of neighborhoods with access to transit, jobs and retail; to reduce the dependence on driving alone; to increase the share of jobs supporting a diverse and innovative economy; to reduce Denver’s impact on climate change; and to reduce health inequities across city neighborhoods.

The Long and Winding Road: How an $87.5 Million Hotel Gets Built in Rockford, Illinois

Back in 2012, Larry Morrissey, the now-retired Mayor of Rockford, Illinois and Gary Gorman, Chairman of the development company, Gorman and Company, sat at a hotel bar in Shanghai, China over a glass of scotch. It was the beginning of a six-year project that is that has led to the construction of a $87.5 million Embassy Suites Hotel and conference center in downtown Rockford, Illinois.

Now this is not any simple hotel. This is the renovation of a hulking, 13-story manufacturing plant that was formerly owned by a company called Amerock. It has been empty for 25-plus years and has served as a massive eyesore in Downtown, Rockford.

It’s been a long road with lots of detours and barriers. But after years of political battles (including a 7 to 6 City Council vote to approve the project) and financial challenges (the project has $30 million in EB-5 funding from international investors), the transformational project is now under construction.

Former Rockford Amerock factory’s transformation has begun

Originally published in the Rockford Register Star

ROCKFORD — Seven years after Rockford bought the 13-story dilapidated former Amerock factory and the building appeared headed for near certain demolition, the site is buzzing with the hum, whine and crashes of construction crews.

They’re taking the first steps of a two-year journey to transform what for decades was an eyesore and sad symbol of Rockford’s industrial past into a four-star hotel and conference center.

By December 2019, Gary Gorman of Gorman & Company expects to put the finishing touches on an $87.5 million Hilton Embassy Suites and Rockford Conference Center that promises to change the face of downtown, the first impression of visitors and perhaps how the city feels about itself.

“People are going to come to this hotel and conference center and they are going to be impressed,” Gorman said. “The image of Rockford is going to be created by the first impression they get when they walk into the hotel, when they walk into the conference center, when they go up to the 12th floor deck and they see the view down the river — which is the most spectacular view in the city. I think it’s going to change what people’s impression is of Rockford.” 

The 160-room hotel and 40,000-square-foot conference center will feature two restaurants, rooftop lounge with two levels of outdoor seating, access to Davis Park, swimming pool, game room for kids, and plenty more. Gorman is already marketing the facility to event planners.

And he is also preparing what he calls “sizzle factor” amenities.

“Let me give you an example: private elevator to a two-level spa with an outside deck with hot tubs and view of the river and the city,” Gorman said. “We have a whole series of those kind of things.”

Some said this day would never come: Rockford had at one point planned to grind the remains of the factory tower into footings for the rebuilt Morgan Street Bridge.

But the Friends Of Ziock, a group of downtown boosters and historic preservationists who adopted the name of the building’s original owner, worked to save the building, which was the city’s first skyscraper when it was built in 1912.

Although the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency had given Rockford permission to tear the building down, the agency reversed course after getting a letter from Rockford resident and retired engineer Don Bissell, who made a case for saving it.

The building was eventually placed on the National Register of Historic Places and must be redeveloped in compliance with historic preservation standards.

“This is a project that is going to get done,” Bissell said. “It’s going to change the whole profile of downtown.”

Former mayor Larry Morrissey championed the project and took four trips to China to help Gorman secure $30 million in foreign investment. Rockford is paying for construction of the $12.5 million conference center and Gorman has secured mortgages and historic preservation tax credits to finance the project.

Morrissey said the project shows what Rockford is capable of doing.

“We will reach a new level of success in downtown that we haven’t seen in my lifetime,” Morrissey said.

Since closing on financing in late December, construction crews have already abated asbestos in the building. Interior demolition is underway to prepare for construction. Crews use a “skip hoist,” essentially a freight elevator, that was installed on the exterior of the building and is capable of lifting 6,000 pounds of heavy equipment between floors, said Gorman & Company Construction Superintendent Nick Panzica.

An industrial-strength pressure washer uses water and glass pellets to blast away lead paint, dirt and debris from interior and exterior walls, while a lead neutralizer keeps contaminants at bay. A separate machine captures and recycles the water. New windows that comply with historic preservation requirements will soon be installed.

“I have never been so excited about seeing a construction elevator go up,” Rockford architect Gary Anderson said. “There is a sense of arrival, that this thing is finally on its way.”

Jeff Kolkey: 815-987-1374; jkolkey@rrstar.com@jeffkolkey