The increasingly traffic-plagued city of Denver painted a picture this summer of what could be the future of urban planning and connectivity – and cars were left off the drawing board.
Denver took a bustling downtown thoroughfare, 21st Street, and converted the block between Larimer and Lawrence streets into a pop-up park, dubbed The Square on 21st. From June 15 through Aug. 15, more than 15,000 people visited the park for cultural events, food trucks, lawn games, an off-leash dog park and more. Not a single car was invited to join the fun.
The project encouraged Denverites to discuss how downtown public spaces should look and feel. Meanwhile, local officials, nongovernmental organizations and business groups designed the pop-up park as the pilot for a much more ambitious, citywide re-envisioning of “how the public right-of-way is used in Downtown Denver,” according to the Downtown Denver Partnership (DDP), the broader project’s lead partner.
The 5280 Loop is envisioned as a 5.28-mile trail around downtown Denver, connecting neighborhoods with various new features like lighting fixtures and bike lanes.
“The overall goal is to provide opportunity for our growing neighborhoods and districts to showcase their identities, so that if you get on the loop, you can see many areas of Denver,” said Adam Perkins, DDP’s senior urban planning manager.
Not every segment would look like The Square on 21st, but the pop-up park offers a look at how the other segments would be designed.
“You look at Arapahoe Square, for example,” said Perkins, referring to the neighborhood surrounding The Square on 21st. “There’s a lot of parking lots in the area, and it’s sort of in transition, with more people moving there. The Loop is an opportunity to look at 21st Street as a festival street, a place where that community can gather, meet their neighbors, and socialize. It’s important because a number of those new units coming in that area are mostly studio and one-bedroom apartments without any community living space.”
A neighborhood that already has a lot of community living spaces, like La Alma/Lincoln Park, would look somewhat different under the flexible 5280 Loop plan. It would likely have more of an emphasis on connectivity, linking the neighborhood to the nearby Art District on Santa Fe, according to Perkins.
“Also, the priority on the Loop is the bicycle and the pedestrian,” he said. “If cars are on the Loop, they will be seen as guests.”
Getting down to business
The 5280 Loop is not explicitly meant as a spark for local business, but all the parties involved have pointed to its potential to do just that.
“We know it can have a strong economic impact since it gets people out and shows them what’s available,” Perkins said.
Perkins and his team reviewed similar projects around the country to get a sense of the potential impact. “The Indianapolis Cultural Trail was a particular inspiration,” he said.
The Indianapolis Cultural Trail is an 8-mile path linking the city’s six cultural districts, attracting more than a million users per year. The project, which broke ground in 2007, cost an estimated $63 million, including $35.5 million in public funds.
According to a 2015 report from Indiana University’s Public Policy Institute, property assessments within one block of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail increased by 148 percent, or approximately $1 billion, since 2008. The report also found that more than half of the business owners along the trail saw an increase in customers and that 48 percent of those same businesses experienced an increase in revenue.
A survey of the businesses surrounding The Square on 21st pointed to the potential for similar benefits in Denver.
Ellis Ann McClung owns Thread, a consignment boutique on 21st between Lawrence and Larimer. She said her sales increased by almost 40 percent while the park was operating. “I am for sure in favor of it becoming permanent,” she said.
Matt Orrin, owner of El Charrito, the bar on the corner of Larimer and 21st, participated in the planning process ahead of the pilot and still supports the project. “I don’t think it helped business, but it was only two months; something like that needs a little traction," he said.
Just down the block, Herb’s owner Laura Newman and Mexico City Restaurant and Lounge general manager David Muniz shared similar experiences. The park clearly attracted a lot of people to the neighborhood, they said, but it was unclear if there was any direct bump in sales as a result.
They all agreed that the park was a good idea in principle, but that some improvements could be made.
One issue, according to the local business owners, was that people who are homeless began to congregate in the park.
“The park got really intimidating and rundown,” Newman said. “I think it’s a good idea, but it didn’t get pulled off really well.”
“During events, it was fine,” McClung added. “But when there weren’t events, it was just a lot of people sitting out there drinking, smoking weed, and doing other things that they would be arrested for if police came through.”
Steven Chester, senior city planner with Denver’s office of Community Planning and Development (CPD), said the goal was to create a space that was welcoming to all.
"We knew that the population that uses the social services a couple blocks away would be a part of the project, and we definitely heard that this population was dominating the space,” he said.
According to Perkins, the DDP hired a private security company to patrol at night, and that there was no increase in crimes reported in the area during the project. However, perception matters when it comes to activating public spaces, and the CPD office and DDP are taking all feedback into account.
Perkins said DDP plans to report the results of public input sessions this fall. The actual design process for the 5280 Loop is scheduled to begin this winter, with additional rounds of workshops and open houses planned for late winter and spring. The process is scheduled to conclude with a presentation of a conceptual design in the summer of 2018.
“That will include a rough outline of what different segments could be,” Perkins said. “But it won’t go into exact locations of the trail and trees, for example.”