Housing USA: Denver

6 min read

Save the Bricks

Denver, CO—Denver is not an old city, even by American standards. So compared, say, to Boston or Philadelphia, it doesn’t have an extensive footprint of historic buildings. What it does have is a civic impulse for preserving the structures that do exist. In recent decades, public and private interests have made Denver a national leader in historic revitalization, creating aesthetic and economic improvements across the Mile High City.

Denver’s built legacy dates to 1858, when it was incorporated as a mining town. While gold mining had already become lucrative on the west coast, some workers began moving further inland mid-century, having discovered the gold and silver mines of Colorado. Resources extracted from nearby mountains were transported down into Denver, which became a hub for smelting, toolmaking and related manufacturing.

The city’s built pattern reflected this in the latter half of the 19th century. The downtown core became dominated by mid-rise warehouses, factories and department stores, often with aboveground lofts. The main construction material, said Joe Saldibar, an architectural historian for the local nonprofit History Colorado, was mostly brick. Brick was less of a fire hazard in an era before functioning municipal fire departments, and more native to the region (central Colorado has minimal timber, but very clay-based soil). As Denver’s growth extended outward in the early 20th century, brick remained a popular material for single-family homes.

While this brick motif may seem desirable today, it wasn’t always viewed as such. Following World War II, Denver grew mostly through traditional suburban tract housing, and its economy switched from manufacturing to professional services. Amid these changes, having brick warehouses throughout downtown—many of them dilapidated—was considered an impediment to progress. So Denver, imitating other U.S. cities, demolished them. In 1969, the Denver Urban Renewal Authority began razing a 30-block downtown stretch.

The plan mostly went through, creating room for the modern Denver skyline. But just as urban renewal schemes caused pushback from preservationists nationwide—most notably Jane Jacobs in Greenwich Village—Denver had its own firebrand activist in Dana Crawford. Originally from Kansas, Crawford moved to Denver out of business school and launched a development career. Before the demolitions began, Crawford convinced DURA to exempt one block of small brick buildings, which she bought and converted in 1965 into a shopping district called Larimer Square. The block is now one of Denver’s top tourist destinations.

Larimer Square’s success helped the city stumble upon a revelation: that historic preservation pays. Now, in a stark reversal, preservation has become part of Denver’s development strategy, with the city organizing grand civic renovation projects these last few decades.

The main one is the neighborhood of LoDo, or “lower downtown.” It is a warehouse district that lies adjacent to the CBD’s original urban renewal area, but that was spared from the wrecking ball. In 1988, the city made the 23-block area a historic district, ensuring certain aesthetic controls.

Local property owners partnered as well by forming a business improvement district to improve the visitor experience. Three decades later, LoDo has become one of America’s hottest urban neighborhoods. It is a dense, mixed-use oasis of historic brick warehouses, practically all of them readapted for modern uses, mixed with new condos that mirror this industrial aesthetic. LoDo’s pillars include Union Station, a central train terminal that was restored in 2014 under a public-private partnership, turning a dusty old station into one with luxury bars and hotels; the restoration of Denver’s oldest hotel, The Oxford; and countless other renovations.

But Denver’s historic imprint goes beyond LoDo. Those old neighborhoods that stretch in every direction from downtown have remained intact. Ones like Capitol Hill, Country Club and Five Points still have turn-of-the-century brick homes, including Midwestern bungalows, Craftsmen and Four Squares, a prairie-style architectural motif common in Denver. Together, these areas make Denver’s core a tasteful, contiguous urban fabric – and an economically productive one. Since 2010, downtown Denver’s workforce grew by over 25 percent, now accounting for nearly eight percent of metro-area jobs; while residential population spiked from 56,000 to 87,000.

A combination of interests made this historic renewal happen. The Colorado state government has a Historic Preservation Tax Credit program, which combines with Federal Tax Credits to provide income tax breaks for anyone repairing historic structures. Since 1990, over $800 million has been invested in tax credit-related projects statewide, leading to the rehabilitation of over 1,000 structures. In 2015, the credit was expanded to fund restoration for large commercial projects, such as Stanley Marketplace, a former aviation hub in nearby Aurora that’s now a retail emporium. But the credits are typically used, says Saldibar, by individual homeowners. Because it costs more to repair homes using historically-sensitive materials, the credits are meant to reimburse owners for the difference.

The other side of Denver’s historic renovation momentum has been private developers and landlords. For example in 1988, current Colorado governor John Hickenlooper opened a craft brewery in a historic LoDo warehouse. And of course there is Crawford. After her Larimer Square success, she began renovating other underutilized properties. Her portfolio includes the restorations of Union Station, the Oxford Hotel and the Edbrooke Building. She also converted a former grain mill near Coors Field into lofts overlooking the skyline. Now 86 years old, she lives and works in it, and has enjoyed watching the skyline grow over her six decades in Denver.

“There’s lots of restaurants downtown,” said Crawford, during an interview in her office. “And nightclubs. And a lot of action downtown. And a lot of people living downtown.”

Denver’s challenge, as both its population and home prices rise, is how to build amid such history. LoDo is one example where this has been accomplished; along with its old buildings, new towers have boosted its residential population, creating a neighborhood that feels fresh and alive, rather than stuck in a time warp. Elsewhere in Denver, a combination of preservation overlays and low-density zoning means that other historic areas, charming as they may be, are quiet and, financially speaking, inaccessible. The key for them—at least if they are to replicate LoDo’s success—is to combine Denver’s sensibility for historic preservation with a further embrace of growth.