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February 13, 2018


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And they have "Blucifer"...

Yes, Denver is a great place to be.

One reason Denver didn't deteriorate like other older cities was a vibrant urban neighborhood called Capitol Hill. It stretches from the state capitol to Cheesman Park on the east, Colfax down to 7th Avenue on the south. When I lived there back in the '70s, it was a mixed area with some gritty streets with a few others that were spectacularly beautiful. Though the decades since then, the gentrification has softened some of the rougher edges. The old '50s Safeway at 11th Avenue & Washington is now a Whole Foods, for example, while Colfax has fewer dive bars and more coffee houses.

Capitol Hill is little more than a square mile and the population is about 100,000. Because it's cheek by jowl with downtown, there were always people shopping and doing business there. Denver's urban tragedy is that it lost its major downtown department stores by 1980 when most of them decamped to the upscale Cherry Creek Mall three miles away. Downtown didn't die like Phoenix's but it became less vibrant. Today, it has plenty of tourists on its 16th Avenue mall, but it can't match its former glory, at least in terms of busy sidewalks.

Today, Denver is hot with a downtown housing boom, particularly in the Central Platte Valley (the former rail yards just north of Union Station). The metroplex is Colorado's economic engine but the sprawl is discouraging. I recall the beauty in driving from Denver to Colorado Spring back in the day. Now the area is like an upscale Prescott Valley. The sprawl also follows I-70 westward into the Rockies and doesn't really give out until it reaches Glenwood Springs 170 miles away.

Denver's good fortune, as Rogue notes, is its deep architectural heritage. Like every other city in this country, it was profligate with its amazing heritage but enough remains to anchor Denver as a city with enough visual beauty to attract and even inspire people. The economic benefit here is incalculable. I notice the same dynamic in Portland which attracts tens of thousands of newcomers with its old buidlings and retail districts. Both cities are messy in the way Jane Jacobs noted successful cities usually are. Better messy than sterile! Phoenix is finding out the hard way that you can't power-wash away old buildings without making an urban renaissance that much harder.

Denver is blessed in one other significant way: the Rockies that loom over the city like a magnetic presence. It makes the climate salubrious, too. Winters are not monotonously cold nor are summers monotonously hot. People want to live there for obvious reasons and they're driving up prices now to near-nosebleed levels. Of course, every great place in this country is being bid up in value this way. Denver's good fortune was obvious at its birth and in its brash youth. It still is, for that matter.

I would not hype Denver too much, it might be better than The Valley of the Sun but that’s not saying much. Still way too much land and resources devoted to freeways with more investment on roads (T-Rex) making mass transit less attractive. It is sprawl all the way to Boulder, public transit numbers I think have declined in recent years and I would say not as used as Link. Also not a lot of major corporations have been based or created there hence why the football stadium doesn’t have a sponsor.

The airport is too far away from city center IMO and the stadiums both football and basketball are far from downtown surrounded by parking making them not pleasant to walk to. I do like the art museum designed by Libeskind. Being a state capital for a big city is also a downer not to mention CO state gov’t does not provide great services. Lastly the MLS stadium was built in the burbs and has been a failure in Commerce City with low attendance.

Great information though, I would describe the city as a cross between Seattle and Phx.

I’ve now lived in Denver - a city that was never on my radar - for almost five years. Other than the high cost of living that makes it tough for nonprofit employees like me. I love it here. Jon articulates all the reasons why. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there is a “here, here.”

I concur with with Yuval but empathize with Diane. After Phoenix, any real city is easy to love. Too much sprawl in Denver. Lack of enough bones and water. Portland rocks and Seattle is fabulous but unaffordable for us commoners.

One of my points is that the exurban spaces of America, particularly those adjacent to metropolitan areas, are lost. Oregon and Washington have land-use boundaries, but they are rare and these rules are under constant attack.

So, of course the Front Range, especially along I-25, is a sprawl disaster. And even metro Denver has too many freeways. BUT...the city offers the livable alternative. One doesn't have to own a car. The city is human scale and full of options.

The ongoing auction in real-estate values rewards not merely good cities but better neighborhoods, pleasant micro-climates, adequate transit systems, and good bones. In short, everything is for sale and America's best places are now unaffordable for many if not most people.

This is true even in Phoenix. Trying buying a modest house in Willo or Windsor Square if you're average income. Developers will even leverage the cachet of rather marginal areas (see: Roosevelt Row) for their projects and in that process make those areas unaffordable for an ever-larger number of people, including the very people who made those areas special in the first place. Say, hipsters and artists.

The most frustrating thing to watch in a city like Phoenix is how developers play this game politically. They demand more outer loops and state land sales in order to enable their master-planned communities. In that process they worsen the very qualities of the city as a whole. Yet you can be sure they live in places that guarded against people like themselves. Santa Barbara, La Jolla, and Sedona come to mind.

Phoenix had assets that were squandered so real-estate sharpies could make big bucks for themselves. As late as 2000, there was a ballot proposition to curb this insanity. It was sponsored by the Sierra Club and was defeated once the TV ads told the rubes they'd lose their jobs if they dared vote for it.

I made my peace with Phoenix since moving to Portland. I pretty much understand now why it threw away a great possibility for sprawl and schlock. No one and no thing is better than "what is". If Phoenix was as magical a city as I once thought, its price points would have reflected that idea. What You See Is What You Get.

I lived in CO for 10 years in the '80's, on the west slope, but spent a lot of time in Denver due to work and a future wife who lived in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. I characterized it at the time as "all of the disadvantages of a big city with few of the amenities." Traffic was awful, air quality worse and the biggest events in town were cowboy themed--rodeos, horse shows--it felt like an overgrown cowtown. The friends I still have there have mostly been driven out to the burbs and small towns embedded in the sprawl. I have also seen it snow 4 feet overnight, on top of 2 feet that fell in the previous couple of days, and seen it dramatically below zero in October, before the leaves had even fallen. I'm glad to hear there are some improvements, but you can't fix the air, traffic, and weather.

Oh, and I forgot to mention the universal complaint of all of the old friends: they don't go to the mountains anymore. If they are tied to a M-F work schedule, it's off the list as I-70 is virtually gridlocked every weekend.

Doggie Combover, I've been in CO (mostly Aspen, but) Denver on & off since 1993. Never in my life have I witnessed below 0º weather in October, or 4 ft falling after 2 ft of snow. Usually, we get a dusting or 2 inches which is gone by the following afternoon. More likely, it's been 70º in December and February, followed by 50º, 60º… you get the picture. Global warming in full effect!

Also, to the above poster 100Octane, Whole Foods isn't even at 11th and Ogden (not Washington) any longer, as a flagship was built in LoDo in November 2017. Many older, rougher neighborhoods have been/are being revitalized and young folk are buying them up at ridiculous prices at a ridiculously fast rate. It is not only not unusual, but likely that if you find a home under $350k, the listing will likely not make it through the day before there are 10 or more offers significantly over asking price, and that is usually $25-35k more. It's crazy.

Point of emphasis on #3 and #7
#3 the Poundstone Amendment that limited Denver’s ability to annex. Couple points here:

Denver has a larger city budget (when comparing each city’s General Fund – the one that matters most for improving the city)

Phoenix spends over 70% of its budget on public safety. Denver? Less than 40%. Crime rates aren’t significantly different.

Denver spends its budget on an area 1/5 the size of Phoenix (Denver is really only about 100 sq. mi., the other 50 is DIA land.)

Phoenix’s huge infrastructure footprint is a massive disadvantage. Just take the example of 70% of the budget on public safety. Patrolling over 500 square miles takes a massive fire and police force, a huge fleet of vehicles, and hundreds of stations. The remaining 30% mostly goes to the perennial attempt at catching up on deferred maintenance of other infrastructure. Phoenix views a successful budget as one that doesn’t have to cut services. Enough said.

As far as #7, constant reinvention, Denver’s ability to envision and then execute huge transformative projects boils down to one thing: leadership. This isn’t because it has a bunch of influential corporate headquarters or its version of the old Phoenix 40 (it has neither) rather, it has a strong mayor form of government that allows the actual elected leader of the city to “knock heads and write checks”.

Denver mayors have generally made many more long term, strategic investment decisions compared to Phoenix city managers who make them mostly through political lenses. Because Phoenix’s city manager works for the Council, his job is to keep a majority of them happy. If he doesn’t, he gets fired. All major decisions are made through this lens. When combined with a 500+ square mile city, this means spreading limited resources very thinly across the city - not moving the needle much if at all.

Supporters of this system say that the city is “run professionally” and point to indicators like Phoenix’s bond rating. Here again, Denver has a higher bond rating and, more importantly, can actually use it. Because of better financial management, Denver actually issues a GO Bond every 10 years, the standard for successful cities, as GO Bonds fund the game-changing infrastructure that make cities great.

Phoenix’s last GO Bond was 2006 and another issuance will not happen anytime soon. Why? because Phoenix issued it at the height of inflated property values that have still not recovered. This is not bad luck. The fact that Phoenix was (and still is) over-exposed to real estate and crashed harder than every other city is a management failure, as is issuing a huge bond at the peak of a real estate bubble. In fact, a few months ago a study came out that listed Phoenix as second only to Chicago as having the worst debt to revenue ratio of an major city. http://www.businessinsider.com/jpmorgan-its-time-for-bond-investors-to-remove-skeletons-from-their-portfolio-2017-10

Again, I don’t really see an upside for the Council/Manager system.

Forgot to add the biggest kicker to #3 above - Denver does all this with half the population as Phoenix and a lower overall tax rate.

Excellent points from Ex Phx Planner.

@lizzy smith that post was from soleri.

For anyone interested, this thread shows some of what Denver lost...


"I made my peace with Phoenix since moving..." My plan has long been to stay in Phoenix but am starting to feel it may not be worth the effort.

Infrastructure and population growth of cities. Denver not on this chart?


Thanks for the shoutout to my hometown Jon. Wonderfully written. Denver IS a beautiful city but not without its issues. As you know, historically, Denver has been a "boom or bust" town. When times are good, Denver rides the gravy train, offers incentives to developers like a cheap date, then learns her dream mate is only in it for the money. I fear our city hasn't learned that too much of a good thing can turn irreversibly sour. One of your commenters mentioned the destruction of the department stores on the 16th street mall, and of course, lest we forget, the ignoble and completely needless burial of Elitch Gardens. Basically, the cautionary mantra should be "Remember the 80s!" While conscientious development improves a city, the commercial developers and City Planners never seem to know when to stop! For example, Downtown, LoDo, RiNo, and other urban neighborhoods are indeed vibrant at the moment, but the sheer number of developer-driven, over-priced, soulless, cheaply-made, new construction apartments (aka "Millennial Kennels") is ridiculous. The affordable housing, multigenerational neighborhoods, and multicultural communities that used to exist in these neighborhoods are rapidly being destroyed, paved over, and gentrified into oblivion. Many of the beautiful, diverse, architecturally interesting neighborhoods we love are threatened every day by the mass hysteria of transitory, short-term occupancy development. (Refer to the documentary "San Francisco 2.0" for an excellent example.) Don't even get me started on 'The Slurbs,' (a brilliant and apt descriptor I learned from you, my dear friend.) It's astonishing and heartbreaking. Personally, I hope Amazon does not choose Denver. It would be the death knell for the remaining charm and diversity that is precariously holding on in our fair city.

Another insightful article Jon. Like you, I miss the Phoenix that existed in my youth and the potential it had. I finally threw in the towel and left Central Arizona in my late 50's, when it became obvious the trends would never change in my remaining lifetime. I find the Seattle area to be more to my liking, and feel Portland and Denver are fine alternatives as well. None are perfect, but the urban character is vibrant, human-scale and forward-focused, unlike the sprawling sameness and developer-focused Phoenix.

The latest for downtown:


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