Imagine a Speer Boulevard that’s cut to six lanes, incorporates pedestrian and bicycle access and a Cherry Creek that’s not lined with high concrete walls – and it all connects seamlessly and walk-ably to mass transit and the Auraria Higher Education Campus.
The Urban Land Institute, a non-profit research organization with a mission to “shape the future of built environment for transformative impact in communities worldwide,” took on the issue of making one of the City of Denver’s busiest thoroughfares more pedestrian friendly and less crammed with some 60,000 cars per day whizzing by urban corridors, usually faster than the posted 35 mph.
“Cherry Creek is a jewel, but Cherry Creek is dangerous,” said Marilyn Jordan Taylor, who lead the panel discussion at CU-Denver Friday morning, after a week of visiting Speer and Cherry Creek with panelists and interviewing more than 100 stakeholders. “We heard from people who said they work or live next to Speer Boulevard, but have never crossed it.
“The Cherry Creek corridor is an invaluable, but under-leveraged, asset that must be capitalized with green spaces and must yield multiple community benefits and economic development.”
The effort was sponsored by CU-Denver, Auraria Higher Education Campus, the Downtown Denver Partnership, the City and County of Denver and the JBG Foundation. ULI plans to present its findings to the Denver City Council, and its Community Planning and Development department.
“A key thing to think about as we consider the entire downtown, Speer is not an edge. It’s a central feature. Speer runs right through the middle of your functional downtown,” said Ross Tilghman, a principal with the Tilghman Group in Seattle, Wash. “Do you want the city’s widest road running right through the middle of downtown?”
Tilghman presented findings on just how hostile Speer Boulevard is to pedestrians.
“There are few pedestrians crossing Speer, and that’s in part because it is a very wide street – eight lanes with up to three turn lanes at any given intersection, making it one of the widest streets in Denver,” he said.
Though it has 15 marked crosswalks at 10 different intersections inside a mile, an ample number, “but, again, they are daunting,” he said.
The panel suggests shrinking Speer to six lanes, with surface bike lanes. It also suggests shifting Cherry Creek to the east of Speer, which would “create an urban edge along camps; enhances open space near the creek and allows buildings on the east side; gives better new front door to Performing Arts Center and Convention Center.”
For a longer-term vision, the panel urged city leaders to “Embrace the importance of the role of education to Denver’s future economy, workforce, identity and commitment to equity” by integrating the Auraria Campus to the downtown. Now, the 150-acre campus feels isolated only to students or employees of CU-Denver, Metropolitan State University and the Community College of Denver.
“Create mixed-use communities across Auraria, with priority to affordable housing, transit-oriented development and tech partners,” according to recommendations.”
“You can bring kids and families into the campus in the most convenient way,” said Yvonne Yeung, CEO of SDG Strategies in Toronto, Canada. “Make walking and cycling the top choice because of the climate here, and investing in green infrastructure not to just deal with flooding, but also during the heat, is paramount.
“One of the keys we learned, that is fundamental, is to create an ecosystem of a competitive workforce starting with age zero.”
Wellington “Duke” Reiter, architect and senior advisor to the president of Arizona State University, showed what ASU did with a downtown campus in Phoenix. Instead of isolating it with defined boundaries, it created an urban campus.
“You’ve actually got a quality urban downtown, which Phoenix didn’t have at the time,” Reiter said. “It’s now the fifth largest in the United States.”
They used private-public partnerships between developers, Phoenix and ASU.
“You could do this in an entrepreneurial fashion,” he said. “Put something there that signals ‘this is something new and interesting and different, maybe even a little strange and fascinating.’”
He pointed to the walkway at ASU covered by solar panels generating some 775 megawatts of power.
“But that’s almost incidental,” he said, “the civic life underneath them is profound.”