Medallion Name – OUT WITH THE OLD…
Significance – Established by City Resolution, the Denver Urban Renewal Authority was created to help rehabilitate and redevelop blighted areas of our city “necessary in the Interest of public health, safety, morals and welfare of (its) residents.”
Inscription – The Skyline Urban Renewal Project consisted of twenty blocks between Curtis Street and Larimar Street that were demolished in the late 1960s to “remove blight” and make the new and modern. There is a noticeable difference in scale between the older and the newer buildings.
The resulting demolition sparked Denver’s first major historic preservation efforts, as Larimar Square and the D+F Tower, escaped demolition. These efforts laid the groundwork for the creation of the Lower Downtown Historic District.
Location – 39°44’51.8″N 104°59’35.6″W
It was to be a time of peace and prosperity. Our families persevered during the Great Depression, they prevailed in the Second World War. As our troops returned home to the United States in the late 1940s the country realized it had a housing crisis of staggering proportions. Two decades of focusing financial resources and manpower elsewhere left the nation’s urban housing stock neglected and obsolete. Denver was no exception. Visionaries saw that dilapidated wooden homes could be replaced with multi-floor dwellings which serve a greater purpose.
By 1950, the Rocky Mountain News reported that 24% of Denver’s housing units were substandard and overcrowded; some were rumored to be so antiquated that they may have lacked electricity or running water. Suffering from decades of deferred investment and increasing competition from more affordable suburban land, Denver, like many of America’s downtowns, was in need of revitalization.
In Denver’s case, there were two downtowns. The area above Champa Street was thriving with major department stores, restaurants and hotels, while the area below Champa Street was known as Denver’s “skid row”.
Downtown Denver was a seedy and undesirable area. Anyone with the resources to escape these conditions headed to the suburbs. Residential flight exacerbated the situation and leaving Denver with a declining tax base and a demand for social services which consumed almost 50% of the City’s annual budget. It was a bad economic blueprint.
Civic leaders and area newspapers were calling for action. But Denver was only one part of a national problem. To resolve it, the federal government was aggressively supporting downtown revitalization through urban renewal grants.
Denver identifying four neighborhoods where slum conditions were most serious and eagerly applied for the federal grants and loans to assist in their eradication. The Denver City Council passed a measure that required a local contribution to be paid when the acquired properties were sold for redevelopment. The first four projects undertaken by DURA were Avondale, Blake Street, Jerome Park, and Whittier.
Residential properties in the Avondale neighborhood in the 1950s were interspersed among junkyards, taverns, warehouses, and factories. Many were eventually abandoned and fell victim to structural scavenging.
In 1956 the Rocky Mountain News declared the Blake Street neighborhood “Denver’s worst slum.” Located along the railroad tracks between 33rd Street and East 40th Avenue, one would find slum housing conditions wedged between industrial plants and warehouses adjacent to the railroad tracks and stockyards. Less than one-third of the homes had indoor toilet facilities.
Similar to Blake Street, Jerome Park consisted of a small number of severely blighted residences in an otherwise largely industrial area.
Homes in Denver’s Whittier neighborhood were usually salvageable. DURA’s efforts in Whittier focused principally on rehabilitation with only spot clearance of slum conditions. Matching funds or labor furnished by the homeowner helped clean up the remaining homes.
Having honed their chops on the smaller problems, Denver was ready for bigger issues. Established in 1958 by city resolution, the Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA)— was created to help rehabilitate and redevelop blighted areas “necessary in the Interest of public health, safety, morals and welfare of (its) residents.” DURA had the power to acquire blighted real estate, (through condemnation if necessary), relocate occupants of the property and affect its redevelopment.
“Over the years, whether addressing slum housing conditions or revitalizing our downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, DURA has partnered with the City to provide creative solutions to difficult problems,” states the DURA report titled 50 Years of Revitalizing Denver. “At the core of every DURA endeavor is the restoration and redevelopment of blighted, deteriorating properties.”
To begin, DURA worked with city leaders to pass a series of measures designed to overhaul Denver’s zoning and building codes. They created the Skyline Project to tackle Skid Row; the 27-block, 113-acre was bounded by Speer Boulevard, Market Street, 20th Street and Champa Street. The area’s infrastructure was aging and obsolete and many buildings were vacant and abandoned. In addition to more than 700 businesses, the area was home to some 1,600 individuals and 95 families at the time. Nearly all of these residents were considered disadvantaged, often jobless and in poor health.
DURA developed a block-by-block plan for revitalizing the area in accordance with the City’s overall plan for downtown. Over a period of almost two decades, DURA worked with other agencies to facilitate property acquisition and relocation of the existing residents and businesses to make way for redevelopment. The hope was to create a fresh start for the area as well as the people who lived there, often relocating them to other urban renewal areas, such as Avondale.
Voters rejected the project when it was placed on the ballot in 1964. Nature intervened in June 1965 when the South Platte River Floods flooded, and caused more than $325million in damage throughout the city. Public support coalesced around the Skyline Project and in 1967 a referendum passed with more than 70% approval.
Using millions of federal dollars, DURA bought the property in the “Skyline” area, relocated the 1,600 residents, demolished the buildings and remediated any contamination.
The Skyline Urban Renewal Project began in 1969. “Many valuable buildings were, of course, lost,” noted John Olson, preservation director for Historic Denver. “Most of these were 2-5 story historic commercial, office, and hotel buildings, but there were some even larger.”
In the entire project area, the only major historic structures to survive were the Daniels & Fisher Tower and the buildings of Larimer Square.
The demolished areas were largely left as blank parking lots, as private developers didn’t immediately have the means and motivation to rebuild in the demolition area. Locals said it left a huge hole in the heart of Denver. Redevelopment stalled and downtown Denver became a sea of surface parking lots. Only after the building boom that followed the Great Recession have those parking lots filled, completing the Skyline Project vision.
The Skyline Project was a critical catalyst to downtown revitalization and modernization. The venture was undertaken in conjunction with other City and Downtown Denver Partnership efforts such as developing the 16th Street Mall, creating a business improvement district, and improving traffic flow via a one-way street grid. Together, these far-reaching plans supported development of such Denver landmarks as Skyline Park, Writer Square, Halcyon House, Sakura Square, Tabor Center, and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, among others. In total, the Skyline Project resulted in the development of more than 1,700 residential units, 6.3 million square feet of new or rehabilitated office space, 840,000 square feet of retail or commercial space, and 800 new hotel rooms.
After the skyline project, DURA started a similar demolition on the southwest side of Cherry Creek to make way for the Auraria Higher Education Center. Today, Larimer Square and the Tivoli Brewery on the Auraria campus as the only historic buildings that survive along Denver’s original main street.
Since its formation, DURA has participated in more than 75 redevelopment projects, leveraging more than $8 billion of private investment in Denver, transforming some of the City’s most challenging sites into vibrant developments. In the process, the agency has provided financial assistance to over 15,000 low-income Denver homeowners.
Why did Denver feel the need to update the buildings around the City?
Which is more important, preservation or modernization? Why?
What are some of benefits of Urban Renewal ventures like the Skyline Project?
Is the need for Urban Renewal important? Why?
How would you correct slum conditions?