A blank slate just west of Downtown Denver provides numerous opportunities

by Jessica Vargas on January 18, 2018

Guest Commentary by Jonathan Lorincz

I often step out of my Jefferson Park home and I hear screams. My neighbors and I have become accustomed to them. I should probably clarify and explain that these are the screams of excitable roller coaster riders echoing over I-25 from Elitch Gardens. But they won’t be coming from the Central Platte Valley/Auraria neighborhood for too much longer. The amusement park will be replaced by a more usable, livable space. Mixed-use high-density development is proposed in an area roughly bounded by I-25, Speer Blvd and Auraria Parkway. Some of this area may be rezoned for buildings up to 20 stories high. Denver’s Community Planning & Development (CPD) department is working with the property owners to evaluate its best usage. CPD is also reaching out to various members of the community so that all voices are heard throughout the planning process. One such meeting occurred Tuesday January 9 in conjunction with Jefferson Park United Neighbors (JPUN). The meeting was attended by roughly 50 community members including District 1 Councilman Rafael Espinoza.

Even though the amusement park is close enough for Jefferson Park residents to hear it, the area is far from easily accessible. I-25, the Platte River and a freight railroad are all barriers that make connectivity difficult. The most direct route from the neighborhood to the Central Platte Valley is via 23rd Street/Water Street. As such, a focal point of the meeting was how to address the 23rd Street and I-25 interchange. This is the major highway exit for REI’s flagship store, the Denver Aquarium and the Children’s Museum. Between the merging highway traffic, discontinuous sidewalks, high vehicle speeds, and poor lighting, this area is truly a nightmare for pedestrians and cyclists alike. The meeting was full of first-hand accounts of close car encounters or worse. Although funding for this bridge is still an unknown, the City identifies this intersection as a high area of need. Future plans for widening this bridge to include protected bike lanes and sidewalks were discussed and well received by many community members. One bike commuter suggested shutting off 23rd Street to I-25 completely. As it turns out, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) is considering such a change since the current layout of I-25 exits in the downtown area is too tight to meet current federal highway code.

This bridge is one of many the city is currently evaluating in the area. Multiple ped-bike crossings between Speer Blvd and Auraria Parkway are being proposed over I-25, the Platte River and the freight railroad. The images above were presented at the meeting as examples of the types of infrastructure that could be built depending on community feedback. Exactly how these structures link the western and north Denver neighborhoods will remain a discussion topic throughout the planning process. But it’s very encouraging to know that funneling all pedestrians on the same road as cars racing to and from the highway is no longer the only option.

Since much of the proposed development will replace empty parking lots (this area actually “won” a nationwide online poll for having the largest parking crater in a downtown metropolitan area), it represents a unique opportunity — the area is essentially a blank slate. It is a centrally located region that already includes many attractive destinations. High-density development means that new residents should not have to get in cars to go about their daily business. The area is equipped with light rail and bus line access, is walkable to the Central Business District, and is adjacent to various bike paths, including the Platte and Cherry Creek Trails and the future 5280 Loop. The City and property owners are planning livable communities with place-making in mind. With everything in close proximity, development should be conducted in a manner to incentivize future residents to use these various modes of transportation rather than rely on their own personal vehicles. Denver’s leadership has acknowledged the affordable housing and displacement crises afflicting the city. This development should play a critical role in addressing these needs.

The Central Platte Valley has the potential to be a hidden gem for Denver. It is a great opportunity to change the car-first paradigm in the city by creating a livable, walkable, connected community in one of its most centrally located neighborhoods. With proper planning, this region can help address many of the affordable housing, sprawl, traffic, and displacement issues plaguing the city today. Personally, I like how the CPD is thinking with Denver’s future in mind. Now this is truly something worth screaming for.

The next public outreach meeting held by the Community Planning District for the redevelopment of the Central Platte Valley will take place on February 22. Attend and have your voice heard!

Jonathan is a graduate of WalkDenver’s leadership development program Project Shift: West Denver. Read more from Jonathan on the Project Shift blog!

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