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What Cities Can Do: Revitalizing Denver’s Downtown

Wellington E. Webb

At the heart of every city is a downtown, a hub that determines the city’s success or failure. Much of the momentum for our economic turnaround in Denver originated in our strategy for downtown.

One of the first things I did after taking office in 1991 was to convene a downtown summit focused on housing. Up to that point, the emphasis downtown had been on retail, not on housing. I was convinced that if a residential population could be established downtown, retail would follow. Out of the summit came several housing-oriented initiatives.

We created a downtown housing office to market our inventory of vacant buildings to housing developers and to provide developers and investors with accurate information on properties and market conditions. We also made sweeping changes in downtown zoning to encourage housing and transit-oriented development and to protect historic buildings. The land use regulations in place inhibited housing. We used higher density to encourage housing and created design standards and review. As a result, we were able to save a critical mass of our older buildings downtown. They may not have been functional for office space, but they worked as housing.

In addition, we eliminated parking as a “use by right.” Once a downtown is more than one-third parking lots, it loses its character and sense of place. We provided housing financing on unconventional projects. Once these projects were successful, they were supported by conventional lenders. We directed all our private activity bond allocations toward downtown housing projects for three years. And we created a multimillion-dollar revolving loan fund for housing, which we continue to increase.

In 1995, I convened another summit to take our success one step further. Our lower downtown was booming, and our midtown was under renovation. The time had come to expand our focus to the inner-ring neighborhoods right around downtown. They were not benefiting from the economic resurgence, but they offered lower property and building costs and a strong downtown as an anchor.

We continued several other important elements of Denver’s long-term strategy, including placing sports arenas and major cultural facilities downtown and maintaining downtown as the hub of the regional transportation system, including the initial phases of the light rail system.

One final key to our downtown revitalization has been a constructive partnership between the public and private sectors. In 1998, the International Downtown Association awarded Denver its Outstanding Achievement Award, and said that “the collaboration of the City and County of Denver, the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, and the Downtown Denver Partnership provide a model for cities all over the world.”

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