Gentrification comes to Denver

With the right policies, the city can be desirable and affordable.


Anyone who remembers the Denver, Colorado of the 1980s can’t help but be blown away by the changes that have occurred in the three decades since. Back then, East Colfax was notorious statewide for its seediness, and sociology professors sent students to lower downtown, now known as LoDo — in threes for safety — to see blight and homelessness first-hand.

Today, LoDo is one of the most happening neighborhoods in the nation, a place where historic buildings that avoided the post-World War II bulldozers stand cheek to jowl with gleaming new mid-rise apartment and office buildings. There’s an urban bustle here not felt since back in the glory days of the late 19th Century, Denver is one of the hottest destinations for young educated folks, and even East Colfax is hip, if in a shabby-chic sort of way. It’s pretty great, if you can afford to live there. Many people can’t.

Denver's skyline, circa 1965. Much of what is shown was demolished and converted to parking lots as part of a massive urban renewal project in the late 1960s. Today, the buildings that survived, and those that later replaced the parking lots, make up some of Denver's most desirable areas.

Gentrification, for better and for worse, has arrived in this once-modest mining, cattle and energy boom-and-bust town. Property values and rents have increased faster than wages, putting the new downtown apartments and the existing housing stock out of reach of the working class. And that, Mayor Michael Hancock said on the radio show Colorado Matters, is threatening the city’s very identity. “The vibrancy of this city is to have a diversity of residents,” Hancock told Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner. “We don’t want to ever be known as a city of just those who have.”

This didn’t happen by accident. It’s the result of decades of effort on the part of local government to reverse the impacts of post-World War II growth patterns, i.e. suburbanization and sprawl, which were also driven by local and federal government policies. As the population fled to brand new suburbs in the 50s and 60s, downtown, once a cluster of mixed-use, walkable and livable neighborhoods serviced by 200 miles of streetcar lines, lost its mojo. In hopes of getting it back, the city embarked on the Urban Skyline Renewal Project in 1967, demolishing more than two-dozen square blocks of buildings, many of them elegant mid-rise brick or stone structures built in the late 19th Century. By the early 1980s, most of the blocks were covered with parking lots (check out these awesome and heartbreaking before, during and after photos).

After the big energy bust of the 1980s, though, local leaders recognized that a city needed an identity, character and urban life in order to remain relevant. So they stopped the wrecking balls from going into the remaining historic neighborhoods, they incentivized economic development in the downtown, subsidized art and culture, and built transit to get people out of their cars and provide a catalyst for development of walkable neighborhoods. By the time the recession settled in, Denver’s revitalization was well on its way. Rather than dim it, the economic downturn gave the efforts a boost: It diminished the American Dream of home ownership, one of the drivers of suburban sprawl, and drove home the fact that living way out in the “affordable” fringes wasn’t affordable after all, thanks to the high cost of the mind-numbing commute. Ditching the car, at least most of the time, and renting a nice apartment within walking distance to amenities started to sound pretty good.

The efforts paid off, and Denver is now one of the most vibrant cities in America. That it’s also becoming out of reach for everyone but the “have-a-lots” shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, when we revitalize a place, we’re trying to increase its value, or gentrify it. But we’re also trying to retain or inject new vitality into the place, and diversity is a critical ingredient of vitality. Yet gentrification erases diversity. It’s a quandary in which many a community has found itself, and few have figured out how to solve.

It’s tempting to simply throw up one’s arms and let the market figure it out. Developers will respond to demand by building more housing, which will then lower prices, right? Great in theory, but it rarely works that way, since developers are building new housing not in response to demand, but in response to high prices — more than 25,000 housing units have been built near Denver’s light rail lines in the last 15 years, and housing prices have just kept going up. Denver doesn’t just need more housing, it needs more affordable housing, and the free market has no incentive to provide it. Perhaps there will simply be a demographic reshuffling; folks who are displaced by gentrification can move out to the suburbs and commute into the city via the new light rail. Except that the light rail stations, even in the fringe, push up real estate values, leaving those areas unaffordable, as well.

No, the free market won’t solve the problem. Government policies helped create the crisis, so they’ve got to help alleviate it, too. To its credit, Denver tried to be proactive by passing an inclusionary housing ordinance in 2002 that requires developers building complexes of 30 units or more to make 10 percent of them affordable to those in the “moderate income” bracket. It proved inadequate, so this summer the city tweaked it. Non-profits, in partnership with government, are attacking the problem, too. The Urban Land Conservancy helped set up the Transit-Oriented Development Fund to acquire land and properties to create or preserve 1,000 units of affordable housing along light rail corridors. These efforts are helpful, but probably not enough. One-thousand units of affordable housing, plus the amount required of new developments by the city, is but a mere drop in the downtown housing bucket.

For some cities, such as San Francisco, it's probably too late to mitigate gentrification's impacts. But Denver’s still in the process of reinventing itself, and therefore still has a chance to shape its future. Take Sun Valley, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the entire state. It's just a stone's throw from downtown, and home to one of the newest stations on the light rail. The fear of gentrification, and of the current residents being displaced by modern loft apartments and shi shi coffee joints, is very real.

But it's not the only possibility. The city, community organizers and the local housing authority are very deliberately planning for an alternative future for Sun Valley, in which the neighborhood is made more desirable to newcomers but also more liveable -- and still affordable -- to the current residents. It won't be easy. As Denver Post columnist Tina Griego pointed out back in 2010, "It will take vision and resources. It will take political will."

Indeed, it will. But if Denver could successfully re-weave huge swaths of the urban tapestry, transforming them from quasi-industrial wastelands or parking lots into vibrant, desirable neighborhoods, then surely it can do this.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News.

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