Eyes on the street: What do tax subsidies for suburban infrastructure look like on the ground?

In the spirit of Denver’s ongoing East Central and East Area neighborhood plans, were hoping to illustrate what Denver’s high level tax priorities towards suburban concrete and asphalt look like in real life?

As many of our readers already know, Denver, like most american cities openly embraced a growth ponzi scheme following world war II which allowed cities to grow fast and wide. Unfortunately, along the way we forgot to ask whether this new development was able to pay for the ongoing infrastructure maintenance to service these miles of roads, sidewalks, sewer systems, stormwater systems, schools, fire & police departments, and lots and lots of free storage spaces for private vehicles on public property. Unfortunately, the property tax paid by Denver’s suburban property owner’s rarely pays the bill for accessing and servicing their infrastructurally inefficient properties, and Denver looks like this when it comes to paying the infrastructure bill with property tax:

Does your property tax pay for your infrastructure to access and service your property?

This typically gets more exacerbated the further from downtown that we get:

Interestingly, many neighborhoods that are typically known as wealthy or “nice” are often some of the biggest beneficiaries of these infrastructure subsidies from people who often live closer to downtown, are more likely to rent, and often have lower net worth. Polo Club neighborhood is one of the worst offenders.

What does this actually look like on the street though? Understanding that infrastructure costs $1.06/sq. ft. of land in denver, here is a financial break down with Denver’s median single family home, duplex, 4-plex, and rowhome:

Single Family Homes with large lots, lots of street frontage, and lots of roads, sewers, sidewalks, paved parking, and stormwater to access and service the properties don’t have enough property tax base to support the maintenance for this built environment.
Duplex – the numbers are getting better and about half the subsidy of a single family home, but still requiring a lot of help from more productive places.
Smaller lot sizes, less street frontage per family, and more economical asphalt and concrete require even less of a subsidy. Added environmental efficiencies of shared walls and less energy use per resident especially if located near to jobs, restaurants, and services that the residents would frequent with transportation.
Finally an economically productive building type and a positive return on the cities public infrastructure investment even in a somewhat low land value area.

So what?

Denver is a very fortunate city in that it has plenty of sales tax, and lodging tax to make up the difference, but it isn’t very equitable, and not very financially resilient in the case that Denver experiences any future recessions or drawbacks in sales tax. Let’s be conscious of what were building and the long term liabilities of the development Denver promotes through its zoning and tax systems.

Denver’s Transit Data Dive -Part 1: RTD’s financial check engine light has been blinking for a while now

Shoot it to me straight doc, how bad is it?…

Looking through the numbers, Metro-Denver’s RTD financial sheet could be mistaken for Frankenstein’s monster:  routes go to places where density doesn’t exist, the majority of people who pay for the system don’t ride it, and the primary funding comes from a sales tax which is notorious for obscuring true costs and regressively impacting lower income residents.  And despite the declining ridership and ballooning debts and depreciation, RTD recently decided to raise fares to make up the shortfall. When you are down significantly at the poker table, do you really double down on your bet, to keep the gamble going?

So how much does RTD really cost residents, riders, and denverites?  

Many people are surprised to find out that fares only comprise a small percentage of RTD’s revenue – 16.79% in 2017.  For the average rider that comes out to $722.65 per year ($140M fares / (6.7% transit ridership * metro-denver 2.88M population).

Riders pay $722.65 / year

The vast majority of RTD’s funding comes from a regional sales tax of 1% which came out to 71.61% of RTD’s funding or $598 Million.  Spread out over greater Denver’s population, that represents an average cost of $207.11 per year for every resident whether you ride transit or not.

All residents of Greater Denver pay $207.11 on average

(whether they ride transit or not)

Denver tends to have higher sales tax receipts and more efficient use of space per resident; how does that translate to transit costs for a Denver proper resident?

Denver has $656 Million in city sales tax revenue 2017 based on a 4.31% city sales tax.  If you backwards calculate what the comparable RTD tax generated in the city of Denver (1%) it comes out to $152 Million which is 18.22% of RTD’s total revenue of $835 Million.

Where costs are tied to miles of transit operated and proprtional to land serviced, farebox revenue is a product of ridership and heavily dependent on population density. Denver’s 6.62% of land serviced by RTD and 18.22% of RTD’s sales tax income means that Denver’s pays a rate of 275% what other RTD member cities pay to service their land areas.

Denver is subsidizing surrounding cities and counties at a rate of 275% what other RTD member cities and counties are paying for their land to be serviced.

Based off of Denver’s additional sales tax liability, the average Denver resident likely pays closer to $569.55/year in sales tax to RTD.

Denver proper residents probably pay closer to $569.55 per year in sales tax to RTD.

(whether they ride transit or not)

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Denver Sales Tax Records – Including Gas Tax) -https://www.denvergov.org/content/dam/denvergov/Portals/344/documents/transparency/General_Fund_Revenue_Report.pdf

In particular to combat lower revenue of decreasing ridership, RTD just increased the Local fare 15% from $2.60 to $3, the regional fare increased 27% from $4.50 to $5.25 and the fare to Denver International Airport increased 16% from $9 to $10.50.  While RTD nobly reduced fares for low income folks, children and seniors, it ignores the elephant in the room that ridership is declining roughly 1% per year for the last 5 years.  This ridership decline is despite Denver’s growing population and additional transit lines to low density suburbs.   In total only about 6% of Metro Denver’s population uses transit compared to solo vehicle commuting at 67.9%.

Commute Mode Share

 

Is it wise to raise the cost to ride, when there is a ridership problem?  Denver, even before the rate hike, had some of the most expensive fares in the country as of 2017…

 

Any solutions?

Option 1: Go full Netherlands…

At this point, honestly, consider just making the system free and consider reducing service to neighborhoods that are built around cars not buses.  When only 16.7% is from fares and the system costs $835M every year, consider making the fares free and at least you will get higher ridership for the massively subsidized system.  Lots of run on benefits may be realized as well in reduced pollution, less traffic deaths, decreased congestion, less DUIs and more when considering the considerable costs of subsidized parking of personal vehicles around Denver (this all of course assumes that induced demand doesn’t immediately fill the gap, which data shows it probably will).  Maybe consider a $10 year long pass that can be purchased by any rider, simply so that people have a slight ownership of the privilege it is to ride public transit and be able to revoke access to people who don’t treat it with respect for the enjoyment of everyone else using it (disruptive/scary/inappropriate behavior).

If Denverites alone, were to cover the $140M farebox to make RTD free to the whole front range it could be done with a sales tax increase of less than 1% as Denver’s current 1% sales tax contribution is estimated to be around $152 Million.  If all of RTD’s participating 2.92 Million people participated (instead of Denver’s ~704,000 people), free public transit could be realized with an additional sales tax as low as .24% on top of the 1% already charged for a total of 1.24%.

Transit could be completely free for a sales tax of 1.24% instead of the current 1%

Option 2: The equitable solution, land tax:

If Denver wanted to really make free transit costs equitable they could instead use a land tax (not property tax) to make up the farebox proceeds and could have free transit at a cost of $0.14 per square foot of land ($140M / 1.07B sq. ft. of property).  This is compared to what we currently pay in property taxes $0.67 per square foot of land or our true cost of infrastructure $1.06/sq. ft. land.

If you have a standard old lot size of 3,125 feet in an older neighborhood you would pay about $437/year. If you have a sprawling 12,000 square foot lot in the Polo Club requiring significantly more infrastructure to service it and carbon output to maintain your lifestyle, the costs would be loser to $1600/year.  If you own or rent a more efficient apartment or condo, congrats you get to crowd source these costs with the rest of your building.

Transit could be completely free for an equitable $0.14 per sq. ft. land tax.

Option 3: It’s the density, Stupid!

If you choose to live in a far flung suburban neighborhood with primarily single family homes, maybe you are making a transit choice that other’s shouldn’t be forced to pay for?  Should RTD really be gloating about sheer numbers of remote square miles serviced (as observed on it’s website) or perhaps it’s time for quality over quantity approach to transit focused on providing quality and enjoyable transit to dense neighborhoods that could best use it?  These neighborhoods would offer the best bang for the buck to take additional cars off the road, or maybe even tilt the equation for the 73% of people who travel alone by car to work if a better transit alternative existed?

Transit could be free if RTD cut costs and prioritized moving the most number of people- largely in denser neighborhoods – rather than than focusing on glamour stats like number of far flung square miles serviced

One last armchair expert critique:

Not to dog pile, but a personal regret as a CU Boulder alum, is that the light rail line that showed the greatest promise with density and actually has existing rail line is the only one not completed to date.  From the perspective of an armchair blogger, 40,000 college kids that often don’t own cars and would like to regularly get around the front range in a quality way, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of other residents and businesses along the corridor, seems like an ideal route to prioritize?

Of course I am talking about the long awaited and indefinitely deferred proposed B-Line to Boulder & Longmont.

Fact Check: Denver Post’s ‘Declining Green Space Due to Density’ is Misleading

Mr. Bruce Finley, of the Denver Post, recently wrote an article decrying:

“As development eats away at Denver’s green space, the “city within a park” is becoming a concrete metropolis.”

While Mr. Finley’s (who was a Fulbright scholar in Britain and has a journalism degree from Northwestern University) statement that there was 19% imperviousness in 1974 and 48% coverage today statements may be correct, he sloppily points a lazy finger at dense development downtown without first checking the facts, using arbitrary pictures of downtown to supposedly illustrate the story of density being the culprit:

 

Unfortunately, Mr. Finley did not fact check where impervious development specifically occurred and what these areas looked like before 1974, which also happened to be impervious and looked like this:

 

Old Downtown Parking
Immense parking lots following the destruction of old “blighted” downtown Denver in the 50s and 60s

 

Ask most urban planning academics for their thoughts on the actual cause of “development eats away at Denver’s green space” (including Mr. Muller- who was quoted in the article -I would contend), and they can point Mr. Finley in a much more accurate direction that has been ubiquitous for America -> sprawl & single family residences (86.2% of Denver’s residential land use)  and the car infrastructure needed for a single family home lifestyle (parking, asphalt roads, and garages).

So what are the facts and what does the data say?

Here is the breakdown of impervious area parcel development since 1974 in Denver:

Impervious Area Since 1974
Impervious Area In Denver Constructed since 1974 – (Please keep in mind that this does not include the impervious area of public property such as the roads, sidewalks, and street parking that is required to service these private parcels.  Single Family homes are the most road (impervious area) intensive land uses of public space that exist per capita in the US)

Where exactly has this development happened?

Many long time Denver residents can probably intuitively help Mr. Finley along with where development has focused over the last 5 decades.  I’ll give you a hint on some really big ones… the redevelopment of Stapleton Airport, DTC, Green Valley Ranch, Montbello, and SW Denver into largely single family homes.

Impervious Area Since 1974 - Downtown and Stapleton.png
parcel development in Denver since 1974 – Downtown and Stapleton

Impervious Area Since 1974 - DTC
parcel development in Denver since 1974 – DTC

Impervious Area Since 1974 - SW Denver
parcel development in Denver since 1974 – SW Denver

Impervious Area Since 1974 - East Denver.png
parcel development in Denver since 1974 – East Denver

Interestingly, Mr. Finley did not comment on the fact that the amount of Park Space protected by Denver has actually increased over this time as well.

Ultimately, when a resident is physically unable to walk to a coffee shop in a single family neighborhood, one will need car-sized parking spaces and car-sized impervious roads to every conceivable destination.  If we want to accurately investigate the decline of green space in Denver, we need to correctly point the finger at spread out, single family, suburban style neighborhood sprawl and the car infrastructure tied to it.

Lastly, regardless of construction date, here is Denver’s parcel impervious area by land use:

Impervious Area All of Denver
Denver’s impervious area by land use

Additional Bonus Satellite Pictures:

Denver Satellite - 1984
Denver Satellite – 1984

Denver Satellite - 2019
Denver Satellite – 2016

Infrastructure Data Dive: Denver’s Single Family Suburban Homeowners are Heavily Subsidized by Urbanists

Denver, like most American cities, has a lot of infrastructure debt that future generations and urban dwellers are going to get stuck with the bill for maintaining and paying off… Perhaps more surprising though is just how many ‘wealthy suburban neighborhoods’ aren’t capable of covering the cost of their own infrastructure.

By far, the largest portion of a Denverite’s taxes goes to infrastructure (34%), and in an America that is addicted to traveling by cars and single family homes that require them, who is actually paying for these roads, sewer pumps, water lines, parking garages, storm water, parks, libraries, firehouses, and sidewalks extending into far flung suburban neighborhoods?

While the costs for all of these pieces of infrastructure are relatively linear (a mile of road costs the same in Stapleton as it does in Baker), interestingly the Denver property tax is directly proportional to value: 77.365 mill levy (meaning $77.365 on every $1k assessed in 2018) on the residential assessed value which is 7.2% of the actual property value.

This property tax (20% of Denver’s revenue) combined with sales tax spent in Denver (34% of revenue), “Charges for Services” (20% of revenue), Operating Grants (9%), and Lodging Tax (5% – a 10.75% tax on airbnbs and hotels) make up the lions share of Denver’s revenue (88%).

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https://www.denvergov.org/content/denvergov/en/transparent-denver/revenue.html#

So with all this income, where is it getting spent? Thanks to Denver’s neat Tax Receipt Tool, we can see where the breakdown of where our taxes are going. Denver uses an example of $56,258 for household income, with a $400,000 house and the tax receipt looks like this:

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https://www.denvergov.org/content/denvergov/en/denver-department-of-finance/financial-reports/city-budget.html

As you can see, Infrastructure (also known as “Capital Projects”) makes up 34% of the spending and is composed of all of the roads bridges, and public facilities that makes living in Denver so great such as our recently passed $937 million elevate denver go bond. This leads to the first realization:

Property taxes alone don’t cover the cost of the infrastructure to access, service and enrich Denver’s properties. With infrastructure making up 34% of Denver’s expenditures and property tax only making up 20% of the income of Denver’s budget, Sales tax receipts and “Charges for Services” largely subsidize the 14% discrepancy between the expenditure and revenue. Ultimately 41% of Infrastructure Debt is subsidized by someone other than the property owner.

Takeaway #1: 41% of Denver’s infrastructure debt to access, service, and enrich homeowners, is subsidized by someone other than the property owners.

What’s more, not all property taxes are created equal. As alluded above, the costs of infrastructure are mostly linear (a fire station costs the same in Stapleton as it does in Baker), but the Denver property tax is directly proportional to the value of the property no matter how many square feet of land or acres it takes up. Unlike infrastructure, which mostly costs the same per square foot anywhere in the city, a single family home on a 5000 sq. ft. lot in baker may have a much greater valuation than a 5000 sq. ft. home in Stapleton and thus pay more property taxes despite having the same amount of land in Denver, serviced by the same number of roads, water lines, sidewalks, parking spaces, libraries, firehouses, and sewer and wastewater pipes.

With property taxes being a product of valuation and infrastructure being a product of lot size, we did a deep dive into Denver’s data sets to figure out which neighborhoods are subsidizing which neighborhoods, and below is the results:

Property Tax Paid per Land
Property tax paid per square foot by neighborhood.  See here and here for zoomed in neighborhood detail…

You will notice that Denver’s average paid tax is $0.62 per square foot of land. That means that in addition to property owners overall having their infrastructure subsidized by other revenue streams, homeowners in neighborhoods less dense (thus usually less profitable for the city) than the Sloan’s Lake neighborhood are additionally being subsidized by renters and property owners in more profitable (thus typically more dense) neighborhoods.

Takeaway #2: Home owners less dense than $0.62 of property tax per sq. ft. land (roughly the density of Sloan’s Lake) are being subsidized by residents who are typically closer to downtown, typically younger, and typically more likely to rent according to denver’s last census and datasets.

You can do the calculation on your own home if you would like? Simply take the lot size in square feet multiplied by $0.62 and you will get what you should be paying in tax for your property if you were paying your fair share of property taxes (you can look up your property tax here on Denver’s website as well as your lot size). If your actual property tax is lower than the calculation, you are being subsidized by residents of higher density neighborhoods closer to downtown.

Taking a look at Denver’s largest neighborhoods with the most units, it becomes apparent that lots of large neighborhoods are on the list for not being able to pay for their own infrastructure and often have lots of single family low density housing.

 

Property Class Breakdown Throughout Denver
Many of Denver’s largest neighborhoods (by housing) tend to be overwhelmingly single unit.  56.1% of units and 86.2% of land is for single family housing in Denver.

 

So what if Denver charged these homeowners for the actual cost of infrastructure to access and service their homes? Where $0.62 of tax / sq. ft. land roughly covers 20% of the cities income, what if we increased it to match the 34% of the city’s budget that goes to infrastructure, or $1.054 of paid tax per sq. ft. land? (Also verified by 3.32 B total expenditures*34% infrastructure/1.07B sq. ft. of property) The result would look something like this…

Overall Neighborhoods Covering their true infrastructure debt ($1.054 per sq. ft. land)
Neighborhoods above the break even line pay enough in tax to cover the true cost of infrastructure in Denver (roughly $1.054/square foot of land). See below for more neighborhood detail…

Neighborhoods covering their true infrastructure debt ($1.054 per sq. ft. land)
Denver’s neighborhoods above the break even line generate enough tax to pay for their true cost of infrastructure, and create a surplus for Denver.

Neighborhoods Not Covering their true infrastructure debt ($1.054 per sq. ft. land)
Denver’s neighborhoods below the break even line create large annual infrastructure liabilities for Denver despite their property taxes.

Overall, older more dense neighborhoods closer to downtown are able to pay for their own true cost of infrastructure. Sprawling suburban neighborhoods with low property values tend to not pay for themselves. Notable among the least solvent neighborhoods are some relatively “nice” ones including Virginia Village, Green Valley, and University Hills. This is in line with emerging national awareness of these problems as published in Chuck Marohn’s Strong Towns article about detrimental infrastructure creation.

The above values, while only as accurate as Denver’s public data sets, represent the annual cost or benefit of the neighborhoods in regards to paying for their infrastructure. And yes, the most egregious offender on this list is Montbello creating a $44.3 million infrastructure liability each year, followed by Virginia Village creating a $20.7 million infrastructure liability each year. This is in contrast to Denver’s CBD which more than paid for it’s infrastructure along with a $4.3 million surplus followed closely by LODO creating a $3.9 million surplus.

Takeaway #3: Property owners paying less than $1.054 of property tax per sq. ft. land are not paying their proportional share of Denver’s infrastructure costs. The shortfall is being covered by more productive neighborhoods, and by revenue streams other than property taxes.

By the way, with all these subsidies, we didn’t even mention the other large subsidy in the room…

If you ever wondered what happened to all of Denver’s small, independent, brick and mortar businesses. Look no further than the commercial 29% property tax assessment rate compared to 7.2% for residential. This coupled with the Gallagher amendment has created a lot of headaches for small local business owners in recent decades.

Takeaway #4: If you can’t walk to a local coffee shop, baker, salon, or grocery store, you should consider asking your city councilwoman or man why they are taxing these brick and mortar stores at 29% assessment rate to residential’s 7.2%

A couple other items to note: Keep eating out and grabbing a pint with your friends! The majority of Denver’s sales tax revenue, comes from these types of activities with sales tax from home improvement coming in at number 2:

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Denver Sales Tax Revenues by Category – https://www.denvergov.org/content/dam/denvergov/Portals/344/documents/transparency/revenue/Sales_Tax_by_Category.pdf

There will no doubt be some folks who cry out with “but wait, what about the gas tax paying for our roads?” You are living in the wrong century, friends. The gas tax has been 22 cents per gallon since the early 1990s and has hardly kept up with inflation or the states 1 billion dollar infrastructure shortfall let alone Denver’s. Yet a fraction of that does trickle down into Denver’s revenue creating about 1.6% of Denver’s revenues… hardly enough to to really remedy the rotten economics of far flung, low density, car dependent, single family homes.

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Denver Sales Tax Records – Including Gas Tax) -https://www.denvergov.org/content/dam/denvergov/Portals/344/documents/transparency/General_Fund_Revenue_Report.pdf

Map- Economic Profitability
Map of economically productive parcels in Denver that are able to cover the cost of their own infrastructure.

Cracks in Denver’s Asphalt Reveal Hints of it’s Former Glory

With denverization now becoming a thing, and some surrounding states complaining of our contagious beige, short-sighted, development overflowing to them, Denver is at a crossroads of deciding what the future of Denver will look like?

Fortunately, if you look hard enough, there are some cracks in Denver’s denverization, that point towards it’s history of embracing beautiful long-term design aesthetics that placed people first, instead of trying to get as many cars past the front of our houses as possible.

Kinda like witnessing a gigantic dinosaur bone at the museum, this intersection at the corner of Ogden and 11th outside Park Tavern (and the former Whole Foods), always gets me thinking of what once was and how different of an environment Capitol Hill must have been in its early 1900s glory. If you look closely, there are some uncannily parallel, curved cracks in the road leading from 11th to Ogden. They are just about the width of a train track, and placed in the center of the road right where an ideal streetcar might have been placed. If I was a betting man, I would think that some short sighted Denver city council reps simply decided to pave over the tram tracks largely at the bequest of General Motors lobbying and dubious market manipulation in the 1940s and 50s…

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A quick look at Ryan Keeney’s streetcar map reveals that was the exact route of Denver’s old streetcar through Capitol Hill towards what is today Cherry Creek. Any chance Denver city council might pay to get these tracks re-revealed? If not for actual use, allowing denverites to see what was previously possible with less than a third (250k in 1917) of it’s current population and a fraction of the resources, might inspire some good conversation on how we might be able to re-realize a city not so dependent on the automobile, while enhancing our city economically, environmentally, and socially.

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Denver and Cap Hill in the 1880s and 90s housed 17 of Colorado’s very few Millionaires (largely from the mining booms) and was a grand place with bucolic streets everywhere you looked.  Thanks to decades of Denver’s temperamental climate, and asphalt proving not as durable as the underlying brick pavers, there exists a small section of the original exposed brick streetscape that can give an idea of what the neighborhood might have looked like in it’s original prime. It is located 3 quarters of the block up from 16th as you head towards 17th street on the east side of Ogden. In what I think can only be a chance miracle of Denver not immediately paving back over it, and it also being so nicely exposed after layers of concrete and asphalt have been added and torn off over the decades, to my knowledge, it is the only example of it’s kind in Denver…

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In person, even with it’s century of service, the old paved lattice boasts rich red and purple brick, and has an instant authenticity that lies in stark contrast to the cracked withering asphalt haphazardly patched and laid next to it. Interestingly, when it snows, this section rarely builds ice thanks to the water dissipating through the brick lattice, and unlike the asphalt streets doesn’t require a large curve to push the water to the sides. In a lot of ways it is strikingly beautiful and hints towards a lifestyle without 2 ton cars and roads needing replacing every year.

The last picture I have is of a humble alley, that isn’t exceptionally spectacular except for it’s remarkably compact size next to 2 nice looking old brick houses. The small scale of the alley hints towards a more human scale development style that prioritized walking distances and convenience over 20′ clear regulations for ever increasingly large fire trucks through the years due to backward policies from lobbyists and self-preserving fire department budgets.

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This one near 7th and Clarkson, is the smallest alley I’ve seen in Denver, and reminds me that large streets, side setbacks, and separation of neighbors isn’t actually needed/required and is in many ways at a disadvantage to the very beautiful and practical person-oriented development observable above. Despite our zoning code forcing us towards the larger more suburban development of the last 50 years, compact, walkable, development boasts considerable advantages if only it were allowed today amidst Denver’s new denverization.

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The Key to Adding Beautiful Sustainable Density to Denver May Lie in its Past

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(NW corner of 17th and Ogden)

One of the most telling intersections in Denver lies at the corner of 17th and Ogden.  What was originally a neighborhood of large mansions and ornate apartments for Denver’s 1890s elite, is still a vibrant thriving streetscape that has managed to stand the test of time nearly 130 years later. Not to mention being one of the most profitable to the city on a square foot of land basis.

Today’s construction, and America’s construction obsessions of the last couple decades, has been characterized by single family far flung suburban sprawl into places like Parker and Lone Tree. Development in the city has been focused on either large scale development of urban parking lots or the scrapping of modest single family homes for even larger single family homes in affluent neighborhoods such as Wash Park, Park Hill, and Cherry Creek.

 

Interestingly, these 130 year old houses manage to surpass new development  in 5 important ways:  economic benefit, social benefit, sustainable housing, long-term beauty, and affordable housing.

 

  1. Economic Benefit:  While today’s accounting practices in America are focused on growth and unemployment, a quick look into these houses reveals a metric of benefit long forgotten, the creation of long-term neighborhood wealth that can be seen in 2 important ways, pound for pound profitability, and small businesses.

 

Strong Towns has a great article on this, but early Denver construction seeked to maximize infrastructure’s long term viability while placing an emphasis on making the most per square foot of land by thoughtfully providing density and reducing the infrastructure costs per person living there.  This natural advantage of reducing costs and daily wear and tear through more people sharing the cost of maintaining roads, water lines, sewer lines, sidewalks, and public transit, meant that costs are much lower and these properties today are some of the strongest pound for pound economic producers in the city.  This is in far contrast to suburban neighborhoods and shopping malls, which in many places in the US are contributing to a long term ponzi scheme where new construction tries to continually stemmy the cost of previously built unaffordable infrastructure on large spread out development. Even in Denver, you can see urban neighborhoods subsidizing affluent spread out neighborhoods through the use of $5,000 SUDP fees on new development where properties close to downtown have highly cost-effective gravity fed sewage drainage, yet they must pay the cost of expensive pumps that distant single family homes need in order to pump their sewage to processing stations.

 

These grand old houses also have another highly valuable trait built into their core: the allowance of small businesses to create neighborhood wealth and jobs, and the flexibility to meet the neighborhoods needs over time.  The 3 houses in the picture above actually contain 4 housing units (that we know of legally), a coffee shop, an upscale spa, and law offices. That is some considerable sales tax being produced by these properties, while providing locals with long-term jobs, housing, and perhaps most importantly allowing neighborhood residents to access these services without having to get into their expensive cars.  This is in drastic contrast to Denver’s current zoning code for the majority of “newer” neighborhoods which mandates that all single family houses be built in one neighborhood, and commercial businesses must be built in separate areas requiring expensive and environmentally damaging transportation methods.

 

17th Street Charming Condos
NE Corner of 17th & Ogden

 

  1. Social benefit.  This has been the focus of many studies in the last decade, but the evidence strongly supports that people who live in walkable neighborhoods are happier, healthier, and wiser.  Interestingly, people in walkable neighborhoods tend to have more relationships, watch less T.V., trust their neighbors more, and have significantly reduced instances of depression.  Additionally, residents of walkable neighborhoods tend to live longer, due to the built environment of car dependent homes contributing to the top 7 causes of death in America and 8 out of the top 10 if you count depression.

 

  1.  Suburban sprawl is an environmental disaster, and has been know to be for quite some time.  Even with the increased insulation standards and high efficiency furnaces, heating or cooling a 3000 sq. ft house in the suburbs is orders of magnitude less efficient than heating or cooling one of these old brick apartments or office spaces.  Yet again the zoning code promotes new single family housing, while requiring expensive efficiency overhauls and costly updates to energy efficiency standards when middle class homeowners attempt to thoughtfully add density through basement, garage, and loft conversions that could easily provide affordable housing, without greatly increasing environmental impacts.  And that is only in the ~12% of properties where changes in occupancy by middle class homeowners aren’t barred altogether from being single family (see below & condos included).

Denver Zoning Breakdown

 

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SE Corner of 17th & Ogden

 

  1. & 5.  Long term beauty & affordable housing:  Hold on to your hats on this one, but the historic, beautiful apartments that can be seen in the above picture are Section 8 housing.  That’s right, the old brick and stone building, with arched windows, decorative entryways, oriel windows, arched balconies, and Denver vernacular decorative eaves is rented by folks who cannot afford market rate rent.

 

This is possible because of 1 very basic trait that we have long taken for granted.  When we build structures with beautiful aesthetic standards and shift our priorities to time horizons of 100 years or more, we make resilient buildings that can adapt to the changing needs of time, and spread out the original expensive cost of production to residents who will enjoy and profit from those buildings for generations to come.  Our zoning code and accounting practices are so addicted to short term growth and single family housing, that we are destroying wealth that could be passed on for future generations to enjoy at very affordable costs.

 

America is addicted to short term perspectives and big beige development and single family homes.  For the sake of economic, environmental, and social viability, there seems to be an old simple, walkable, mixed use neighborhood structure that we have long forgot.   Let’s switch our development focus to more long term horizons and provide wealth for future generations to enjoy, not to mention all the beautiful buildings we might get to to look at in the meantime.

The 7 Top Causes of Death in America are a Product of our Built Environment

(and number 10 would help too)

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America and our cities have been addicted to single family houses and spread out development for over 70 years now.  Not only have we made single family homes with plenty of distance between neighbors the norm, but we went one step further in attempting to make our neighborhoods look alike by banning small owner-occupant businesses such as bakeries, restaurants, and shops, effectively requiring a car dependent lifestyle for the vast majority of residents.

 

What are we left with?  A society where people are pressed for free time due to long commutes and leaves little time for exercise that are an inherent aspect of running errands in a walkable neighborhood.  The exercise that many people in walkable neighborhoods get from walking to the grocery store, restaurant, or hair salon commonly isn’t realized by families of less means that are forced to buy less expensive housing further from downtown and the amenities they typically would like to enjoy.

 

While lots of literature explores the effects of living in a non-walkable neighborhood, Jeff Speck’s Walkable City does a great job of discussing the economic impacts:

 

    “Families of limited means move farther and farther away from city centers in order to find housing that is cheap enough to meet bank lending requirements.  Unfortunately, in doing so, they often find that driving costs outweigh any housing savings. This phenomenon was documented in 2006, when gasoline averaged $2.86/ gallon. At that time, households, in the auto zone were devoting roughly a quarter of their income to transportation, while those in walkable neighborhoods spent will under half that amount.

    No surprise then, that as gasoline broke $4.00 per gallon and the housing bubble burst, the epicenter of foreclosures occurred at the urban periphery, “places that required a fleet of cars in order to participate in society, draining their mortgage carrying capacity,” as Chris Leinberger notes.”

 

Couple the added financial stress of spread out single family development, to the health impacts of less exercise and you start to see a pattern in the top 7 causes of death in the US.  Let’s go through them specifically:

 

  1. Heart disease: 635,260 deaths – Researchers found that heart attack patients who participated in a formal exercise program experienced a reduced death rate of 20 to 25 percent. Some studies showed an even higher rate of reduction. Several large reviews of past research also conclude that those patients who engage in exercise-based rehabilitation after a heart attack are more likely to live longer.
  2. Cancer: 598,038 deaths – There is substantial evidence that higher levels of physical activity are linked to lower risks of several cancers. 24% of colon, 12% breast, endometrial 20%.
  3. Accidents (unintentional injuries): 161,374 deaths – Motor Vehicle Traffic Deaths make up the 2nd largest share with 37,461 in 2016.  Logically, fewer trips would result in fewer deaths.  The first largest is “accidental” overdose which has been largely correlated with a lack of social belonging and access to mental health facilities which can be hard to access in far flung, car dependent neighborhoods.
  4. Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 154,596 deaths – Exercise — especially exercise that works your lungs and heart — has many benefits for those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Exercise can:Improve how well your body uses oxygen. … Strengthen your heart, lower your blood pressure, and improve your circulation.
  5. Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 142,142 deaths – Exercise helps lower high blood pressure, which is an important risk factor for stroke. Exercise can help you control other things that put you at risk, such as obesity, high cholesterol and diabetes.
  6. Alzheimer’s disease: 116,103 deaths – According to the Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation, regular physical exercise can reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by up to 50 percent. What’s more, exercise can also slow further deterioration in those who have already started to develop cognitive problems. -https://www.helpguide.org/articles/alzheimers-dementia-aging/preventing-alzheimers-disease.htm
  7. Diabetes: 80,058 deaths – Aerobic Exercise. Aerobic exercise makes your heart and bones strong, relieves stress and improves blood circulation. It also lowers your risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke by keeping your blood glucose.
  8. (Bonus)  #10 is Suicide, and studies have shown that the increased feeling of community that comes from walkable vibrant neighborhoods (social capital) correlates to a significant reduced risk of suicide.  Social Capital is the relationships you generate to have friends, family, mentors, and meaning in your life. It has been found, that by living close to neighbors, you increase your odds of chance encounters that often lead to relationships and provide more meaningful lives.

The end result is that a denser, more walkable neighborhood, provides for a higher quality and quantity of life with an added bonus of more meaningful relationships and purpose for a neighborhoods residents.  This should be a no-brainer for city and government leadership looking to improve the quality of the their residents lives.

 

References:

1-https://www.healthline.com/health/heart-disease/exercise#3

2-https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/obesity/physical-activity-fact-sheet

3-https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/accidental-injury.htm

4-https://www.webmd.com/lung/copd/copd-and-exercise-breathing-and-exercise-programs-for-copd

5-https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/health-topics/hw223366

6https://www.helpguide.org/articles/alzheimers-dementia-aging/preventing-alzheimers-disease.htm

7-http://www.diabetes.org/are-you-at-risk/lower-your-risk/activity.html

10-https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0277953614005747

Denver’s Upcoming Transit Projects!

Here are some of the coolest transit development projects to (possibly) look forward to in Denver!

-Colfax BRT, 5280 Loop Trail, 21st Street Plaza, Upcoming Bike Streets, Denver Transit Authority?, and dream big with ‘beyond FasTracks’

Colfax BRT

Current Plan (Nov 2018): Colfax BRT (Bus Rapid Transit)

ETA: 2019, 2021+

Where: On Colfax from I-25/Auraria campus (CU Denver, Metro State, Comm. Col. of Denver) to the CU Anschutz medical campus/ I-225.

What started as a feasibility study of reimplementing the historic streetcar route from 1887 (thanks Ryan Keeney!), this one has been in the works for years!  On Denver’s most infamous and one of the most trafficked streets in Denver, Colfax has been ripe for better transit for decades.

While the City of Denver watered down their original plans for a modern streetcar, they are currently planning on moving to a center running BRT (bus rapid transit) system which would implement buses that are “as train like as possible” with high platforms, updating upcoming bus times, and dedicated bus lanes.

colfax-BRT-renderingstudy-boundary-CRBRTcenter-running-BRT

5280 Bike Loop/Trail

ETA: Unknown

This one comes as an awesome effort from the Denver Downtown Partnership, but has been oddly silent lately.  It makes a full mile long loop around downtown Denver touching multiple important sites such as Union Station, Coors Field, the State Capitol, West High School, Santa Fe Arts District, Pepsi Center, and the Auraria Campus.  The full concept presentation can be found here.  It also includes the 21st street development mentioned below…

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21st Street Woonerf / Bike Street / Urban Trail

ETA: Unknown

What is a woonerf you say?  A woonerf is a living street with features such as shared spacetraffic calming, and low speed limits.

Creating a much needed connection down a particularly bleak and unused road, 21st is uniquely positioned in that it starts at Coors Field on the west side, extends through downtown and directly into Benedict Fountain Park in Uptown.  Below images are taken from the 2015 original design.

Last summer (2018) Denver did a pop up park to test the feasibility of the concept, and as you can see in the video below, ‘The Square on 21st’ turned out pretty cool!

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Upcoming bike street development?

We have a whole separate blog post dedicated to the ongoing projects, but here is a teaser image of the new bike crossing to City Park across 17th along Garfield St…

 

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Northwest B Rail Line to Boulder

ETA: 2022, 2044

Originally funded by a .4% sales tax increase as part of the original FasTracks metrowide commuter rail program, there were a lot of pissed off residents of popular Boulder, Longmont, and Louisville when the completion date was pushed to 2044 as RTD cited funding shortages and breakdown of negotiations with Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) for use of the right-of-way along BNSF’s existing freight rail lines, as BNSF was only ever willing to give up operating windows on its lines — times when RTD could run its commuter trains that wouldn’t interfere with BNSF freight cars.

In any case, this is still a highly anticipated connection to some of the most populated areas of the front range and will be an invaluable alternative for students at CU Boulder and tech workers who regularly endure the heavily congested U.S. 36 between Denver and Boulder.

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Dedicated Denver Transit Authority?

With Colorado voters voting no on Prop 110 to raise transportation spending by nearly 60%, the stage is even more set for Denver to break off from RTD and create it’s own Transit Authority for transit projects within Denver.  As covered by The Denver Post:

Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration may move to create a new city transportation agency as Denver considers a transit investment that could total billions of dollars.

Denver officials have been talking publicly since 2017 about the idea of creating the new department. Now, the director of Denver Public Works says the decision could go to voters as early as May or November 2019, if elected leaders approve.

In the short term, the change could allow the city to better coordinate its efforts on transportation and mobility. It also could lay the groundwork for larger projects and changes.

The big idea

Currently, the city’s Department of Public Works handles everything from trash collection to automobile traffic and dockless scooters. The potential new department would take over all the city’s transportation-related duties, and it would be led by a new cabinet-level position, which would create new prominence for transportation issues in the city.

The change would have to go first through Denver City Council and then be approved in a local election. The decision comes as the city weighs long-term transportation plans that could cost billions.

The city’s plan for the next 22 years outlines about $1.7 billion worth of potential spending on sidewalks and trails alone. The administration also wants to build up transportation services on major corridors like Colorado Boulevard, whether it’s special bus lanes or new rail lines.

Moving beyond RTD?

Right now, the city relies on the Regional Transportation District for its bus and train service — but the city’s ambitions may exceed RTD’s budget.

Transit lines in BoulderGolden and Aurora have all faced reduced service recently; RTD said the cuts were a response to low ridership. And a planned rail line to Boulder has been delayed past 2040. That has prompted some cities in the northwestern metro to consider a lawsuit, and Boulder also has looked at the idea of a new local transit authority.

In Denver, the creation of a new department would not necessarily come with new money. And the city is unlikely to replace RTD’s core services.

Beyond Fastracks? – Dreaming big for future transit in Denver

Back in 2005 when some of the first expansions to Denver’s light rail were coming to a close, Steve Boland & Dan Malouff set about thinking of how to connect Denver’s most populous near in neighborhoods with downtown, similar to the old, original historic streetcar routes from 1887 (thanks Ryan Keeney!).  What they envisioned is bold and exciting and came with several options from the website now hosted at http://denverinfill.com/streetcar/ and observed below…

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If I missed any current Denver development projects, please let me know in the comments below!

 

Denver’s Upcoming Bike Street Projects!

W 35th Ave Neighborhood Bikeway — Status: Design in Progress

ETA: partially completed, Spring 2019

Where: West 35th from Navajo to Sheridan

Final Report

Knox Court Neighborhood Bikeway — Status: Design in Progress

ETA: Spring 2019

Study & Design

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Garfield St Neighborhood Bikeway — Status: Study Completed

ETA: Unknown

Where: Garfield Street corridor between City Park and the Cherry Creek Trail

Final Report

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E 12th Ave Neighborhood Bikeway — Status: Study Completed

ETA: Unknown

Where: 12th Avenue corridor between Garfield Street and Yosemite Street (City of Aurora)

Final Report

 

12th and Colorado Blvd crossing…

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Moving from Hale Parkway to 12th St…

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Jogging over at Monaco to stay on 12th…

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Yield to bikes along Yosemite…

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Awesome work to Dan Rain, Michael Koslow & Denver Moves!

What is Denver’s Colfax BRT and what happened to the modern streetcar plans?

Current Plan (Nov 2018): Colfax BRT (Bus Rapid Transit)

ETA: 2019, 2021+

Where: On Colfax from I-25/Auraria campus (CU Denver, Metro State, Comm. Col. of Denver) to the CU Anschutz medical campus/ I-225.

What started as a feasibility study of reimplementing the historic streetcar route from 1887 (thanks Ryan Keeney!), this one has been in the works for years!  On Denver’s most infamous and one of the most heavily traveled streets in Denver, Colfax has been ripe for better transit for decades.  Not to knock the notorious 15, which is the most traveled bus line in Denver and provides immense value to its travelers, but ask Denverites and nicknames such as the “rolling mental health bus” and this especially egregious tirade from car and traffic lover Neil Westergaard from the DBJ are elicited:

“People don’t choose to ride the bus on Colfax… they often have to put up with belligerant [sic], dirty, smelly, disruptive and dangerous people”

colfax-BRT-rendering

 

center-running-BRTstudy-boundary-CRBRT

Streetcar on Colfax
Denver’s Colfax Streetcar shortly before being dismantled in 1950

While the 2010 streetcar feasibility study was met with enthusiastic support from business owners and residents alike all along Colfax, the city eventually watered down the proposal to still use buses but make them “as train like as possible” with dedicated center running lanes and bus level concrete platforms.  Specifically, the 2015 alternatives cited their decision on environment (streetcar would not have required fossil fuels, and would have been less loud), cost (streetcars would have been more cost-effective according to the 2010 study) and deliverability (no one really knows but streetcar is “FAIR/POOR”).

Also, important, but completely left out of the evaluation, is the ability of streetcars to be a placemaker.  Streetcars have long been used as a tool for economic stimulation and development along corridors, and regularly boasts orders of magnitude greater property development than bus lines, which has the ability to make more areas of Denver actually solvent when it comes to covering their true cost of infrastructure.

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2015 – Colfax Alternatives Analysis

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Comparison of noise impacts from urban transport – Loughborough University 2007

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2010 – Streetcar feasibility Study

 

Despite Denver getting cold feet and backing away from their original bold and exciting streetcar design, the BRT will bring some much needed improvement to the most popular transit corridor in Denver and hopefully revitalize one of Denver’s most important, historical, and promising streets!

Colfax 15L
DENVER, CO – FEBRUARY 23: RTD passengers load onto the 15L bus at East Colfax Ave and Lincoln St. February 23, 2018. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)