Monday, May 22, 2017

Denver and Baltimore

Except for Interstate 70 there is little that connects Baltimore with Denver even if both cities have an Italian imitation tower (Denver's Campanile versus B'more Palazzo Vecchio), downtown baseball stadiums and iconic mayors who later took care of their city as governors.
Denver's Campanile

Baltimore's Bromo
In 1830 Baltimore was the second largest city in the US, while Denver wasn't even conceived. (It was founded in 1858 and incorporated in 1861).  Even in the early 1950's Denver was only have the size of Charm City and as late as 2010 it was still smaller. But some time in the last years Denver surpassed Baltimore in population. It had to happen since Baltimore is shrinking and Denver became the fastest growing city in America. Next year the Mile High City is expected to heave 680,000 residents. Its location in the middle of nowhere has become its asset: There is no rival of similar size within 500 miles.

Denver hasn't been on an unstoppable upwards spiral forever. Far from it: its current boom is not the first the city has ever seen nor are the busts that usually follow.  The first knock came when the transcontinental railroad was designed to pass through Cayenne and not Denver. The city quickly recovered once it financed with great resolveand lots of private initiative the necessary connecting spur, setting a precedent that works to this day there.
Then there was the silver bust of 1893 and more recently the oil bust of the 1970s and later the dot-com and financial busts, each putting a temporary damper on the ambitions of the queen city of the plains located at the foothills of the Rockies. The ambitions were probably most visibly expressed by the plans for the nation's largest airport (in area): Denver International (DIA). But Colorado's geography, well suited for the increasingly popular active lifestyle and its distribution industries ideally positioned halfway between Chicago and LA, reinstated growth every time. 
Downtown Denver around 1925  (Denverite)
The result of Denver's urban renewal: Downtown 1976 (Denverite)

One could argue that all the buildings going up now are just beginning to make Denver a real place. Even with the infill, Denver is still far below Baltimore's population density as all western cities are. Because, or in spite of its comparably short history, the city of Denver treated its historic buildings with extraordinary disrespect. The City fell for the 1970's urban renewal and urban freeway mania with much more zealously than Baltimore. The result was that downtown looked for decades similar to that of Houston: A cluster of office high rises surrounded by block after block of surface parking lots. A cross-town interstate was successfully defeated but I-25 and I-70 still cut through the city proper.

Baltimore and Denver both built a pedestrian mall downtown to support whatever shopping remained. Baltimore's Lexington Street mall disappeared like most American ped malls but Denver's 16th Street, designed by Henry Cobb remains an attraction. Cobb worked in partnership with Ian Pei, the designer of Baltimore's World Trade Center. The mall is also the alignment for the free electric mall shuttle connecting two underground bus transit centers.

With so many new buildings, today's architecture in Denver is bolder, mostly modern, and less fixated on brick than in Baltimore. Philip Johnson, Daniel Libeskind, David Adjaye and Michael Graves designed architectural landmarks here. But even creative bold moves can become trite when repeated too often; some of what is currently en vogue will probably soon carry a time stamp just like previous decades which we now consider models of hideous architecture. 

Nostalgia is proportional to the speed of change and the one historic downtown block that survived the bulldozers, Larimer Square, is one of the city's major attractions today .
With their inverse trajectories Denver, a blue city in a red state turned the state blue and Baltimore, a blue city in a blue state couldn't prevent a red governor.
Cobb's 16th Street pedestrian Mall: Carefully designed (Denverite)
Both cities had a a good share of German immigrants and with it a history of brewing beer. Denver held on to the national beer brand Coors and also bred an exploding number of craft breweries that continue to colonize former industrial areas as spearheads of gentrification, for example in the RiNo district.

While one still ponders how much beer even the hippest town could possibly consume, a new economic power house built on "consumption" arises through the industrial scale production of pot. Whenever it smells sour and like old socks, natives explain, you are near one of those old factory buildings in which marijuana is legally grown. 

One cannot compare the two cities without talking about the huge difference in race. Denver is majority white with a population that is only 10% African American, in Baltimore over six times as many residents are black. A 1987 New York Times article wrote about the opportunities Denver presents to blacks:
Denver's black neighborhoods, east of downtown, look nothing like the poor inner-city neighborhoods of the East. There are few crumbling tenements or row houses. Instead, lawns are well-kept, trees trimmed, homes freshly painted. ''What you see,'' said one resident, ''is not a ghetto, but a struggling middle class.'
Five Points jazz festival: Gentrification
(photo: Philipsen)
Indeed, Five Points, a designated historic and cultural district, in which 90% of the African American population used to to live early in the last century, simply because they weren't allowed elsewhere, is a far less disinvested than Baltimore's Pennsylvania Avenue. It is the terminus of one of the city's light rail lines, home of the annual jazz festival and rapidly gentrifying. Unlike in Baltimore, gentrification is a real concern in Denver. It's not that the Mile High city would be overly wealthy, it's poverty rate of just below 20% puts it in a better place than  Baltimore's 23%, but the difference isn't as significant as one would imagine. The city has homesteading tax caps but began only recently with systematically addressing housing affordability. There is no inclusionary zoning law yet, but lately developers have to pay a fee that goes towards an affordable housing fund.

When it comes to crane counting, Baltimore would lose hands down and the development isn't all like a  "the wild west" gold rush. Denver's two largest development centers are well thought-out and the result of a orchestrated and inclusive planning process supported by visionary strong mayors such as Frederico Pena and John Hickenlooper and by a form-based new zoning code that puts much emphasis on TOD.

Pena's move towards the city-owned new airport DIA (by contrast, Baltimore sold its Friendship municipal airport to the State) allowed the redevelopment of the old Stapleton airport, with 4,700 acres the nations largest redevelopment (far out-sizing Port Covington), designed with a new-urbanist masterplan that includes a central park, various town centers and transit. Hickenlooper then set in motion the redevelopment of the Denver Union Station area, first by opening a brew pub there (before he became mayor), then by placing the baseball stadium there setting the stage for a massive transit oriented development.
Cranes over Denver, view from LoHi  (photo: Philipsen)

In spite of Denver's early railroad calamity at a time when Baltimore shone in the glory of the B&O, Denver soon surpassed Baltimore in the number of daily long-distance trains calling at its grand Union Station that easily beat Baltimore's Penn Station in splendor and size. But Baltimore kept its trains at Penn Station and Denver lost its importance as a passenger train hub. Today only the Amtrak Zephyr train comes to Denver while Baltimore. has dozens of trains to chose from, going either south or north. Yet, it was Denver that came up with a really ambitious plan for transit development in which it reinvented the transit that would stop here. It relocated an underground bus transit center, a light rail station, built a new Amtrak and a commuter train station and created in the process an entire new growth area of the city adjacent to its old heart. Designed for a 15 year build-out, the massive TOD has taken off so well that most projects are under construction or complete after only about five years.
TOD at Union Station in Denver (Photo: Philipsen)

It is this resolve to plan its future and stick with the plans that set Denver apart from Baltimore. After the Denver region and Baltimore completed their first light rail line, their transit pathways parted: Denver voted in 2004 for FasTrack, a ten year plan for ten additional rail lines and the associated TODs.

Many of the new lines are now in service. Airport trains are serving DIA, Stapleton and Union Station. The project was completed as a design-bid-build and operate P3 project, similar to what is planned for the Purple Line, although with a much higher local funding component and only 25% private money.

It isn't all glory in Denver's transit: The commuter train Gold line to Arvada is complete but can't open since FRA is withholding operations due to festering issues with positive train control and crossing gates.  But that is a small problem compared to Baltimore's Red Line transit project and the State Center TOD project having been taken off the table altogether.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

See also on Community Architect:

Four things to learn from Denver (2013)
Denver thriving (2011)

Train to the plane: A line station at DIA (Photo: Philipsen)
Train to the plane: Transit center and hotel at DIA  (Photo: Philipsen)

Denver Union Station: Amtrak Zephyr (left), commuter trains (right)
(Photo: Philipsen)

A new mixed use center designed by Gensler Architects is going up between Union Station and the light rail train station
Background: The suspension bridge that marked the beginning of the TOD (Photo: Philipsen)

FasTracks rail system map, current and planned

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