Antiquated to Elevated: Reclaiming Colfax

This is part five of the Streetsblog Denver series covering the Elevate Denver General Obligation bond. Every Tuesday, we’ll dissect biking, walking, and transit upgrades across the city. We’ll explore the planning aspects behind key projects in addition to considering how these changes will affect the lives of people in the communities where they are located. Read parts one, two, three, and four

Every great city has a main street perfect for meandering on foot, places where on any given night of the week you might find the best local bites, bars spilling out onto sidewalks, and people milling about under the neon lights. Under the pale streetlamps is the festival called life. New York has Broadway, Chicago has Michigan Avenue, New Orleans has Bourbon Street, and Denver has Colfax. The main difference with Colfax is that, while it features the components of its famous counterparts across the country, all the fun to be had is cramped onto dark sidewalks and drowned out by people traveling well over the speed limit in their vehicles. Colfax can be one of the loudest and most unpleasant places to walk in town. With an estimated $20 million from the Elevate Denver General Obligation bond dedicated to Colfax, the City and residents hope to transform some of the most dangerous intersections inside four different Business Improvement Districts (BID) to help give back our main street to the people by adding new crosswalks, protective curbs, street furniture, and pedestrian lighting. 

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From left to right: West Colfax BID, Colfax BID, Bluebird BID, and Colfax-Mayfair BID.

As a result of relatively wide lanes and limited pedestrian crossings, Colfax attracts drivers as one of the City’s main thoroughfares. The ease that comes with traveling Colfax for drivers also equals speed, making this busy street incredibly dangerous for pedestrians. Jill Locantore, Executive Director of the Denver Streets Partnership*, says in an interview that the Colfax’s deadly reputation stems from three main problems: speed, the lack of safe crossings, and the minimal space that pedestrians currently have on the avenue. When traveling on foot, merely crossing the street to reach your destination can be a feat of its own. “As a pedestrian, you are exposed to a lot of danger when crossing from one side to the other. Designated crossings are so few and far between.” 

Elevate Denver bond money will be used to build human-centered infrastructure on these pedestrian-heavy sections of Colfax, including new medians, curb extensions and crosswalks. On parts of the street where the nearest crosswalks are blocks away, the Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure (DOTI) will construct new ones, slowing down street traffic and making the road safer for pedestrians, transit users, and drivers alike. Furthermore, to improve the street experience for those out and about, the City plans to add more trees, furniture, and enhanced lighting inside these business improvement districts. 

Residents and business owners also foresee these projects contributing to making Colfax a true main street, filled with neighborhood-oriented businesses, heavy foot traffic, and googly-eyed tourists just taking it all in. In a city where planning efforts have historically catered to the automobile, these updates present an opportunity to take back space for people. “Transforming these streets isn’t just about how we can move as many people as efficiently as possible,” states Locantore. “It’s about fulfilling a vision for our city as not just a series of connected highways, but rather a liveable city where our public spaces are centered around people.” 

In the Colfax-Mayfair BID, which spans from Monaco to Eudora, these pedestrian improvements could be the difference between life and death for many businesses. “Lacking these sorts of streetscape and pedestrian safety improvements, Colfax will continue to struggle to attract strong community-serving businesses,” comments Hilarie Portell, the Executive Director of the Colfax-Mayfair BID, in an interview with Streetsblog. Especially with the ongoing pandemic, local businesses along Colfax are struggling, and the fact it is an unsafe and uncomfortable place to walk is only furthering the damage. “During the Great Recession, we lost a lot of local businesses. My concern is that the same things will unfold again if we don’t fundamentally change the nature of this street.” 

In this district in particular, most of the construction and new additions since 2008 have been large, multinational chain stores and drive-thrus, according to Portell. In order to save the cafes, bars and boutiques that give Colfax its flair, we need to make it a more attractive place for people to actually spend time.

Though businesses continue to suffer on a Colfax built for cars, relief could very well be a long way off. In 2019, the City decided to package these pedestrian improvements on Colfax with the highly-anticipated Bus Rapid Transit system that is also partially funded by the Elevate Denver bond. However, the City is seeking additional federal funding for the massive BRT investment. According to the City, the reasoning behind this decision is to reduce the amount of time that Colfax is under construction and to frame this project as more than just BRT; increasing the scope of the project increases the likelihood to receive federal funds. However, this delay will continue to hurt residents and businesses. Given that the BRT project is expected to begin its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process at the end of this year, the timeline for project completion is anticipated to be 5-8 years away. Can our beloved Colfax haunts last that long? 

In the meantime, advocates and businesses are hoping to see some pedestrian improvements manifest before the BRT. Since the West Colfax upgrades from Irving to Sheridan are not tied to the BRT project, these improvements have at least moved into their design phase. Depending on when their bond funds are issued, these upgrades are still at least another year out. Until Colfax becomes a safer place to walk or roll, Denver residents will continue to feel unsafe and avoid its most iconic thoroughfare, to the detriment of hundreds of local businesses. 

“Here we are in an economic crisis without any public improvements on the horizon, and it’s very discouraging,” says Portell. But, she added, “With these bond projects, we could bring our oldest main street back to life.” 


* Streetsblog Denver is published by Bicycle Colorado and Denver Streets Partnership

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