San Antonio isn’t the only U.S. city debating the merits of a downtown grocery store. Newly arrived residents in downtown Denver wish for the same amenity, according to a story published Sunday in the Denver Post, which reported a dramatic 142% increase in the city’s downtown residential population since 2000.
Here’s present-day downtown Denver in a snapshot, according to the Post story:
“More than 17,500 people call downtown Denver home— a count expected to grow by nearly 18 percent over the next five years. Three-quarters of the downtown population is white, nearly 60 percent has a college degree, and the average age is 33 with an average annual household income of $76,263. A fourth of them don’t own a car. More than $630 million in downtown projects were built last year, adding more than 2.2 million square feet of new space. Of the 26 projects under construction, 15 are residential. When completed, downtown Denver will have more than 2,800 additional residential units — more than the total number of downtown residential units just six years ago.”
I spent several days last week walking and riding public transit in downtown Denver, cited in a Brookings Institute study as the number one urban destination for Millennials.
What I found was a fast-changing city where fully half the center city population now commutes on foot, bicycle or by public transit. Half the people living and working downtown are getting around without getting in cars. Building cranes at Denver International Airport loom over the coming light rail terminal now under construction, part of the Regional Transportation District‘s light rail system that was started in 1994 and now includes 47 miles of track.
San Antonio can’t match those numbers, although it can show growth and improvement in virtually every category. King Soopers, a subsidiary of Kroger, has a downtown Denver store in the works, a project that will benefit from a $1.75 million city incentive, significantly higher than the $1 million offered by the city of San Antonio.
The Downtown Alliance reports 19,597 residents living in central San Antonio, but Denver is measuring downtown population in a much more narrow geography than San Antonio. Our equivalent population is probably around 5,000. It’s an important comparison that underscores the challenge of finding a grocer willing to make the investment when the numbers don’t quite match up.
San Antonio is a full decade behind Denver in building downtown residential population, but moving aggressively now to catch up. Local developers point at San Antonio’s current “third wave” of residential development. The first wave included 1221 Broadway in Midtown and the Vistana lofts downtown. The second wave included the Can Plant at the Pearl, 1800 Broadway, Cevallos Lofts south of Probandt Street, phase two of 1221 Broadway, and most recently, completion of the Mosaic on Broadway.
The so-called third wave includes the Pearl’s new hi-rise riverfront tower adjacent to its planned Hotel Emma in the historic brewery, Hixon Properties’ River House overlooking the river and the San Antonio Museum of Art, the Blue Star expansion by NRP Group, and other smaller projects underway on Broadway and Avenue B. Phase three will add another 1,000 units to the downtown inventory.
It likely will take a doubling of these developments for San Antonio to equal Denver’s current residential density. Even then, one unknown is how much retail and boutique office will follow residential, which is critical to community building. Funding and implementation of a “complete streets” strategy that makes residents feel safe as they walk, pedal and use mass transit in lieu of automobiles is vital.
Downtown Denver is alive with restaurants, small specialty shops and businesses, creating a lively mix that is work-oriented during the day and entertainment-oriented after dark. Nowhere is the center city’s vibrant pulse more palpable than in LoDo, Denver’s mixed-use historic district that, like San Antonio’s Southtown, represents revival in one of the city’s oldest residential neighborhoods.
Colorado voted to legalize marijuana use last year, and the results are evident on a stroll through the Cultural Arts District or down to LoDo on the 16th Street Mall, a downtown pedestrian way serviced by free buses with wide, accordion doors to facilitate fast loading and unloading. I walked the downtown extensively over several days this past week and frequently encountered Millennials and vagrants openly toking. No big deal, actually, but noticeable, for sure.
The Denver Post story, headlined, “Denver: Tale of Two Cities,” contrasted the continuing surge of young professionals arriving downtown with the center city’s growing homeless population and lack of affordable housing. Even as the first snows fell last week, I was surprised by the number of homeless people huddling at outdoor bus stops, bedding down on sidewalks, and tramping the streets with their belongings.
San Antonio has far fewer people smoking pot on its downtown streets, and a far less visible homeless population living on its streets, thanks to the Haven for Hope and other programs and ministries.
The two cities match up in a number of ways. San Antonio, with its population of 1.3 million, is officially the nation’s seventh largest city and the second largest in Texas, though it is dwarfed as a metro area by Houston and Dallas. Denver, with less than half of San Antonio’s population, is ranked 23rd. Yet Denver has a metro population of 2.6 million, compared to San Antonio’s 2.2. million. And it has a bigger economy, with a more educated population and a better-compensated workforce. Denver has twice as many Fortune 500 companies as San Antonio – 10 there to five here.
Watching the Denver Rock ‘n Roll Marathon runners finish in the 12-acre Civic Center Park Sunday morning, I realized San Antonio could learn a lot from Denver about placemaking. Right now our marathon runners finish on asphalt at the Alamodome. One day soon, they might finish on grass lawns in a redeveloped Hemisfair Park.
Denver has become the No. 1 destination city for Millennials, people born between 1981-2000, according to the Brookings Institution.
“Research shows these individuals are looking for great transit, walkability, sporting events and inclusive environments,” Tami Door, president and CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership, told the Denver Post. “Denver has done an amazing job to strategically build the city to put that infrastructure in place.”
According to the Post report, “Denver is looking at using about $65 million of revenue from sales and property tax increment financing for further improvements downtown, including an estimated $14.3 million for a downtown plaza at 14th and California, $30 million to refurbish the 16th Street Mall and $5 million for homeless facilities.”
Denver has passed the Unauthorized Camping Ban to give it a legal tool to clear the homeless congregating downtown, and there is talk of banning pot smoking in city parks and on the 16th Street mall to reduce visitor complaints. Marijuana possession might be legal, but public consumption is not.
Denver officials look at their success and the booming downtown scene and wonder: How can they keep the city from becoming an enclave for elites that excludes working class residents? As center city real estate values continue to climb in San Antonio, civic and community leaders are asking the same question.