Will Denver’s rush to build highrises destroy the city’s mountain views?

Housing costs are rising along with Denver’s population, and there is mounting concern that height might soon come at the expense of something more precious

Scott Wilson
Friday 22 February 2019 18:19
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More than a dozen hotel, office and residential buildings are under construction in the city’s greater downtown
More than a dozen hotel, office and residential buildings are under construction in the city’s greater downtown

From the Rockies to the Pacific, US cities are seeking to accommodate increasing populations amid housing shortages by growing up instead of out. A number of them, including this mile-high city hard against the Front Range, are considering projects that would construct some of the tallest buildings in the west.

The towers are the showpieces, but across these urban centres, which have sprawled into suburbs for years, new housing and office projects also are being built taller than ever before. The construction is focused around public transportation centres, and, in some cases, cities are allowing heights to rise beyond original zoning rules as a reward for builders who contribute more to affordable housing.

The development that will take place across the western United States during the next few years will change the character of these cities, once as flat and wide as the original frontier. Structures, some of which will reach above 70 storeys, will threaten mountain and ocean views, and historic areas are being squeezed by projects designed to attract new business and wealthier residents.

Here in the Rockies, where housing costs are rising along with Denver’s population, there is mounting concern that height might soon come at the expense of its high-mountain character and neighbourhood culture. Antique pockets of the changing downtown, such as Five Points, once called the “Harlem of the west” for its historic African-American population, is increasingly falling into the shade of the skyline around it.

“People in Denver are happily spoiled by the fact that we can look left and right and see the mountains,” says Teague Bohlen, a Five Points resident and professor of creative writing at the University of Colorado Denver. “That is certainly being threatened, and it will likely get worse.”

But even sceptics of the push for height are largely convinced that, given the inexorable growth, it is the right course to better protect the environment, increase apartment stock and add to affordable housing funds. Cranes loom over construction sites. Scaffolding around new-building skeletons has become an architectural signature of the city, if only a temporary one. Yet it is still possible to see the distant snow caps through the corridors of the rising urban canyons.

“There are very few cities that have faced the growth we’ve seen in recent years,” says Michael Hancock, the city’s Democratic mayor who took office in 2011. Denver has grown by 110,000 people, or 18 per cent, since then, and it is now roughly 40,000 houses and apartments short of meeting demand. “So we’ve been in the laboratory,” Hancock says. “And there is no doubt that it’s more economically and environmentally efficient to go higher.”

An exodus from the Bay Area is driving up housing costs in Sacramento, a largely low-rise town (Nick Otto/Washington Post)

Across the western United States, a thriving economy has attracted businesses and workers, drawn in part to the region’s natural beauty and outdoor ethic. The growth has driven up housing prices at a time when states, led by California, are seeking to slow suburban development to meet environmental goals undermined by long commutes and thick traffic.

The changing western cityscape will bring some of its urban areas closer in appearance to those along the eastern seaboard, where height has long been a priority – “as much for ego as for functionality”, says Nicholas de Monchaux, a professor of architecture and urban design at the University of California.

He says the skyscraper, far from conflicting with the frontier design here, is “a quintessentially western artefact”. The iconic building set within the dramatic natural settings of the west, he says, is consistent with the same design priorities behind the Golden Gate Bridge and the Hoover Dam, two of the nation’s great engineering feats.

“These buildings are also a quintessential vote of confidence in the city, which the west has often struggled with,” De Monchaux says. “The hazard is that we only create these skyscrapers as places to drive to rather than places to also live in. That will make these cities more liveable, and making places more liveable is what the west has always been about.”

But building inside crowded cities raises its own challenges and has prompted some radical proposals amid a deepening housing shortage. A bill in California last year would have allowed the state to overrule local government decisions on housing projects built near transportation hubs, the ideal “infill” developments that residents nonetheless often oppose.

The measure failed. Its author, Senator Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat whose city has become the emblem of high housing costs and economic inequality, has reintroduced the legislation after spending time talking with local leaders in areas that could be affected, especially those with black and Latino majorities.

“This is an incredibly hard bill,” Wiener says. “But this extreme local control with no balance is not working anymore.”

Wiener says ideally the measure would allow more “three-, four-, five-, six-storey buildings that fit nicely into middle-class neighbourhoods”. He says the intent is to increase “the diversity of housing” available in Californian cities, many of which are confronting widespread homelessness and accompanying public safety consequences.

“This applies across the west,” Wiener says. “We hear the same things from Denver, Seattle, Portland and others. If California can be seen as the historic example of how to meet growth and housing needs as badly as possible, then this discussion is going to be productive everywhere.”

More and more developments are choosing to go up rather than out in Denver (Chet Strange/Washington Post)

Seattle and San Diego are considering projects – mixes of housing and office space – that would rival the cities’ tallest buildings. David Boynton, a Seattle architect and photographer, began tracking the roughly 300 new building projects in his city with a visual computer programme. He is modelling the city’s changing appearance and looking for how it translates into daily life.

“The character of a city to me is less about its skyline than it is about its street life,” says Boynton, who occasionally presents his computer visualisations to the city council. “This is what big western cities are trying to achieve – urbanity. And it comes with density.”

Los Angeles is considering a 77-storey tower in the Bunker Hill area, a project that would be the city’s highest. To the south in Long Beach, developers are preparing to begin construction on a 40-storey tower along the waterfront.

The Westside Gateway project also includes a 22-storey tower and several “mid-rise” buildings. It eventually will exceed in height the 35-storey tower under construction on the other end of Ocean Boulevard, seizing its briefly held title as the city’s tallest building when finished.

“We’re trying to make more productive use of our land,” says Alan Pullman, an architect with Studio One Eleven, the Long Beach firm that designed both projects. “There’s obviously a lot of pressure to do that, and the most efficient way to do it is vertically.”

Some of these projects are echoes of past plans derailed by recession.

At the entrance to Sacramento, a largely low-rise city, is an empty lot that for more than a decade has been known derisively as “the hole in the ground”.

Before the 2008 recession, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or CalPERS, planned to build two, 53-storey luxury condo towers on the site, which city officials call “the front door” to the palm-lined Capitol Mall and the two-year-old Golden 1 Centre, home of the Sacramento Kings NBA franchise.

The early advertising for The Towers on Capitol Mall showed an artist’s rendering of the buildings looming above the city, the Sacramento river just beneath its windows. Against a gold background, the marketing slogan read: “Where Donald Would Live.”

The faltering economy wiped out those Trump-scale plans. Now CalPERS has proposed a 30-storey tower for the site at a cost of $550m (£420m). The building, comprising apartments, shops and offices, would edge out the Wells Fargo Centre as the city’s tallest at a time when an arriving exodus from the Bay Area is driving up housing costs and providing opportunities to diversify a mostly public-sector economy.

“This is a city in the midst of real transformation,” says Sacramento mayor Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat who has been in office a little more than two years after a long career in the state legislature. “There is an intangible specialness about this place. But we’re changing as a necessity because a government base is no longer enough to provide opportunity for all our people.”

Downtown Denver is experiencing a construction boom, fuelled by a need for increased housing (Chet Strange/Washington Post)

From Steinberg’s fifth-floor office window, the Sacramento skyline appears mostly flat, nothing but a church steeple or two rising higher than his view. Just out of sight is the state capitol dome, a landmark that the new projects could obstruct from some vantages.

But the office space that will come with projects such as the CalPERS tower will help speed up Steinberg’s hoped-for economic transformation.

Sacramento has a homeless problem – tents and sleeping bags circle the courtyard at the entrance to city hall – and Steinberg says the development must be in service to the larger goals of increasing housing stock and preventing the kind of displacement happening in many other Californian cities.

“The ‘G’ word is not allowed in this office,” Steinberg says, referring to gentrification. “I want the city to have all of the great things that cosmopolitan cities have. But if that’s all we do, we’ll only be good. To be great, we have to be intentional about tying that prosperity and that growth to our neighbourhoods, especially our disadvantaged neighbourhoods, and housing affordability is a key element.”

There is no doubt that it’s more economically and environmentally efficient to go higher

Michael Hancock, Mayor of Denver

More than a dozen hotel, office and residential buildings are under construction here in Denver’s greater downtown, a boom the scale of which many say is unprecedented. There are also designs on the drawing board that would alter the top of the Denver skyline.

Plans for a 1,000-ft skyscraper at 17th and California streets, which would dwarf the next-tallest building, were presented last year. But there has been a delay involving the purchase of the property. For now the project, a mix of luxury condos, a hotel, restaurants and shops, is on hold.

Michael Santora, the principal partner of Crown Architecture and Consulting, which is helping manage the project, says the plans went through a preliminary zoning review last year and are “still a go”. He travelled to Denver to see the site and was amazed by the amount of construction and renovation taking place across the city.

“It’s constantly changing now, all of these neighbourhoods,” Santora says. “The Colorado lifestyle is a thing that people flock to. And businesses see a lot of talent and are now following it there.”

During his time in office, Mayor Hancock has established programmes that encourage developers to build up – higher than previously permitted, in some cases – in exchange for larger contributions to the city’s affordable housing fund. It is an incentive that is lifting Denver’s skyline.

In December, the city council approved plans to develop what is known as River Mile, a stretch of land along the South Platte river that at the moment is occupied by a rarely used amusement park surrounded by the Pepsi Centre and the Broncos’ Mile High Stadium. The development could one day be home to 15,000 people.

Many will be living vertically. The agreement allows the developer to build apartment towers higher than five storeys in exchange for a percentage of the additional housing to be affordable. The design calls for several buildings in the 30- to 40-storey range and perhaps one as high as 59 storeys, which would be the city’s highest.

People in Denver are happily spoiled by the fact that we can look left and right and see the mountains

Teague Bohlen, professor

“Denver is a place where now, if you don’t have a brand-new building, you don’t stand out anymore,” says Charles Bernard, a 45-year-old developer walking along the South Platte on a chilly morning. Bernard says he will lose the view from his sixth-floor apartment of the amusement park’s illuminated Ferris wheel when the work is complete. But he says the construction is essential to keep pace with Denver’s growth.

“This is a place people really don’t go to much now,” he says. “This will make it more useful.”

Hancock says planners are taking into consideration the mountain views that make Denver a city among the most evocative of the historic west. But with height comes obstruction, and some areas in the shadow of the most intensive development are experiencing it already.

Bohlen, the creative writing professor, chose Five Points as the place he wanted to raise his children because of its enduring ethnic diversity.

The construction and real estate speculation is changing the area, a process of gentrification easily identifiable in many other western cities. Some longtime residents are moving out, newcomers taking their places in taller buildings.

It is the natural “push and pull of gentrification”, Bohlen says, but with the height and shifting demographics, he worries that “we are losing the texture and culture of these neighbourhoods”.

“But I don’t know if we are at the stage yet where it is changing the culture of the whole city,” Bohlen says.

© Washington Post

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