Spotlight on Sustainability: Denver, CO

In the areas of Denver surrounding the South Platte River, industrial buildings, coal-fired power plants, and blighted communities contrast with newer greenspace, trails, natural spaces and emerging mixed use developments. Over the past few decades, efforts at revitalization have made major progress in creating more walkable and recreational spaces, as well as cleaning up the river itself. But many of the surrounding neighborhoods and industrial areas are still disadvantaged, isolated, and underutilized. The City of Denver is now conducting a study to identify opportunities to spur economic development and revitalization in these communities.

Confluence Park, South Platte River, Denver. Photo from Flickr user tux404

With funding provided by an EPA Brownfields Area-Wide Planning grant through the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, an assessment of the 3,500 acres of land along Denver’s 11-mile portion of the South Platte, which contains 33 brownfield sites and intersects 14 of Denver’s 77 neighborhoods, is currently underway. It will identify specific areas that have the potential for redevelopment, but have suffered from disinvestment over the years. “We’ve been looking for sites that relate to significant public investments such as greenway improvements, storm drainage projects, flood plain removal, and rail transit that runs parallel to the river”, says Tim Watkins, Senior City Planner for the City of Denver, one of the planners working on the project.

Perhaps most importantly, this approach is also being integrated into transit-oriented development (TOD) projects in the area. The light rail and commuter rail system, FasTracks, is expanding rapidly, with 8 stations already built within walking distance of the river, and 4 more planned to open within the next 5 years. One such TOD effort, known as the Denver Livability Partnership,  is made possible through another Partnership for Sustainable Communities grant funded by both a HUD Community Challenge Grant and DOT’s TIGER II grant program. City planners consider this grant, along with the EPA brownfields redevelopment funding, to be “parallel investments” that will work towards the same goal of making these communities more connected to the river and the public green spaces around them.

An EPA green infrastructure grant is another opportunity to expand the connection between brownfields redevelopment and transit-oriented development. “We can start to explore innovative green infrastructure approaches” to redevelopment, says Courtland Hyser, a Senior City Planner for Denver also working on the brownfields project. Storm water quality treatment for infill development has typically occurred on a site-by-site basis. The City would like to explore the potential of consolidated water quality facilities at the regional and sub-regional scale, and to consider how this green infrastructure could complement neighborhood parks and greenways.

One of the most important aspects of the South Platte River project is the ongoing process of gaining feedback about the project from property owners and residents in the community. Planners have been identifying specific properties that are underutilized, such as warehouses without tenants (especially prevalent in the industrial sections), and reaching out to the property owners to “help them understand what opportunities they have”, says Watkins. “Brownfields are barriers to reuse of property. Our process will provide information and ideas to property owners that will help them to reposition themselves as the real estate market evolves.” By involving the surrounding residents and stakeholders in the process, these exploratory concepts will benefit not only individual property owners, but also the surrounding community and the City of Denver as a whole.

If your community received a Partnership for Sustainable Communities grant and you would like to share your success story, contact Jessica Holmberg.