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Article Launched: 04/30/2006 01:00:00 AM MDT
Boulevard of dreams
The historic gateway to downtown Denver has become an unsightly fissure in need of a makeover. So plans for parks, wider sidewalks and condos are being drafted to steer Speer in the right direction.
By Margaret Jackson
Denver Post Staff Writer

A segment of the northern stretch of Speer Boulevard, as seen from the top level of the Denver Performing Arts Complex parking structure, passes an Auraria campus parking lot and the Pepsi Center, above, and crosses Market and Blake streets, below. (Post / Jerry Cleveland)

An artery designed a century ago to display Denver at its cosmopolitan best today slices the city into two disjointed parts.

Speer Boulevard, one of the busiest gateways to downtown, is due for a makeover. Several key teams are now poking, prodding and walking it as they plan for its future.

At stake: One developer's highly visible plans for a residential tower; the "vision" that will shape other high-profile lots; and the tenuous thread that connects Auraria college students with downtown businesses.

The asphalt tangle of pavement and parking lots - as well as Cherry Creek's concrete channel - presents major challenges to making the corridor hospitable.

"That infrastructure overwhelms the pedestrian," said Daniel Iacofano, a principal at California-based Moore Iacofano Goltsman Inc., lead consultant for the group devising Denver's new downtown-area plan. "More can be done to make (the Speer corridor) an amenity."

Dozens of business leaders, politicians, civic activists, historians and investors are busy working on solutions.

With both mountain and city views,

A segment of the northern stretch of Speer Boulevard, as seen from the top level of the Denver Performing Arts Complex parking structure, passes an Auraria campus parking lot and the Pepsi Center, above, and crosses Market and Blake streets. (Post / Jerry Cleveland)

the parkway that follows Cherry Creek is the legacy of former Denver Mayor Robert Speer, who hired George Kessler in 1907 to design the key diagonal, tree-lined boulevard as part of Denver's Park and Parkway plan.

Striving to preserve and enhance Denver's meager waterway - and to keep it from flooding - Speer walled Cherry Creek and landscaped it with trailing vines, shrubbery and trees. Small triangular parks were created where the boulevard intersected downtown streets.

As Denver grew, city planners neglected the parkway. Unlike other nearby neighborhoods, the Speer corridor between West Colfax Avenue and the South Platte River never had design guidelines.

"Speer should be a sequence of spaces that gives you an overall sense that this is a special street," said Ron Straka, head of LoDo District Inc.'s urban design committee. "It's the only piece of urban boulevard that's connected to downtown."

Instead, it serves more as a barrier than a connection. Isolated triangles of blacktop and concrete are caught between six lanes of nonstop traffic, forming a no-man's land between downtown and the Auraria campus.

"It's not just traffic lanes, but the creek as well," said John Desmond, vice president of urban planning and environment for Downtown Denver Partnership Inc. "The perception is that there's a much greater gulf than there really is."

Developer Buzz Geller galvanized the most recent discussion of the corridor's development when he inherited land at Speer and Larimer Street in a swap with the city. Home to Denver's first City Hall, the site is bisected by Cherry Creek and now holds a parking lot and a sliver of green space known as Bell Park.

In 2005, Geller and partner David Paderski proposed a 375-foot condominium tower and open space for its residents on half of the parcel. A shorter retail and restaurant building is proposed for the other piece, with Bell Park becoming a larger public park that would slope gently down to Cherry Creek.

Because the site is along a gateway to downtown, Geller wants to build a signature building. "Just to put the same-old plain Jane building there, I think, would be a travesty," he said.

A number of area residents opposed the tower plans, fearing it would block their views. Two more plots along the Speer corridor also have the potential to be developed - one a small city- owned parking lot at Speer and Wynkoop Street, the other a block between Walnut and Blake streets that holds a fire station. Geller is interested in the latter.
Geller's proposed tower and other high-rises could form an "edge" that would distinguish LoDo from the rest of downtown, said architect John Anderson, a member of the Historic Denver board. But controlling the look of that "edge" would require collaboration.

A group of area stakeholders began meeting in 2005 to establish design principles and guidelines. They proposed creating a special review district between Wewatta and Larimer streets, and Speer and 14th Street. Other key parcels fall outside the district but could still be built on in the near future. Six Flags Elitch Gardens amusement park and Stan Kroenke - owner of the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche and the Pepsi Center - both have property fronting Speer that could be developed along the edge of the corridor.

Another group of about 45 civic leaders convened in January to discuss a different problem caused by the unsightly and dysfunctional corridor.

"The Auraria campus is in the midst of Denver, but we haven't done a good job of integrating it," said Tami Door, president and chief executive of Downtown Denver Partnership and a member of the committee that is drafting a 20-year plan for downtown development.

Auraria's students represent a strong employee base as well as good consumers of downtown services. In exchange, downtown entrepreneurs can bring real-world expertise into the college classroom.

"Downtown should be a force in recruiting the best and brightest students," Door said.

As it now stands, nearly 70,000 students are enrolled at the Auraria campus, yet many don't find their way across Speer to downtown stores, restaurants and offices. Area-plan drafters would like to knit them more tightly into the fabric of downtown.

One easy solution would involve widening the sidewalks on Larimer Street between downtown and the campus. Another would require tunneling beneath Speer to connect Law rence Street with Auraria.

In the meantime, accidents are frequent as students try to cross the busy thoroughfare. Earlier this year, a chemistry student was killed crossing Speer, said Lynn Rhodes, dean of the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Denver.

"Our challenges are typical urban challenges," said Rhodes.
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