Opinion: Denver Paved Over Paradise and Put up a Parking Lot

A parking lot across the street from Union Station, Denver's transit hub. Photo: David Sachs
A parking lot across the street from Union Station, Denver's transit hub. Photo: David Sachs

Alana Miller, a policy analyst at the Frontier Group, wrote this guest commentary.

Denver is one of the nation’s fastest growing cities. People are drawn here from around the country by the quality of life, proximity to the mountains and 300 days of sunshine a year. 

The influx to Colorado is nothing new. But it raises a difficult question: If hundreds of thousands of people flock to a place because of its access to nature, how do you preserve the natural beauty that brought them there in the first place?

Pullquote: Denver’s disappearing green spaces are not “because of a growing population of people. It’s because of a growing population of cars.” —Alana Miller, Frontier GroupA recent Denver Post series raised some of these questions, arguing that development in Denver has paved over green space so that “nearly half the land in Denver’s city limits is now paved or built over,” (excluding undeveloped land around the airport). As one article notes, replacing green space with pavement increases runoff, since stormwater cannot filter into the ground and instead flows directly into local rivers and ponds, bringing pollutants with it and increasing the risk of flooding.

The article posits that “Denver’s elected leaders and developers over the past 20 years drove this shift toward high-rise towers, yard-devouring duplexes and shopping plazas,” replacing green space with “an increasingly dense format that has enabled population growth.”

There’s something important missing in the Post’s account of Denver’s growth, however. The city’s pavement problem isn’t because of a growing population of people. It’s because of a growing population of cars.

The primary threat to green space in and around Denver is not skyscrapers going up in downtown or apartments constructed to accommodate new people. It’s the roads, driveways and – perhaps most egregiously – the parking lots we’ve built to accommodate more cars.

chart: parking lots pave over Denver's green space
Data from Denver Regional Council of Governments, via the Denver Post.

Of the 37,800 acres of land in Denver that is impervious (covered in pavement or buildings), 60 percent is infrastructure to support cars, according to data presented by the Post. Space just for parking cars accounts for nearly a quarter of all of Denver’s paved areas. (The city’s parking lots have even earned notoriety nationally, “winning” Streetsblog USA’s annual Parking Madness Tournament in 2017 for the vast expanse of parking surrounding Pepsi Center in downtown.) To put all that parking pavement in perspective, here is a visualization of the land we’ve devoted to parking in downtown Denver.

Land devoted to parking in downtown Denver, as of 2016.
Land devoted to parking in downtown Denver, as of 2016. Map: Ryan Keeney, Denver Infill Blog.

Many recent new developments downtown have been built on areas that were already paved. Parking lots and low-density industrial lots have been turned into apartments and condos, offering easy access to regional rail, the free buses running on 16th, 18th and 19th streets, as well as other bus and light rail service throughout the city. New bike lanes, along with shared bikes and scooters, offer even more non-vehicular options for people living in or near downtown. And amenities such as the downtown King Soopers and new Whole Foods, as well as the compact Target on 16th Street Mall mean that more people can meet their daily needs without using a car. For people who choose to own a car, much of the new parking is located underground, freeing up ground-level space.

Increasing the number of people in Denver who don’t need to use a car for every trip means reducing the pressure to build car-oriented developments farther out that create vast demand for roads, parking lots and pavement. 

Auto-dependent sprawl requires residents to drive long distances to live their daily lives and perpetuates the allocation of paved space to cars in the form of new and expanded roads and parking lots. Consider the development of Green Valley Ranch, within Denver’s limits, which looks “greener” than downtown. But while it may boast more natural space and less impervious surface area than downtown, it paved over agricultural land (rather than already-developed city land) and required new roads. It also lacks amenities such as grocery stores, which forces residents to drive miles to Stapleton or Aurora, and park their cars in massive parking lots while they shop, to meet their daily needs.

An overhead image of Green Valley Ranch.
An overhead image of Green Valley Ranch. Image: Google Maps.

For decades, developments like Green Valley Ranch have been the norm in the Denver metro region. And the loss of natural land to sprawl in the broader Denver region far exceeds the amount of open space lost within Denver itself.

Between 2001 and 2011, according to data from the Center for American Progress, Denver County lost 42 acres of land for every 1,000 new residents it added. However, to the north, Adams County lost more than doubled the amount of natural area to accommodate the same number of people – 92 acres per 1,000 new residents, while Douglas County, to the south, lost nearly 140 acres per 1,000 people, three times Denver’s rate. In Jefferson County, the gateway to the Rocky Mountains, every 1,000 new residents consumed 470 acres – ten times more than in Denver. It may seem counterintuitive, but adding more population density in the city of Denver, as opposed to continuing suburban sprawl, can help save our green space.

Favoring sprawl over density consumes more land and makes it harder for us to reach our climate goals. Nearly 70 percent of people working in Denver drive solo to work. In 2017, Denver’s mayor set ambitious goals to reduce that to 50 percent by 2030, while doubling the number of people taking transit, biking and walking. It will be hard, if not impossible, to meet these goals without enabling people to live closer to work and amenities, as well as reallocating some of our abundant road space to transit, bikes and pedestrians.

When it comes to accommodating new arrivals to Colorado, “high-rise towers, yard-devouring duplexes and shopping plazas” are not all built alike. Repurposing under-utilized asphalt in surface parking lots downtown in favor of apartments, offices, stores and amenities helps accommodate the Denver region’s population growth while preserving green space that could otherwise be bulldozed in favor of sprawling development on the city’s fringes and in nearby towns.

People are moving to Denver, whether you embrace our new neighbors or long for how things used to be. Importantly, this provides us with an opportunity to think about the type of city we’re building for the future. Access to green space in cities is critical and Denver would do well to expand and improve parkland, as it has along the Platte River. As we build, we should make sure every new development reduces runoff by using green infrastructure. But ultimately, the environment will be best served by encouraging people to live closer together and closer to the things they need, rather than forcing them to live far away. Compact development in Denver, done thoughtfully, can help make that a reality.

  • TM

    Absolutely! We have plenty of room for housing in already developed areas (or parking lots), and we can turn our streets into very park-like spaces with wide sidewalks and trees instead of nothing but cars.

  • TakeFive

    I don’t think most people feel forced to live far away. Most families choose to live in suburbs based on the schools. Plus, people (and their children) who live in the suburbs or even rural areas tend to be happier than those who live in the city center.

    That said, I love the densification of downtown Denver; it’s exciting. Different strokes.

    • TakeFive

      Props for Big Yellow Taxi.

    • I was born in 1957 and raised in suburban Detroit. My dad was born in suburban Boston in 1929. I never lived in the city except for 2 & 1/2 years in my 20s in one of Cleveland’s inner-city neighborhoods that was early in the gentrification process then, the Tremont neighborhood, back when I was attending Cleveland State University for undergrad urban planning. Boulder’s planner Dale Case was a grad student there when I was an undergrad.

      It was a crazy time of life for my first wife and I. While we enjoyed the mid-late 1980s new music and bar scene then two different cars I owned got stolen, another was broken into and had its car stereo ripped out of the dash, the house we rented was broken into, my wife or I got rear-ended 5 times and sideswiped twice by drunk or drugged drivers, and we survived countless bar brawls and put up with a fair amount of late-night drunken gunfire and plenty of air pollution from one of the largest steel mills in America that was just a mile away too. Our experience with city living there at that time has contributed to living back in the suburbs since then.

      I lived in Denver at one time back in 1982-83 when I first moved to Denver but we lived in Montbello at that time. That is where I lived for the Great Blizzard in 1982, at 14317 Olmsted on the corner of Pensacola, right off Maxwell, sharing that house with a half-dozen friends. Back then there was nothing east of Chambers but farmland and Buckley AFB. Late in the summer of 1983 we split up and I moved to Arvada and then Avon for a couple years.

      I have never lived in the city before or since, it has always been in a suburb, as that just seems to be the default condition for my 2nd wife and I. She was born and raised in suburban Westchester County, NY. Coming down to the city has been fun plenty of times, in-fact my wife works for Denver Health, but we still have our youngest son at-home too, with his girlfriend now, and he works in Longmont and she works in Boulder, so where we live is pretty much perfect. Between my wife and I we earn 6 figures and yet to live in any of the gentrified neighborhoods near downtown it would involve a big cut in our lifestyle. My wife isn’t comfortable walking around the inner-city by herself either.

      To each his own I guess. I have been doing some looking at retirement real estate both here and in other places. There are some nice golf course homes in Mesquite, NV or St; George, UT but who would want to live there in the summer when it is 110 degrees out every day and dry as a bone? Maybe up in Loveland or even up in Gilpin County where real estate is a bit less.

      Just yesterday I saw that plenty of new brick homes are getting built in the $150K to $200K range in Amarillo but who would want to live there. That would be like living in Wichita waiting for the tornado sirens to go off. Where we live now, Broomfield, has high-quality senior services but home prices and the cost of living here is out of control and likely not sustainable for the average retiree.

      You are right, the last decade near downtown has been pretty exciting from an urban planning success standpoint and has made plenty of developers rich, but with both RTD and CDOT on the rocks financially, with lots of demand as well as maintenance they have no funding to serve or undertake I am worried where we are heading. We also have some big water supply growth-related questions that will be negatively-affected by ongoing temperature rise but at-least this winter snowpack is running a bit above normal to our west,

      Things could be a whole lot worse, that’s for sure, Perhaps if we can inject enough treated wastewater into the Denver Basin Aquifer to mix with what little remains maybe there will be enough water left to supply urban needs for a few decades as long as the temperature doesn’t rise too much both here and we can manage to limit population growth beyond a certain point.

      I still can’t figure out how we are going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 or 80% by 2035 or 2040 without causing another Great Depression as 75% of the housing value in America or about $50 trillion is completely-dependent on having cars to drive and receiving service and supply by truck. What will happen to all the mortgage lenders holding all that debt if those properties lose considerable value?

      Did you get to read the recent annual letter from Bill Gates and his wife? Their bit on climate change and the unlikelihood of being able to rapidly reduce carbon and carbon-equivalent emissions was downright gloomy, Basically by 2035 or so the only carbon budget remaining will have to be used on producing a food supply 50% lighter in meat, fish, and dairy products that today and on fixing some water supply sustainability issues.

      It is hard to believe how immense the amount of change has been just in my lifetime or even just in the last decade, and how increasingly hopeless the future looks too. In some respects it is great that Denver has managed to grow to the size it has and add all the real estate value in the city but this kind of growth isn’t sustainable and there is growing opposition locally to it too. This piece on the opposition to continuing gentrification in Denver was just in the Post a couple days ago. If and when growth here stops watch out for falling house and property prices as well as falling business values too.

      “We suck in Denver, huh?” Here’s how development is shaping the mayor’s race in 2019: Michael Hancock’s main challengers have promised new approaches to the city’s “unsustainable path of growth and development”, Andrew Kenney, Denver Post, Feb 22, 2019:

      https://www.denverpost.com/2019/02/22/denver-development-mayors-race/

      So what do you see for our future my man? How much more growth can occur before almost nobody will be able to afford to buy a house here, and how much more growth can occur here before we all have to accept some serious cuts in our rate of water use or commuting distance? What’s new in transportation planning locally besides the Colfax BRT bus or the fact that Uber and Lyft are stealing public transit ridership?

      Where do you see the current morass at both RTD and CDOT heading? RTD ridership is falling off and they are going to be facing some major maintenance issues with the Santa Fe light rail line within the next few years as their bus fleet keeps getting older and older, now averaging 14 years of age. If it gets any worse at CDOT bridges will start falling down that’s how far behind they are. Another 20 years of this and our traffic will be worse than Boston’s.

      At least where we live we can ride a golf cart or even a bicycle up to King Soopers, the Orchard Town Center, the Larkridge shopping center, to lots of local bars and restaurants here despite single-use zoning, and I can even grow my own fruit and vegetables if worst comes to worst. Now I just need a home battery to go with the 4800 watts of solar panels on our roof, and some land in the mountains off the beaten path to park our travel trailer on.

      • TakeFive

        The blizzard of ’82 I do remember.

        It took me a couple of years to adjust to the desert climate in Phoenix; Temps up to 105 are fine; as it climbs above 110 I like it less. But there’s 8 months of nice weather which I do enjoy. The cost of living is lower but there’s such great diversity that you can find what you like.

        Lots of diversity down here; interestingly I’d rather live among immigrant families whether Hispanic or eastern European (where my son lives) as they’re hard workers, are fun-loving people and have strong family units. I’ll take that over living among the drug-addicted in urban neighborhoods.

        With respect to climate I would have no clue; I do wonder about the less predictable impacts from El Nino – La Nina synergies in the future.

  • The car-haters are out again. How do you car-haters expect the 71% of Metro-Denver residents to get to work who have no access to public transit? Walk? Remember that RTD flat out lied to voters in 2004 about Fastracks too.

    Say, when will the Northwest Line be built? It should have been already done by now. How about the North Line extension to 164th Ave that should have been built by last year, as well as the BRT bus on Hwy 7 from Boulder to Brighton that was supposed to connect to the North Line extension at 164th Ave?

    Why does anyone in Metro-Denver feel that north metro residents should keep paying RTD taxes when all we get are lies and broken promises? How do 90% of north metro get to downtown? They drive. Do you know why? Because FasTracks isn’t built yet, and bus service that was promised in 2002 isn’t operating yet either. Now we can’t get either until 2042 at the earliest because RTD is almost bankrupt.

    You know my wife and I live in a nice high-quality suburb in neighborhood of single-family homes on average 8000 square foot lots, with duplexes, and even some condos and apartments, that stretch on for as far as you can see, and there isn’t a bus within 4 miles of our house despite the fact that we live half as far from downtown as Castle Rock, which has bus service to downtown.

    One nice thing about living here is that it is 20 miles to downtown Denver, 15 miles to downtown Boulder, 15 miles to Longmont, and just 30 minutes to curbside at DIA via the E-470 toll road. What more could you want?

    We have modern roads with bike lanes that hardly anyone uses, sidewalks sometimes detached 40 feet from roads, plenty of nice shopping opportunity, several really high-quality rec centers, the largest King Soopers in the State, plus the largest Walmart in the State, plus Costco, Super Target, and a whole bunch of decent restaurants, bars, microbreweries, that cost half what decent restaurants, bars, and microbreweries cost downtown. The only thing we don’t have is our long-promised public transit that we have paid extra for since 2005.

    I have a better, healthier, far less-stressful, and far more-sustainable solution. Just quit coming downtown. Stay home, work in the suburbs where living costs are half what they are downtown. Keep driving cars as that is how 90% of us get to work up here now. Maybe switch to EVs and hybrids when they become available, and quit paying RTD for long-promised service that they will most-likely never provide.

    The crazy thing is that we north metro residents could quit paying RTD for FasTracks, which would bankrupt RTD, save that money for use ourselves, start our own public transit provider, and have our own rail mass transit service up and running at-least a decade before RTD’s latest promise which is entirely contingent on not seeing another recession for the next 23 years, but how would you car-haters get around down there in fantasyland without RTD?

  • Why do car-haters always have to lie? Case in-point:

    [Quote] Auto-dependent sprawl requires residents to drive long distances to live their daily lives and perpetuates the allocation of paved space to cars in the form of new and expanded roads and parking lots.

    Consider the development of Green Valley Ranch, within Denver’s limits, which looks “greener” than downtown. But while it may boast more natural space and less impervious surface area than downtown, it paved over agricultural land (rather than already-developed city land) and required new roads. [End quote]

    Frankly, every neighborhood outside downtown Denver paved over farmland at one time and downtown Denver even paved over farmland at one time too. Both Willis Case and Overland golf courses used to be farmland as did the land that Sloans Lake sits on now too. The Berkeley neighborhood used to be farmland, and so was Park Hill. The land the Stapleton and Lowry neighborhoods sit on used to be farmland just 75 years ago. The land along Washington north of 58th Ave was still farmland back in the 1980s. DU used to have lots of farmland around it too. Your distaste for ever building anything on farmland would result in nothing ever getting built. Perhaps what you really dislike is cities?

    [Quote] (Green Valley Ranch) also lacks amenities such as grocery stores, which forces residents to drive miles to Stapleton or Aurora, and park their cars in massive parking lots while they shop, to meet their daily needs??? [End quote]

    Why lie? You didn’t think that anyone knew any differently? What about this grocery store? King Soopers, 18605 Green Valley Ranch Blvd. Denver, CO 80249.

    https://www.kingsoopers.com/stores/details/620/00083

    There is a Walmart Supercenter just a mile down the street too.

    Who says that residents of Green Valley Ranch have to drive downtown just to work when there are at-least as many jobs within 5 miles of there? Heck, they can even ride their bike or walk to restaurants, bars, and microbreweries that cost half what restaurants, bars, and microbreweries cost near downtown. They can work at DIA and even take the train there from Green Valley Ranch too.

    Frankly all this divisiveness and hatred of suburban residents is going to end up badly as suburban Metro-Denver residents outnumber central city Denver residents 5-1 and if too many of us suburban residents get the feeling that we aren’t wanted downtown maybe we will quit coming there to spend our money, and then where will you be? Trying to sell your overpriced townhouse in the city for half what you paid for it along with everyone else? Don’t laugh as I have already seen it happen lots of times in lots of cities.

    Here is a nice house in Green Valley Ranch that costs less than half of what one of those new quad units crammed onto a single-family lot costs near Sloans Lake or Willis Case golf course. Just think, you could buy this house and have plenty of money left over to buy a car, and a beachfront condo in Cancun too. But who would want to hang-out on the beach in Cancun when they can hangout on the beach at Sloans Lake with all the other bike riders when it is 10 below zero?

    https://www.zillow.com/homes/new_homes/Gateway-.dash.-Green-Valley-Ranch-Denver-CO/2092685591_zpid/273809_rid/globalrelevanceex_sort/39.818886,-104.706831,39.748707,-104.837294_rect/12_zm/0_mmm/

    Who says that there are no bars, restaurants, or other services in Green Valley Ranch and you have to drive all the way to Denver just to eat, work, and buy groceries? How about doing some more internet research next time before writing a piece full of false assumptions? You know something else unusual about the residents of Green Valley Ranch? They pay their property taxes to support Denver schools.

    https://www.gvrbeergarden.com/

    https://coloradopubco.com/

    In-fact there are a couple dozen stores and restaurants within 2 miles of every house in Green Valley Ranch, plus a station on the A line, plus a bunch more stores and restaurants on East 40th east of Chambers, including a Ted’s Montana Grill that I ate dinner at once a decade ago.

    I recommend that if you are going to write stories like this that you get out there and do some in-person research first, maybe do some driving around in-order to get the feel of the place before writing utter falsehoods about it.

    • TakeFive

      Mark… Long time; I always enjoy your immense knowledge of Denver history and the metro area.

      When it comes to political agendas, whether right or left, they never let facts get in the way of good ‘talking points.’

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