Boom & Bust: Making Sense of the Development Cycles of Denver

September 13th, 2016

Teeming with construction cranes and new growing silhouettes, the beautiful Denver skyline is feeling the effect of the current building boom, and its transforming our city. As a result of this rapid change, the Denver community has developed several forums (RE:Denver, Denver Fugly, etc.) for analyzing the impact of this building boom on the architectural fabric of the city. Based on the growing buzz around this topic, the Denver Chapter of Women In Design asked Historic Denver, the City of Denver and Humphries Poli Architects to participate in a panel discussion with members about the history of Denver’s “Boom and Bust” cycles, including what lessons could be gleaned from these previous eras.  In particular, the panel focused on what drove the booms and the busts? How did Denver deal with such growth and decay? And how have the cycles of boom and bust impacted design quality in the city?

Denver has weathered many cycles of boom and bust and the causes of each appear starkly different. However, the results of these cycles seem to have similarities.

 

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Boom & Bust cycles

 

Density

Like most cities, as transportation developed from horse to streetcar to the automobile, Denver grew concentrically from the urban core as the capability of the transport allowed. As early as the 1880s Denver’s first residential neighborhoods began to develop outside the city center. This pattern continues today, however in the 1990s Denver began experiences a resurgence in development downtown (think Coors Field!) and embarked on a citywide effort to densify. The population of Denver has increased more than 145% since 2000, which is the biggest increase in population since the 1880s. According to a recent article in the Denver Post, the number of housing units constructed in 2013 alone was more than the entire number of downtown residential units that existed 6 years prior. Increasing density in urban areas is good for cities, but doing so with explosive population growths can be tricky.

 

Identity

The personality and character of a city are central to it sustaining itself and generating smart growth. As early as the 1920s, Denver was concerned that fast paced growth and the need for affordable housing stock would compromise the unique character and diversity of its neighborhoods. As a result, architect Allan Fisher founded the Denver chapter of the Architect’s Small House Service Bureau. This was a nationwide program that recruited the city’s finest architects to create small, well designed, affordable home “patterns” that could be purchased individually or on a large scale. In addition, these homes featured environmentally appropriate materials and design. Unfortunately, the post WWII era construction boom largely moved away from the personalization of the 1920s and into the highly mechanized, standardized and even prefabricated designs that are still prevalent today.

 

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Architect’s Small House Service Bureau Pamphlet

 

Quality

The balancing act between quality, speed and affordability in design has been a topic among architects since the profession existed. In Denver, building codes and design guidelines were first established in the 1880s and intended to create a more permanent and safe city. Early Denver buildings were susceptible to floods and fire, so masonry construction was not only available but preferred. Although building codes are exceedingly more complex today, the emphasis on speed and economy generated by today’s boom makes it more difficult (but not impossible) to create innovative and enduring designs.

 

One of the biggest issues bubbling to the surface today is context, or lack thereof. Our rush to build is resulting in contextual anomalies such as dense apartments embedded in single family residential neighborhoods. Quality new development should embrace contextual elements such as massing, scale, setback and proportion. This is not a call for sameness but an appeal for respecting principal design characteristics and community identity. Such an approach will engender more creativity and resiliency in the buildings we design today.  History has shown that boom and bust economies in Denver likely are here to stay. We have seen both failures and successes that come with those cycles. Let’s learn from the experiences so that no matter what the next boom and bust will be, our buildings will demonstrate context, quality and permanence.

 

 

Written by Jane Crisler