Developing 9th and Colorado

One of the more interesting urban infill projects taking shape in Denver is the redevelopment of the old University of Colorado Health Sciences Center campus at 9th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard.  The best reporting on this project and its history can be found at the Life on Capitol Hill website.   Planning began in 2004 with the original purchase of the site by Shea Properties.  In February 2011 Shea pulled out of the project, and in April the site was put under contract for purchase  by The Sembler Company of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Portion of former Health Sciences Center Campus

Sembler seeks to create, as did Shea, a pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development having a “town center” feel.   The site is only 28 acres, however, which is relatively small by town center standards (about ¼ the typical size).  It thus presents unique development challenges.  At a public meeting of the Colorado Boulevard Healthcare District (CBHD) advisory board on June 14, 2011 Sembler’s Atlanta-based president Jeff Fuqua discussed a bit of what his company has in mind.  The site is currently envisioned as having about half the density as originally proposed by Shea, with little to no office space. The retail-residential split would be about 50-50.  A “restaurant row” is envisioned for the Colorado Boulevard edge, one that’s populated by distinctive, local establishments.  Sembler is planning to include—in response to community input—a natural foods grocery store, perhaps in “large format” form (which is one of the Company’s specialities).   Residential space would lean to multi-family rentals.  A few streets truncated by the original medical center buildings would be re-connected to the existing street grid.  One building of historical significance (a 1920s nurses dormitory that’s possibly suited for office space) would be preserved along with its adjacent grassy
quadrangle. Parking would not be visible from anywhere along the periphery of the

Nurses Dormitory and Quadrangle

developed site.  Sembler hopes to close on the property at the end of 2011, begin construction in May 2012, and open early in 2014.

Mr. Fuqua’s report seemed to resonate with the assembled citizens.   They like the company’s expressed preference for local as opposed to national retailers.  Their concerns about the provision of green space and bikeways, and how traffic and noise will be mediated during construction were briefly but successfully addressed…at least for the moment!   Mr. Fuqua (himself a Colorado native, raised in Lakewood) clearly appreciates that this is a unique site located along a stretch of boulevard that doesn’t have much interesting going on to either the north or south.  And whereas Shea originally planned to keep 6 campus buildings besides the nurses dormitory Sembler will keep only the dorm. With this largely open canvas there’s excellent potential to create a distinctive site plan and architecture using “city-as-body” or “heart of the city” metaphors that would honor the site’s medical history, attract residents and consumers and—to the extent that the site sits at the boundary of several different, somewhat diverse Denver neighborhoods—help stitch together surrounding communities.  Thus, there’s much to look forward to as development proceeds, beginning with the more detailed site plan that Sembler Company officials intend to provide at the next CBHD board meeting on July 14, 2011.

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Evolution’s City

The June 9 issue of the journal Nature (volume 474:146-149) has an interesting article about the work that evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson is doing in Binghamton NY to improve life in that blighted city (the home of Binghamton University, Wilson’s employer).  Among other things, Wilson is collaborating with town planners and local citizens to bring evolutionary concepts of altruism and “prosociality” to bear on the design of urban playgrounds, parks, and gardens in hopes that this will enhance social interaction, community cohesion, and civic pride.

This effort raises at least two questions: (1) whether evolutionary scientists  should be involved in thus kind of work and (2) how they should go about doing it.  Some colleagues, including one quoted in the Nature piece, believe that Wilson has abandoned biology for “a sort of evolutionary social sciences.”  One Nature commenter expresses skepticism about what evolutionary theory can add to our understanding of urban problems by alluding to the limitations of the theory as applied to social phenomena.

Another Nature commenter, however, appreciates both the immediacy of the problem and the potential of new kinds of interdisciplinary work to address it. In the words of Will Smith:

All across our country cities and towns are dying and even neighborhoods within cities are dying. Wilson is trying to use his considerable skills to figure out why and how to reverse these declines. So what if it is not pure biology. It is definitely using a lot of his knowledge of biological systems in application to what is probably a hybrid science. Today, in most of science and engineering cross-discipline efforts are where breakthroughs are occurring. Wilson’s efforts should be applauded by his scientific peers, not disparaged because he is “too close” to the work. Yes, others may want to carefully weed through his results to make sure that any scientific conclusions are not skewed by proximity to the subject matter, but progress in this highly complex area of human behavior will not be made by standing around in the ivory tower and looking out the window. Wilson needs all the encouragement that he can get because the problems facing our society are pulling down buildings faster than we can build them. The ivory towers may be next.

This call for greater engagement of academics with their communities, which Wilson exemplifies, is commendable.  But accepting that evolutionary theory is relevant to solving urbanism’s problems still leaves the second question of how to use it in this context.  Other evolutionists like Steven Pinker and Nikos Salingaros have shown a bit of the way.  They both urge that we break with modernist approaches to urban design and architecture and play off of our “default” psychological predispositions as evolved primates.  In their view evolved human nature has much to do with the kinds of spaces we are inclined to embrace and, by extension, the quality of the relationships we create with other users of those spaces.  Trees, natural light, water, ornamentation, tradition, and building at a human scale all emerge as important qualities in such an approach to urban design.

Wilson appreciates this, but human evolved psychology can’t be the only consideration.  Culture and history are also important “contingent” factors.   On this count, the work of Setha Low and her Public Space Research Group is relevant.  They’ve done the empirical work on city parks and distilled a number of lessons for planners of urban public spaces.  While these spaces must be physically and economically accessible and safe, their amenities (e.g., furniture, facilities, cultural diversions) have to be designed with cultural variation in mind given that different classes and ethnic groups can use the same unit of space differently.  Spatial adequacy and flexibility are crucial if diverse urban populations are to be drawn to public space for everyday activities, festivals, and other special events. In some instances, green space may be less desirable than hard space (e.g., open plazas) as a venue for social gatherings.  In other words, the green city is not necessarily the most livable city, nor the best route for building the intercultural city. Careful thought must also be given to the kinds of commemorative monuments that define public space given that the histories of user populations also differ.

These challenges notwithstanding, there’s every reason to think that an interdisciplinary or, in the words of another evolutionist named Wilson, “consilient” planning approach integrating evolved psychology and cultural history can provide a useful guide for renewing America’s struggling cities.

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Land Tax Reform and Urban Growth

(A version of the following appeared in the Pueblo Chieftain, co-authored with Kyle Cascioli, June 19, 2011).

Colorado Governor Hickenlooper recently signed into law House Bill 1146 rolling back the state’s favorable agricultural property tax rates for landowners who do not maintain farming or ranching operations on the property.  This became an issue when it was discovered that the state had a policy dilemma regarding the equitable application of Colorado zoning laws that determine whether a given parcel qualifies for the lower agricultural zoning property tax rate as opposed to the higher vacant land or residential zoning tax rate.

The critical point concerns developers who acquire large blocks of agricultural land for speculative future development as part of land banking strategies.  In some cases developers either discontinue agricultural operations, scale operations back to insignificant production levels, or fail to maintain the land so that it remains agriculturally viable until such time that it is developed.  Taking agricultural land out of production prematurely can have disastrous consequences.  Last year in Florida, for example, tens of thousands of citrus groves “land banked” by homebuilders for future development were unmaintained, and became a breeding ground for a type of lice that eventually destroyed millions of acres of crops across the South.

The new law does nothing to address the premature removal of land from agricultural production.  The law will zone and tax these properties at rates that are higher than the agricultural property tax rates, but only for properties under 2 acres.  During the run up to bill passage JoAnn Groff, the state’s property tax administrator, was quoted as saying that, “A  large number of Colorado agricultural properties include residences, and it will take effort to determine whether they are integral to agriculture.”  She went on to state that “Perhaps not from a revenue standpoint, but from a fairness and equitable standpoint, I think you [we] are taking a very large step.”

Ms. Groff, and our state legislators, have failed to address the real issue.  While the new law will require Tom Cruise to pay his correctly zoned share of property taxes for the Telluride parcels where he grazes a few sheep it will not discourage some production home builders from potentially gaming the system in land banking strategies.  Speculation and the accelerated disappearance of Colorado’s agricultural lands will be especially consequential for Colorado’s metropolitan suburban and exurban communities that benefit from nearby farming and ranching.

The critical issue here is not the equitable application of Colorado property tax law but the need to maintain productive agricultural lands until such time as they are developed in response to market demand.   Our legislators should amend this law in keeping with an ethos of agricultural and urban sustainability. They should work to create policy that will keep producing farms near urban communities on both slopes, mitigate exurban sprawl along the Front Range, and maintain the quality of life for all Coloradoans.

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Agricultural Zoning and Urban Sustainability

(A version of the following appeared in The Fort Collins Coloradoan, co-authored with Kyle Cascioli and Ron Throupe, April 9, 2011)

It is sometimes said that the last crop to come out of dedicated farmland is a subdivision.  The Denver Post recently ran a two-part exposé on how tax breaks intended to help struggling farmers in Front Range counties, including Larimer County, are benefiting not those who make a living by growing wheat or grazing cattle, but rather those in the business of building houses and strip malls.

Agricultural lands are taxed at one of the lowest rates (mil levies) available. This rate is significantly below the ad valorem tax rate associated with unimproved property that’s zoned as “vacant land.”  Often owned by family operators or their descendants, undeveloped lands are typically dedicated to continuing agricultural use.  The Post story detailed how vagueness in state laws governing agricultural zoning have been exploited by real estate investors and land speculators to acquire and hold vacant lands for future commercial development.  Such “land banking” may artificially subsidize developers and land speculators while reducing the amount of land available for agricultural use.

Several questions arise from this situation.  One is whether investors and developers who acquire agricultural properties via land banking strategies—and who do not maintain those properties as productive agricultural lands—should benefit from reduced property tax rates that, technically, are being subsidized by other property taxpayers.  Another, more compelling question for us is whether the state’s policy accelerates urban sprawl, reduces the quality of Front Range life, and compromises the long-term sustainability of our towns and cities.

We believe that it does.  How so?

Once an agricultural property is no longer maintained its fertility is reduced.  Agricultural lands must be maintained to be productive, and many investors and developers do not maintain these newly acquired farmlands in the same manner as when they were dedicated farms.  Additionally, water rights are often stripped from the land and sold as a separate property interest to the highest bidder.  If the land is not maintained, it will be both difficult and expensive to return it to productive agricultural use.   The consequences of non-maintenance can be devastating, as evidenced by the continuing real estate bust in Florida.   In October 2010 The Wall Street Journal reported that nearly 140,000 acres of citrus groves across Florida have gone to waste as a result of failed land banking strategies.  The unmaintained land has become a breeding ground for a type of citrus lice responsible for a plague that is

Asian citrus psyllid

wasting millions of acres of crops in the Southeast.   Whether Colorado is susceptible to such an ecological and economic catastrophe as a result of land banking is an open question.  But there are certainly other sustainability implications.  As increasing amounts of agricultural land on the metropolitan periphery are taken out of production more farm produce and other food stock must be imported from more distant locations to supply Front Range cities.  With oil prices rising and continued political unrest in the Middle East it is likely that the cost to import produce and food stock from further distances to urban areas may also rise.  This could inflate metropolitan food prices, which are on the rise, and result in greater economic hardship for our most vulnerable urban populations.

The economic and cultural sustainability of cities is intimately connected to the availability and productivity of agricultural land.  Colorado’s agricultural zoning laws should only apply to actively maintained agricultural lands.  It should not provide incentives for those who would take agricultural land out of production to inventory for suture development.  If the state were to create clear policy and guidelines for counties regarding the equitable application of these zoning requirements, we believe less land would be taken out of production prematurely and more would be properly maintained until such time as the seeds of that last crop – the subdivision – are sowed.

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Housing Colorado’s Homeless

(The following appeared in The Boulder Daily Camera, co-authored with Kyle Cascioli, February 27, 2011).

Governor John Hickenlooper has long been an advocate for Colorado’s homeless.  As mayor of Denver Hickenlooper’s 2010 budget increased the amount that the city spent to support programs for the homeless.  Last January the US Department of Housing and Urban Development chipped in, awarding $18.6 million to Colorado homeless-assistance programs in order to keep them functioning in 2011.   HUD’s regional administrator Rick Garcia has pledged that two-thirds of the money will be used for transitional and permanent housing, with the balance being applied to the purchase of a new homeless management software system and homeless services.

Homelessness is a complex social problem that has many causes.  Increasing  gentrification of American neighborhoods, decreasing availability of low-income housing, deterioration of the social and economic safety nets that keep people from falling into homelessness, and routine political disenfranchisement of the social groups from which the homeless are generally drawn all contribute to the problem.  Effective efforts to cope with homelessness often combine subsidized housing with a variety of case management services.  While lots of attention has been paid to the kind and quality of services made available to the homeless (e.g., assistance in finding jobs, provision of child care, etc.) much less attention has been paid to the kind and quality of the buildings that house the homeless.

One city that is ahead of the curve in addressing homelessness from a “built environment” perspective is Los Angeles.  In recent years LA’s Skid Row Housing Trust commissioned a couple of new apartment buildings from the American architect Michael Maltzan that serve not only the homeless person’s need for shelter and basic services but also their psychological need for community and security—both key elements that can assist recovery and a return to self-sufficiency.   History has clearly taught that such needs were not fulfilled by the infamous “urban renewal” housing projects of the 1960s.   These generic, ruthlessly vertical projects—drawn up and somewhat deceptively marketed as “Towers in the Park”—tended to produce soulless, dehumanizing, and ultimately dangerous spaces against which residents understandably rebelled (think Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, or Cabrini Green in Chicago).

The Los Angeles experiment is quite different and signals a new way of thinking about the urban built environment and the people who occupy it.  Maltzan’s Carver Apartments, for

Carver Apartments

example, serves the homeless person’s need for community and security by encasing a grand staircase, central courtyard, and overhead view of California sky within a curved, scalloped, and narrow-windowed exterior that simultaneously engages with its local context while presenting a bit of a defensive air.  In one inspired tweak of design the building’s third floor community room and laundry—conceived as the domestic heart of the project—allows, through a long horizontal window, for direct and prolonged eye contact between residents and drivers on the adjacent Santa Monica Freeway.  These features have the effect of allowing the building’s occupants, in Maltzan’s words, “to not only begin to reconnect with each other, but to the larger city beyond.” While some might think the building’s design is extravagant for its intended use, isn’t it worth the cost if it allows residents to make a more successful transition from homelessness to self-sufficiency?  Plus, why should affordable housing be boring?  And why shouldn’t it both impact, and possibly improve, the surrounding neighborhood?

With the American economy continuing to struggle and foreclosures at an all-time high it is likely that the number of homeless people in Colorado, as elsewhere, will continue to rise.  Before building new homeless shelters in the state it would behoove Governor Hickenlooper and Mr. Garcia to think about how buildings themselves can serve as weapons in the war against homelessness.  They would be well-advised to explore how the ethos driving building design in other places might be re-interpreted and translated for a uniquely Colorado context.

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Culturing Community in Urban Design

(A version of the following appeared in The Denver Post, co-authored with Kyle Cascioli, February 7, 2011).

Former mayor Federico Peña once implored Denverites to “Imagine a Great City.”  The Denver Post is regularly filled with opinions about how we might build something more akin to a “Good City.”  The concept of Good City was first introduced in the 1960’s by the philosopher Lawrence Haworth.  Haworth believed that the Good City must offer its citizens economic opportunity as well as the means to build strong community.  He noted that these two “ingredients” are often in conflict, so they need to be carefully balanced.  Today the Good City is also conceptualized as one that is environmentally sustainable.

In pursuing Good City visions planners and developers have generally looked to the outside for inspiration and best practices. They’ve looked to other cities (like Portland, Oregon) for guidance in creating mixed use, walkable, and tightly-knit communities.   Such communities are exemplified locally by Belmar, Lowry, and Stapleton.  They’ve also looked to  foreign architects (like Daniel Libeskind and Santiago Calatrava) for civic building designs (Denver Art Museum, Denver International Airport) that signal Denver’s economic viability and world city ambitions.

Largely ignored in the Good City dialogue are the cultural values that shape how ethnically-diverse groups respond to and use the urban built environment.  Given the increasing ethnic diversity of Denver and other American cities we believe that urban sustainability should be broadly viewed in cultural as well as economic and environmental terms.   In contrast to the typical “outside in”  approach to urban redevelopment described above, we favor an “inside out” approach that starts with locality—local culture and history, local community needs and aspirations—in planning for vibrant and sustainable urban communities.   We thus view real estate development as “Contemporary Urban Anthropology” (CUA).

Building community in a way that is sensitive to social and cultural difference is a central value of New Urbanist approaches to urban redevelopment.  However, this goal is rarely achieved in practice.  New Urbanist developments often don’t provide the variety of affordable housing that would allow even minimal social mixing, much less the kinds of architecture and other built spaces (e.g., parks and plazas) that appeal to the cultural tastes of different potential user populations.   The problem is amplified by the fact that land prices rise exponentially the closer a parcel is located to the urban core, where public civic space is most needed.   As Haworth understood, the project developer’s need for economic  profitability can easily impede efforts to build community.

Balancing opportunity and community is central to the inside out approach of Contemporary Urban Anthropology.  CUA has proven its value when applied in other American cities.  In Houston, for example, the real estate profession’s traditional “Highest & Best Use” (HBU) approach to development failed to produce a successful anchor tenant for a retail center called Westchase Plaza, located in one of the city’s most ethnically diverse trade areas.  HBU analysis seeks to find a balance between plans that are legally permissible, physically possible, financially feasible, and maximally productive…where productivity is measured as profitability.   Alternatively, the CUA approach added “culturally sustainable” to the HBU formula.  It specified that the best anchor tenant for Westchase Plaza would not be one of the more typical retailers or office users but rather a Hispanic cosmetology school.  The school has not only served the local population’s need for jobs training but has nicely integrated into the wider community’s diverse ethnic fabric.

Effective, culturally-sensitive urban planning will depend on changes in the way that we educate real estate professionals.  Not much has been written in the Post about the next generation of planners, developers, and contractors who would accomplish this work. We believe that higher education can and should be the catalyst for imagining new ways of thinking about real estate redevelopment, as well as the infill architecture and other built space that might better allow the users of redeveloped real estate to create distinctive identities for themselves. The academic studies of real estate and anthropology are bound by a common interest in the relationship between people and their built environment.  We need better ways to integrate the two.  Students must learn to view urban design and development as both an economic challenge and a cultural opportunity.   They must learn that where designed space can be culturally transformed by its users into lived place the prospects for sustainability are improved.  More and better collaboration across established academic disciplines promises to deliver ideas and plans that better serve the cause of building viable, sustainable, and good cities.

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A Vision for Urban Anthropology

It has become commonplace to view cities as cultural artifacts that reflect and reproduce human relationships, values, and aspirations. Intercultural Urbanism is an interdisciplinary approach to urban design and planning that takes stock of the cultural values that shape how ethnically diverse groups of citizens create, use, and respond to the urban built environment. The formulation is inspired by the work of Phil Wood and Charles Landry on the Intercultural City, Ash Amin on the Good City, Leonie Sandercock on Cosmopolis, and many others.   It draws on lessons learned in a course I teach at the University of Denver, and conversations I’ve had with colleagues participating in an international curriculum grant on Global Cities/Global Citizenship.  It aims at building a more inclusive, viable, and sustainable city. My hope is that the discussion hosted here will contribute to, and help advance this rich and vibrant way of thinking about the city.

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