Like many major American cities, Denver finds itself struggling to accommodate substantial growth while maintaining its sense of place. Its collection of wonderful historic neighborhoods, while one of the city's most defining characteristics, is threatened by a growth.
According to the Denver Regional Council of Governments, the population of the Denver metropolitan area was estimated at 1,859,000 people in 1990. By 2000 it had ballooned to 2,415,000 people with a forecast in 2025 of 3,431,013 people. This population explosion has spurned both smart and not-so-smart growth.
The U.S. Census Bureau ranked Douglas County, with an alarming 191 percent growth rate from 1990 to 2000, as the nation’s fastest growing county for the decade. Just south of Denver, Douglas County’s crowning jewel is a planned community called Highlands Ranch that plans to have almost 37,000 single-family homes blanket the region’s desert plateau landscape by 2010.
Closer to Denver's downtown, more sensible growth is sprouting. The former Lowry Air Force Base has been converted into a vibrant mixed-use community that will include more than 4,000 housing units around a town center.
A few miles away, the former Stapleton Airport has been redeveloped into a network of colorful New Urbanist neighborhoods, boasting goals to construct 12,000 homes in 15 years. This community, though, also includes a Wal-Mart Super Center, Sam’s Club, and Home Depot Super Center.
Are these developments bad, or poorly planned? No. But when developing a self-sustained, 12,000-unit community, how can one foster the increasingly elusive sense of place? Stapleton’s Master Developer, Forest City Enterprises, is a $5.9 billion powerhouse based in Cleveland. It is currently developing communities in more than 25 states. How do we maintain some semblance of authenticity?
As popular author Richard Florida espouses in his book, The Rise of the Creative Class, “Places are also valued for authenticity and uniqueness. Authenticity comes from several aspects of a community—historic buildings, established neighborhoods, a unique music scene, or specific cultural attributes…. An authentic place also offers unique and original experiences. Thus a place full of chain stores, chain restaurants, and nightclubs is not authentic. You could have the same experience anywhere.”
In 2002, the National Trust for Historic Preservation ranked historic neighborhoods as one of its top ‘Endangered Sites’ in America. The neighbors of Denver’s Curtis Park, however, have created a unique model for fighting the political and cultural mechanisms that contribute to the destruction of the historic fabric and loss of authenticity.
When residents learned of a plan to build an apartment complex on a small lot, they formed the Curtis Park Investors Group (CPIG) to purchase the land. Recognizing that only those people affected by an environment have any right to its determination, this group of more than twenty residents set out to design and construct an infill project they felt to be more congruent with the scale and character of their neighborhood.
The grassroots effort put forth by a group of Curtis Park neighbors offers an alternative to the generica found in New Urbanist bedroom-communities, despite their best intentions. A five-minute walk from Denver’s central business district, Curtis Park is a wonderfully eclectic neighborhood. Its tree-lined streets include Victorian mansions, Italianate rowhomes, and quaint Queen Anne bungalows that have survived the destructive tendencies of urban revitalization.
As long-time neighbor and historian, Bill West states, “Curtis Park is Denver’s oldest neighborhood. It dates back to the great population boom of the late 19th century. The trains got to Denver in 1870 and beginning only a few years later, Curtis Park developed. It was built out by the mid-1880s. Curtis Park underwent a population boom followed by a building boom. The reason it survived was that the grid or ‘axis’ of the city changed once the capitol building was built. Instead of coming out our way, development went the other way and Curtis Park just survived, astonishingly, right on the edge of downtown Denver.”
What residents love about Curtis Park is its diversity. It truly is a place of mixed incomes and ethnic backgrounds. The neighborhood is about one-third African American, one-third Hispanic, and about one-third white. In addition to the diversity, it is the sense of community that attracts and retains the neighbors. As one neighbor told me, “I've never lived in a place where I have ten people I can call if I ever needed anything and I know they will drop anything at a moment's notice to help me. In fact, I've lived places where I haven't even known everyone on my block.”
As writer James Howard Kunstler says, “The 20th century was about getting around. The 21st century will be about staying in a place worth staying in.” West, himself a 30-year resident of Curtis Park, confirms the dedication to the neighborhood, “We have what’s called the ‘Feet-First Club.’ We’re not leaving until we’re carried out feet-first.”
An architect by trade, Cathy Bellem lived next to the empty lot when she learned of a plan to construct 16 apartments on the site. “We could have waited and tried to block the development, but the fact is that they have every right to build something with more mass and scale. We understand the need for more housing stock and we embrace density, but infill housing should enhance the existing fabric, not detract from it. And unfortunately we have a lot of that going on here,” Bellem said.
Bellem and a neighbor went door to door with a letter asking residents to help beat the potential buyers to the closing table. The next morning she found $40,000 in checks stuffed under her door. In a few short weeks more than $150,000 was raised to close on the land.
“The neighborhood was able to raise this money because we're a very committed group,” she continues. “The people are very committed to this neighborhood in its physical sense but also to each other as a community. Curtis Park is not a wealthy neighborhood; in fact, it’s very diverse economically. We have a lot of low-income housing in our neighborhood. We were able to do this in part by forming an LLC and selling shares. We were able to keep the shares low to allow as many neighbors as possible to be involved.” A share could be purchased for $5,000 and each share equaled a vote.
Members of the neighborhood group include an attorney, accountant, architect, city planner, historian, real estate broker, and several members of the building trades. In acquiring the land, securing financing, political organizing, selecting professional engineers and contractors, and ultimately constructing the project, the group appreciates participating in what is essentially community-building.
This model of community empowerment, from making very difficult decisions regarding profit versus density to working within a political system, generates a sense of pride and accomplishment as they watch the structure taking shape. The sense of community is enhanced by a common focus on this enterprise that was shaped with their own hands and ideas.
Working with David Carnicelli, an architect with in situ DESIGN and coincidentally president of Curtis Park Neighbors, the group worked through several design schemes before arriving at a project with which they felt comfortable. The result is a four-unit townhouse project that maximizes the allowable site build-out while sensitively blending into a block of turn-of-the-century Victorian and Italianate homes. Design features enhance the residential character: all front doors face the street; front porches provide a pedestrian scale; exposed steel columns accent the porches hinting at the modern interiors.
The units have been carefully designed to cluster the service functions (powder, closet, laundry, stair runs) along interior demising walls. This provides sound insulation that is essential to multi-family dwelling while maximizing the perimeter walls for large double-hung windows that have been selected to match the proportions of historic windows found throughout the neighborhood.
Large skylights centered above custom steel staircases cap double-height spaces. Fitted with cable-rails and alder wood treads, these stairs are the focus of this central space. Roof decks afford views that just peek over the surrounding Victorian mansions to reveal the downtown skyline and the Colorado Rockies’ Front Range beyond. The rail surrounding the decks are slightly set back from a cornice and provides a modern interpretation of the Mansard roof form common in the neighborhood.
Finishes include bamboo flooring, concrete countertops, European-style cabinets, stainless steel appliances, solid birch doors, and custom-routed alder wood trim throughout. Full basements provide an additional 800 square feet of potential expansion for each unit. Detached two-car garages are provided for all units.
The investors are pleased with the result. “We have taken neighborhood activism to a new level with this project,” says Bellem. “We came together as a group with the belief that there is an alternative to the speculative developer housing that has become so common in Denver's neighborhoods in transition. Concerned that gentrification efforts initiated from outside a community can very often diminish a neighborhood's character, longtime neighbors, some more than thirty years, put their own homes up for collateral to guarantee the construction loan.”
From the beginning, the group set out to develop a project whose value would not be tied to a particular property but that would increase the value of the overall neighborhood. By rejecting the typical “get in and get out” approach, they rallied around the notion that quality design matters.
Says Bellem, “The architects held several design workshops with the group to build consensus on the design approach. We understood this as a true urban infill project and they were quick to steer us away from suburban gestures so typical of new construction near downtown.”
Carnicelli talks about the process: “Get a group of 25 neighbors together and you've got a demanding client. They take great pride in the neighborhood's Victorian structures, but we understood that this should be a building of our time. We hope the contemporary design reflects the same spirit of optimism, quality, and attention to detail as any of the mansions that housed Curtis Park residents at the turn of the last century.”
The group's commitment to quality paid off. All the units went under contract in just over a month following the completion of construction and it has been a win-win situation. Not only was the group able to increase nearby property values, many are rolling over profits from this first project to invest in a second.
Design workshops with the architect again resulted in a contemporary structure that fits sensitively with the historic fabric. Modeled after the New York brownstone prototype, gestures in the form, mass, and scale recall the historic row configuration common to the neighborhood.
These elements, however, have been reinterpreted. Each unit will include a street-fronting entry porch framed by a glass canopy. The buildings have a distinct base, middle, and top articulation and a projecting bay. The bay consists of a three-story, mullionless curtain wall patterned in both frosted and clear glass. The pattern matches the proportions of historic residential windows on the block. Stepped out from the facade, the side windows of the bay will frame views down the Champa Street corridor to the heart of downtown. At night, the translucent bay will glow, activating the street with vitality.
The group once again struggles with issues of gentrification. While the land costs drive a certain product, it was important that the project be configured in such a way that it could resist the homogenizing mechanisms of gentrification. Walk-out basements are marketed as “flex-space,” perfect for a home office but easily configured into an affordable rental unit or the increasingly popular granny flat.
In the tradition of Western urbanism, it was once believed that the rich fabric of Curtis Park would be bulldozed to allow the downtown to expand. Instead, its preservation has placed landowners in a quandary. They have seen the value of their property like most neighborhoods in transition. However, the risk of development far outweighs the return and thus property owners feel compelled to sit on their dilapidating property waiting for the big payday.
The neighbors of Curtis Park have offered an alternative. They have taken a financial risk in order to preserve the character of place where they enjoy living while allowing it to grow and evolve to meet current demands. The growing interest in this type of development process is reinforced by the many calls Bellem fields each month from neighborhood organizations and communities wanting to know more about how the group was able to pull this off.
CPIG and in situ DESIGN shared the 2004 Governor's Award for Best Design Project. Merchant's Row has since been awarded a 2006 Mayor's Design Award from the City and County of Denver. Carnicelli said, “This is more than just an example of residents determining the future of their neighborhood. These are stewards of a community.”
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