America’s Worst Parking Crater Could Become Denver’s Next Human-Scale Neighborhood

Imagine a compact, walkable, bikeable, transit-rich neighborhood in place of all those parking lots by the river.

Image: Google Earth Pro
Image: Google Earth Pro

Few cities can boast a blank slate like the one just across the street (and the creek) from Denver’s Lower Downtown neighborhood.

The area city planners call Central Platte Valley-Auraria is home to huge destinations: The Pepsi Center, Elitch Gardens, the Downtown Aquarium, the Children’s Museum and, eventually, Meow Wolf. But these places are islands in a sea of surface parking lots that go on for more than 59 acres. It could be so much more than car storage.

The neighborhood is engulfed by so much asphalt that Streetsblog readers across America awarded it the Golden Crater in 2017 — a trophy for the most vacuous urban blacktop in the country. The notoriety was especially deserved given the three RTD light rail stations undercut by the desert of parking.

“We kind of had our tail in between our legs,” said Steve Nalley, a neighborhood planning supervisor with Denver Community Planning and Development. “We won the championship, but it’s not something to be proud of.”

The same week Denver won the Golden Crater, the Elitch Gardens ownership group announced it would develop 1,800 parking spots, which are only used six months out of the year anyway. Nalley is leading a process to develop a plan for if and when the private parking lots — and perhaps Elitch’s itself — get developed.

The area that the city is working on a new plan for is outlined in red. Image: Denver Community Planning and Development.
The area that the city is working on a new plan for is outlined in red. Image: Denver Community Planning and Development.

That vision will become an official amendment to the city’s Downtown Area Plan. And right now that vision is a compact, walkable neighborhood on a close-knit street grid that leverages the RTD stations, the South Platte riverfront, and the Cherry Creek and Platte River bicycle and pedestrian trails.

“What we’ve heard from the community is that they want this to feel like a car-lite neighborhood,” Nalley said. “So very walkabe, bikeable, good access to transit, and not auto-oriented or dominated by the vehicle. We even heard comments from the community like, ‘This should be car-free,’ which is exciting.”

The plan, which is still in the public process phase (the third public meeting is February 22) will likely recommend skinny streets, wide sidewalks, and bike lanes, which residents have asked for. Nalley said CPD will push zoning tools like parking maximums, ground-floor uses, and density allowances to create a lively, human-scaled neighborhood.

The river should feature prominently, he said, and while tall buildings are likely (particularly around the light rail stations), planners don’t want the riverfront to feel like a canyon. The Planning Board will have to approve the document before sending it to City Council for a vote later this year.

While the 1,800 parking spots are sure to become something more useful, the redevelopment of Elitch’s itself is officially a rumor. If the amusement park’s owners relocated it, it wouldn’t be the first time. In 1995 Elitch’s opened downtown after leaving the city’s north side.

City Councilman Paul Lopez, whose district touches the plan area, grew up taking the bus there. Now he takes his daughter on the riverfront rides. “Elitch’s is one of those last and precious amenities that we have in Denver for young people and their families to be able to enjoy and do so in an affordable fashion,” Lopez said. He wants the Americana “gem” to stay because, he said, it serves a public need in a changing city.

Screen Shot 2018-02-09 at 1.40.59 PM
Vancouver is one city planners are looking at for inspiration. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Lopez also knows it’s not up to him. Whatever gets built — whether in place of the parking crater or the roller coasters — he wants to see a walkable neighborhood, with parks, that’s affordable. He said that incentivizing developers to build affordable units, for which there’s always a market, would be key.

“We don’t own it as a city, and there’s a lot that we cannot exercise, but there is a lot that we can,” Lopez said. “And in a city that is becoming unaffordable and more expensive, it is actually essential — and I would expect — that there be a high amount of affordable housing mixed in if they do housing at all.”

Michael Leccese, executive director of the Urban Land Institute of Colorado, agrees. He pointed to the mixed-income Mariposa development in La Alma, anchored by a light rail station, as an example.

“It shouldn’t be a fait accompli that the property owners can do a market rate development and demand the highest dollar for everything they turn out  there,” Leccese said. “Let’s figure out how to work with them to make it more socially complex. There are plenty of examples, carrot and stick, to do that.”

Leccese likes Elitch’s for what it is — a fun place that adds a unique touch to the skyline. But he also thinks the land, nestled in the city’s core with built-in transit and bike connections, isn’t productive enough. He’d like to see the massive swath of car storage transformed into lively, healthy places for people. As for the amusement park, he’d like to see one or two rides stay in the Central Platte Valley. But it’s housing and local businesses that make the most sense for the land.

“I personally hope there could be a hybrid where they could keep a roller coaster and some of the taller structures, even if they were just public art pieces, maybe charge $5 to ride the roller coaster along the riverfront,” Leccese said. “But personally I don’t think that an amusement park in that spot is a sustainable, enduring use.

“It’s a different era. Twenty-five years ago people weren’t moving into Denver, they were moving out of Denver. Now we need more places for people to live.”

  • TakeFive

    “Elitch’s is one of those last and precious amenities that we have in Denver for young people and their families to be able to enjoy and do so in an affordable fashion,” Lopez said. He wants the Americana “gem” to stay because, he said, it serves a public need in a changing city.

    Thank you, Sir. There’s lots of people who share your sentiment. My daughter grew up going to the original Elitch Gardens at 38th and Tennyson and even though we drove all the way from Orchard/I-25 it was the highlight of her summer and provided many precious memories.

    My guess is that Elitch Gardens could stick around for many decades. I don’t think people realize how much of a cash cow something like this can be; besides they’ve recently invested $millions in upgrades. As for the parking I don’t see that going away either; it may not be on lots but it will presumably be incorporated into any redevelopment. It’s also worth noting that the owners are retail/entertainment oriented.

    With respect to the Pepsi Center I’m skeptical that Kroenke’s have any interest in commingling sites (with Elitch’s). For the near term Stan is busy with his under construction $2 billion football stadium in Inglewood CA for the Rams and Chargers through at least 2020. I wouldn’t doubt he’d be amenable to the new street grid proposal; what development he might like is anybody’s guess.

    • I loved the original Elitch’s and Lakeside, too, for that matter. Pure Americana.

    • Little Big City

      You certainly think highly of Kroenke. I think he would be happy to get top dollar for /any/ development going on, especially if what surrounds his sports complex supports the teams. The only thing he might want is a newer Pepsi Center and all of the tax breaks and public funding that would surely go with it. But I have to remind you that keeping these sports teams here is a large part of the plan.

      Let’s face it, although I too grew up going to Elitches, it is no longer affordable for average families. Personally, I would like to see the amusement park moved to the Rockies parking lots (with additional parking garages for all those commuters, sure), but the truth is all of this area has massive value/potential for the city, especially with the number of transplants (they can fight over existing housing/upzone all existing neighborhoods, or start from scratch to displace no-one and house thousands). Not to mention how connected the site is to transit.

      The amusement park was always going to be temporary until the value increased enough for larger-scale environmental remediation to be feasible. In fact, creating a sports district surrounding the Pepsi Center and Mile High is one way to increase the value of the sports teams. Look at Opening Day for the Rockies in LoDo, it is a party that has little to do with baseball. My only worry is that city officials will not be bold enough in requiring the maximum uses. I would like to see the observation tower and Twister 2 stay as they are beautiful additions to the skyline (maybe even a bigger Ferris wheel), but I’m not holding out for that.

      • TakeFive

        You’re off on a few things. Attendance at Elitches is decidedly not an upper crust crowd; it’s highly diverse. Season tickets are a great deal for those that live in nearby neighborhoods.

        With respect to Elitch Gardens Revesco Properties arranged for the purchase and brought Kroenke in as an investor. What their long-term vision might be I couldn’t say with any certainty. So far they’ve only expressed interest in redeveloping the parking lots. That accomplishment is at least ten years out so there’s no hurry here.

        With respect to the Pepsi Center it’s a private facility owned by Kroenke but the parcel of land underneath is owned by the city. It was the city’s way of ensuring the Nuggets were committed to Denver for 25 years. After the land lease expires Kroenke has the option to by the land for one American dollar. If Kroenke wants a new arena it will be on him which is the way he operates anyway. His new $2 billion football stadium is also his private development (along with partners). No real need for a new arena though; the bulk of NBA revenue comes by way of tee vee contracts, not attendance. Team merchandise is also a thing.

  • This is a great article and I would love to see these kind of parking craters reduced in the name of more walkable, human-scale development.

    FWIW, the Urban Land Institute is based in Washington, D.C. https://colorado.uli.org/about-us/meet-our-staff/

  • Anthony

    I like something as unique as Elitch’s along the light rail line, it’s the parking that drives me crazy. The light rail lines would likely be better served for employment, whereas the northern and eastern lots would be fantastic for residential with ground floor retail. The southern lots might be suitable for student housing just because the public transport grid is so messed up, but being in between east and west auraria stations could actually be beneficial for workforce housing if it could get permitted somehow.

    Having a transfer of development rights to build taller on the Kronke lots in exchange for three access points to the SPR trail would be amazing and could end up with a new tallest in Denver. Speer-> Cherry Creek and Colfax HCT lines would improve the area and extend its influence (add a Broadway HCT and you’re in business for Golden Triangle too).

    No joke, I seriously think this part of town plus Golden Triangle is why Denver will be HQ2 for Amazon. The only thing standing in its way is if Amazon insists on an East Coast time zone locale.

    • TakeFive

      Auraria, formerly referred to as the Auraria Higher Education Center (AHEC) controls the land south of Auraria Pkwy. In 2012 they did a comprehensive revision of their masterplan: https://www.ahec.edu/files/general/2012_Master_Plan_Update.pdf They have followed that up with updates and an Implementation plans. https://www.ahec.edu/about-auraria-campus/campus-planning/master-plan-implementation-plan/ Quite a lot has already been accomplished but funding availability determines the pace.

      It’s interesting to compare primary higher education options between Denver and Phoenix where ASU likes to plant their flag all over the place. Only GCU’s explosive growth provides much of an alternative. I am impressed with the Maricopa county community college system in Phoenix. Denver higher education options include DU, the highly regarded Colorado School of Mines in addition to the community college system and AHEC. Auraria is an interesting education destination that has grown to over 42,000 students.

  • Joe R.

    When I see pictures of American cities with lots of parking craters, I can’t help but think of the resemblance to bombed-out cities after WWII. It’s time cities developed these parking lots into something better.

    • Cup_of_STFU

      Yes! We must unnecessarily fill up any unused spaces, much like cockroaches would, in order to make sure there is no open space left.

      • TakeFive

        lol, Interesting that most comments are reflexive talking points from people who know little of Denver.

        Denver is very unique in having all major sports franchises either in downtown (MLB), on the edge of downtown in this case (NBA and Hockey) or a 10 minute walk from downtown to the football stadium; soccer is a mere ten minute drive. Denver is notably an outdoors and sports town kind of place.

        The Pepsi Center site plus the Nuggets and Avalanche are easily worth over $2 billion with a lot of upside to go. The millions of professional sports fans including children who love their team as well as Elitch Gardens likely don’t share (or even understand) the urban obsession of a few. Doesn’t mean development can’t happen but if the land is ‘valuable’ today then it will be even more valuable three decades from now.

        • LOL. I know Denver. Lived there for over 20 years on and off. Still visit frequently. The most unique thing about Denver is how special residents think they are. I can think of three disparate cities off the top of my head that have all of their sports stadiums downtown and this is without really even trying. Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis all fit the bill. There’s nothing unique or special about Denver. What was once a relatively attractive mid sized city has become a vapid, empty place populated by transplants who couldn’t cut it back home.

          • TakeFive

            Nice effort; Minneapolis is very comparable. Pittsburgh is a storied sports town; how can you not love/respect the Rooney’s. They don’t however have an NBA team. Indianapolis only has two of the top four professional sports teams. Interestingly, all are small or mid-sized markets.

            With respect to your other points, I’ll neither agree or disagree. Currently living in Phoenix I’m not a total, myopic homer.

      • Joe R.

        No, you don’t have to fill every space with buildings but why not parks or community gardens instead of parking lots?

        • Ian Wheat

          Why not replace a wasteland of parking with park space and tall, mixed use, mixed income apartments and condos full of people to enjoy those new parks and a great part of the city with light rail and the river parks, bike paths right next door?

          • Joe R.

            That works, too. Anything but parking lots. Parking lots just destroy the urban fabric and create huge dead zones.

  • Bernard Finucane

    It’s good to see they understand the value of the river. If you want to create beautiful public space without spending a lot of money, put it next to a reasonably clean body of water. People love being near water. A lot of American cities seem almost ashamed that water flows through them.

  • Thomas Meixner

    ONe wild card factor here is that this area is somewhat susceptible to flooding. Expansion or park areas along the river would be a good strategy to make the area more livable and prepare for a flood that inevitably will be bigger than the one currently planned for.

    • TakeFive

      Great point. It’s also worth noting that the land has only had the remedial “brown field” improvements necessary to accommodate the current uses.

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