Denver: America’s Great Urban Canvas, Part III

I have been intrigued by the redevelopment of military bases ever since my time as energy services manager with Western Area Power Administration. Western sells hydroelectricity to public power entities like municipal utilities, rural electric cooperatives, and American Indian tribes, and also to federal sites such as military bases throughout the West. When I worked for Western, a number of installations were closing, and though my initial concerns were with energy allocation, as I learned more about New Urbanism and sustainable redevelopment, my interests shifted from energy planning to land-use design.

So I’m disappointed that I haven’t had the chance to fully explore Lowry, the redevelopment of Lowry Air Force Base in Denver that was seeded even before the base closed in 1994. The first residents moved into the mixed-used community in April 1998, and development continues still. What makes Lowry unique among Denver’s New Urban developments, however, is its reuse of existing buildings. For example, urban planner Carolyn Dooling and I visited Gallantry at Lowry, the redevelopment of ten historic officers quarters buildings, originally duplexes and now single-family homes starting in the $800Ks.


Entering the backyard of a restored officers quarters home at Lowry, with detached garage on the left and the home’s bright sunroom viewed across the lawn. Photo by Simmons Buntin.

Before we stopped—indeed, before our slate of project visits even began—Carolyn warned me of her penchant for touring model homes. While we’re both more interested in streetscapes and overall town designs, Carolyn especially is interested in the homes’ layouts and interior designs. I’m game, too; so whenever we could, we toured the models. At Gallantry, however, the homes were only open by appointment, something we realized after arriving. But that didn’t stop us from scampering around the outsides of the remaining, vacant two-story brick homes and trying—with success on the very last model, I sheepishly admit—the doors. Inside, the rooms are small and often poorly lit, the stairs are narrow and steep, and low ceilings are the norm. Yet the large homes on expansive lots are utterly authentic, despite modern kitchen appliances, upgraded bathrooms, and marble tile. Floors are lined with red oak and wool carpet reminiscent of their 1940s construction. Large sunrooms featuring paned French doors open onto landscaped yards shaded by towering blue spruce. Though the paint and wiring were all new, the homes themselves radiated with history and place. If only I could afford such luxury.


Lowry’s redeveloped Steam Works Plant, now condominiums, as viewed from our hasty drive-by. Photo by Simmons Buntin.

View an online gallery of Lowry images at http://www.simmonsbuntin.com/images/gallery/2008/nu/lowry

Lowry was just a quick stop—breaking and entering aside—on our way to Belmar, the redevelopment of Lakewood’s 1960s-era Villa Italia shopping mall that now has become the “West Metro’s downtown district.” Encompassing 22 urban blocks, Belmar features 1,300 predominantly upscale townhomes, condominiums, and apartments around a dense urban core that features a large plaza, restaurants, and live/work units. Integrated big-box stores like a Whole Foods Market and Dick’s Sporting Goods, as well as a multistory parking structure, line Alameda Avenue, a large east-west boulevard. But those behemoths aside, Belmar has an appropriately-scaled urban feel that I love.


Strong urban architecture holds the corner at Lakewood’s Belmar. Photo by Simmons Buntin.

This was my second trip to Belmar. The first was in January 2006, when much of the central plaza had been converted to an ice rink and holiday trees sculpted from recycled street signs lined the streets. Then as now I appreciated Belmar’s attention to details, such as custom pothole covers, extensive street furniture, and the integration of public art. For example, at one street corner next to a storm drain there is a poem chiseled into the sidewalk, written by former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins. Any place that solidifies verse in that way is a place worth praising indeed.

Belmar’s commercial and mixed-use architecture is both modern and reflective of the two- and three-story commercial buildings found in Denver’s Lower Downtown. At once it feels new and well-established, no easy feat for a project in which street trees are still dangly and store fronts may still be vacant (or, in these times, vacant again).

I admit I’m less enamored with the residential architecture, which mixes dark brick, metal, and often unattractive wood siding. Compared with Stapleton’s townhomes, which in many cases share the same builder, Belmar’s residential architecture is both moderately experimental and mostly unsuccessful. It is difficult to tell if I am tainted by the quality and application of the materials and colors themselves, or if I have simply seen them on more “traditional” suburban apartment complexes across the Front Range. No doubt there is much of the latter, which is a shame, because Belmar is otherwise an urban gem in the heart of suburban west Denver.


Belmar’s wide-open public plaza, with Denver host and urban planner Carolyn Dooling cooling her feet in the fountain. Photo by Simmons Buntin.

View an online gallery of Belmar images at http://www.simmonsbuntin.com/images/gallery/2008/nu/belmar

Before leaving the Denver metro area, I spent a day in Boulder, which from a land-use perspective is one of American’s best small cities. Though I spent the morning hiking from the pedestrian Pearl Street Mall to Chautauqua Park (view Boulder gallery), exploring the neighborhoods in between, my tired feet thanked Carolyn for once again playing tour guide.


Small and colorful homes in the heart of Boulder’s Iris Hollow. Photo by Simmons Buntin.

Our first stop was Iris Hollow, a small, pedestrian-oriented neighborhood comprised of just forty units—mostly single-family homes in the farmhouse vernacular—situated on seven acres next to a large strip mall (though you mostly wouldn’t know it). If Prospect is Colorado’s first New Urban community, then Iris Hollow must be its second. Unlike Prospect, however, it was completed years ago.

Walking through Iris Hollow is much like walking through a large garden: thin paths cut across blocks and sunflowers spill over from adjacent yards. The lots are small, landscaping is lush, and the homes are generally vibrantly colored. Like Boulder itself, the small community has a bit of an eclectic sense to it, in part because of the staggered if not jumbled lots and also because there is a one-room schoolhouse and a small barn, both red.


Iris Hollow’s mailbox station adds to the neighborhood’s garden feeling. Photo by Simmons Buntin.

View an online gallery of Iris Hollow images at http://www.simmonsbuntin.com/images/gallery/2008/nu/iris_hollow

Yet after visiting many of the region’s New Urban projects with their traditional Craftsman, Denver square, and farmhouse residential styles, I began to yearn again for the distinct, if not unexpected, Modernist architecture of Prospect. Fortunately, the Holiday Neighborhood in north Boulder fit the bill—in design, affordability, and “green” construction.


The Holiday Neighborhood’s inviting if not eclectic residential architecture as seen from its community garden. Photo by Simmons Buntin.

Back in 2005, author and cohousing advocate David Wann wrote, “The Holiday Neighborhood is a world-class model of a sustainable, affordable residential and commercial development. By design, its houses and yards are smaller than average, but open space per capita is higher; retail and work/live opportunities are part of the neighborhood; high levels of energy efficiency, water efficiency, and passive solar heating and daylighting are standard; and ‘livability’ is enhanced by features such as a large park, a community garden and orchard, and a central, unifying walkway that invites people to get out of their cars and their houses. This neighborhood will be one to watch.”

The Holiday Neighborhood is one to watch, and is happily easy to spot from U.S. 36 heading into Boulder from the north because the developers preserved the original Holiday Drive-In sign. That’s where Carolyn and I started, weaving our way through Holiday’s expansive community garden and onto the thin streets. At the east edge of the neighborhood, the residential architecture clearly draws from Plains farmhouse styles, and yet it is painted in contrasting reds and yellows and greens, and trimmed with corrugated and other textured metal sidings. The homes craftily incorporate porches and other indoor/outdoor spaces to great effect, as well.

Further in, housing styles change and on full survey, the Holiday Neighborhood is as diverse architecturally—and from a cost perspective given Boulder’s high housing prices to begin with—as any new community I’ve seen. What Holiday clearly offers over eclectic Prospect is affordability, as well as the integration of the Wild Sage Cohousing project and a block of Habitat for Humanities homes, brightly painted in their Modernist designs.

Alternatively, Holiday’s small downtown area, along 28th Street, pays homage to the humble yet attractive brick commercial buildings near downtown Boulder, with authentic signage to match. Live/work units help bridge the neighborhood’s residential and commercial areas, which cover a total of 27 acres. Even at that size, the Holiday Neighborhood is one of Boulder’s few remaining developable areas, and one of my favorite new developments.


Habitat for Humanity homes under construction in the Holiday Neighborhood. Photo by Simmons Buntin.

View an online gallery of Holiday Neighborhood images at http://www.simmonsbuntin.com/images/gallery/2008/nu/holiday

On the way out of town I learned of a few new developments that I have yet to visit. It’s always good to save something for the return trip, I believe. In Denver, America’s great urban canvas, there doesn’t appear to be a shortage of those good reasons to return.

Tags: development, energy, denver, planning, redevelopment, downtown, public art, green, neighborhoods, urbanism