Denver Needs a New Vision, Focus on Neighborhoods

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My op-ed piece titled “Denver is a Great City, So Why the Bad Buildings” was published in April 2015 in the Denver Post, followed by more than 3,000 (mostly positive) email responses over the next few months. This led to speaking opportunities with dozens of neighborhood groups and concerned residents, both here, and in cities experiencing similar problems throughout the U.S.

Jeffrey Sheppard Co-founder and Design Principal, Roth Sheppard Architects
Co-founder and Design Principal,
Roth Sheppard Architects

Now that some of our city’s problems have been identified, it is time to consider how we can empower our neighborhoods by requiring that all new and remodeled construction achieves more than the minimal requirements set forth in our form-based zoning codes. Denver needs a new vision – a vision that respects our history, our climate and our culture. We also need a vision that transcends stylistic trends – one that speaks to beauty, character, sense of place and authenticity.

The time is long overdue for the citizens of Denver to raise our expectations. We must make it known to our city leaders, developers, lending institutions and even appraisers that we will no longer accept the mediocre design that is destroying the fabric of our neighborhoods.

Creating a New Vision

Creating a new vision for Denver would require setting objectives for the next 20 to 50 years, not just for today or the near future. We need to decide what we want to see happen decades from now. That’s what a vision statement is – a roadmap we can all agree on that will direct our course, and give our neighborhoods a voice. A new Denver vision might include some the following ideas:

  1. How can we make it easier and more sustainable to travel from the airport or Union station to our favorite ski areas? Think about the impact on our tourist industry if one could hop on a high-speed train and arrive in some of our state’s most popular resorts in less than an hour. What is now considered a negative (a four-hour, 100-mile trip) would suddenly become a positive – a wonderful high-speed journey to the mountains.
  2. How about turning the Platte River into a primary recreational space supplemented by complementary uses? This underutilized treasure could become a focal point for the city, combining our love of outdoor activities with our desire to elevate the manmade with the natural.
  3. Or, Denver could establish a timeline for all new construction to be carbon neutral. Our city would be at the forefront of progressive, environmentally responsive design. Cities around the U.S. and world would turn to Denver for its “export” of innovative, new design ideas – a complete reversal from our present position as a “net importer” of design (at present most of our designs are borrowed from other regions and countries). Becoming a “net exporter” would not only change our design culture, it also would raise our collective expectation level. Rather than looking abroad, we would focus on our own culture, heritage, history and climate as generators of our design. Our architecture would be meaningful, authentic and layered with an intensity of thought currently missing from most new buildings.

These are only a few examples of what a new vision that improves the livability of our city could include. It would also offer a basis for looking deeper at where we are, and where we are headed.

Focus on Neighborhoods

The best way to raise the quality of life in Denver, however, is through a vision that focuses on our neighborhoods. As new construction continues to spin out of control, we must demand higher-quality design that is thoughtfully integrated into the context of each neighborhood beyond just meeting existing form-based zoning codes. What is being constructed now (and approved under our present codes) has already negatively and permanently damaged the character of our city and its neighborhoods. Thus, Denver’s vision must have aspirations that speak to the sustainability of the city, its neighborhoods, streets and even individual sites and their adjacencies. Quality of life is tied to character, history, precedent and sense of place. Just look at Vancouver or Portland to see the impact of design standards that reach beyond the pragmatics of bulk plane and mass.

Denver’s vision can speak to, and even achieve, lofty environmental objectives like carbon neutrality, but something must happen before we get there. We need to find our roots, reconnect with the past, and reimagine what our city and neighborhoods can become. Our architecture must be informed by our surroundings and what was here before. This is not taking a step backward. It is just the opposite, if we allow history, culture and climate – as opposed to greed, speed and needless complexity – to inform what we create.

Positive change does not happen spontaneously. Neighborhoods must also take more responsibility for what they will become in the future. They need to do the research and committed legwork, to show how they are in fact distinct and special. The narratives they uncover will lead to descriptions that define what makes each neighborhood unique. This information could then be inserted into a revised or amended zoning code, with supplemental neighborhood-specific criteria.

New Approach to Zoning

A neighborhood design supplement to the present zoning code might look something like:

“Denver is made up of distinct neighborhoods, each with their own character and sense of place. Each has described its character through written narratives and supportive graphic documentation representing its past, present and future aspirations. All new and remodel construction must:

– exhibit an understanding of the neighborhood history, character and physical conditions that together create a unique sense of place specific to this neighborhood;

– provide a design solution that contributes to the existing fabric and quality of life in the neighborhood;

– and, in doing so, must not only aesthetically complement, but also improve the quality of the existing conditions beyond what was there previously. This ‘improved quality’ must be adequately represented and presented prior to approval, and must clearly identify how the new or remodeled construction improves the quality of life of the adjacent properties, streetscape and overall neighborhood condition and community.”

The intent is not to control the stylistic aesthetic, but to require that all new projects first understand the qualities that make a neighborhood, street and/or individual site special, then change the paradigm from solely meeting “blanket” form-based codes and criteria, to a focus on character and improving quality of life. Any new or remodeled construction would need to make a positive contribution before moving to the next step in the approval process. This is what a true 50-year vision for Denver would involve – an approach that would help synergize Denver neighborhoods, and give them back design control of their communities.

Design Review Boards

Well-conceived, neighborhood-level design review boards – consisting of architects, other design professionals and neighborhood representatives – must also be established immediately. They must have authority and priority that takes precedence over the required city review process, and an overarching, consistent approach easily implemented in all neighborhoods. Further, design control must be placed in the hands of the neighborhood, not the city, and be empowered to approve any new or remodeled construction before it moves through the city’s review process. (If some of you are skeptical about how we make this happen, just take a look at your favorite neighborhoods in Denver – Cherry Creek, Country Club and the Golden Triangle, for example – and ask who has design review authority.)

The more Denver’s vision gives power and authority to the neighborhood design review process, the greater the opportunity for enhancing the livability of our communities. All involved must remain focused on the bigger objective of enhancing and improving the character and quality of life in each neighborhood so a more sustainable, diverse and truly special Denver can grow and evolve.

*Jeff Sheppard is a guest columnist for December’s Colorado Pulse. \\

Featured in the December 2016 issue of Building Dialogue

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