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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- & 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.