Denver is taking steps to permanently close three streets that became pedestrian-only during the pandemic, part of a broader effort to make the city more friendly to those walking and biking, but has decided to reopen a segment of Seventh Avenue.
Two stretches along Larimer Street and one on Glenarm Place in the heart of downtown have entered a city process to stay closed for another five years. After 2028, those closures — backed by business owners and economic development groups — would become permanent if nobody objects.
Meanwhile, in neighborhoods, a re-launch of the city’s COVID-19 pandemic partial closure of streets, where road crews placed barriers to slow and deter cars, will bring at least five new pedestrian-friendly streets before 2030 combined with greenspace landscaping and narrowing of lanes, city planners told the Denver Post.
Street closures fit into a citywide long-term overhaul, costing up to $800 million a year, to enable more car-free transportation. City planning documents lay out multiple large-scale projects including the installation of more than 100 miles of “Bus Rapid Transit” — buses that move in exclusive lanes — on major routes. They also call for demarcating 400 miles of new bicycle-only lanes and making pedestrian-friendly improvements along 1,300 miles of streets.
“Our current transportation network is unsustainable. We have overbuilt our streets just for cars,” said Jay Decker, manager of innovation in the Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure.
“We are retrofitting these to become more complete streets for walking, public transportation — and being more comfortable. We want to be more thoughtful and balanced.”
Where streets will be closed
The temporary closures in line to become permanent include stretches of Larimer Street between 14th and 15th streets, Glenarm Place between 15th and 17th streets, and Larimer between 29th and 30th streets.
The pedestrian-friendly streets through neighborhoods haven’t all been designated. These could run for five blocks or more, managed under a separate city program, with narrowing and landscaped diversions that encourage local-only traffic. One will be North Acoma Street between 10th and 12th avenues, and another will be 39th Avenue between Williams and Franklin streets, Decker said. Developers have proposed the creation of another pedestrian-oriented area in Cherry Creek, east of University Boulevard.
A gondola in Denver?
The Downtown Denver Partnership, an economic development group, has proposed a Central Platte Valley Gondola linking Union Station downtown to the densely-packed Highlands neighborhood to the west. It is envisioned as a system that could move 3,600 people an hour on 3-minute rides across the South Platte River, Interstate 25, and rail tracks.
“We need to be more efficient with our public right-of-ways for moving people. We just don’t have the space to expand and provide for more cars,” said Andrew Iltis, vice president for urban planning and community impact at the Downtown Denver Partnership.
More people can move faster using non-car systems, he said. While gondolas might seem “intrusive, from a visual standpoint,” he said, “they are super efficient for people-moving capacity.”
Car-free options for moving around in Denver would mean “you are going to have better access to all the things you enjoy in life or need to get done for your job, and you are going to spend less time thinking about where to park,” Iltis said, acknowledging that changes “no doubt” will “disrupt this auto-dependent community.”
Better mobility appeals to downtown business owners, though some also are preoccupied with other priorities. “It’s going to be a matter of how much foot traffic is around,” Don Hines, owner of Yazoo BBQ at 2150 North Broadway, said Monday morning as he watched a woman setting a small fire outside to stay warm. “The more people downtown the better. But fewer people are coming downtown now because of the homeless.”
How residents can initiate street closures
Denver residents can initiate street closures under city “outdoor places” and “shared streets” programs. The city’s process requires groups of residents, businesses or nonprofit organizations to submit applications, including site plans and a “mobility study,” then hold meetings to refine proposals and forge consensus. City officials must review and approve applications before deciding whether to invest city funds.
“Closing a street is a complicated process that can have adverse impacts, so we’re only permitting full closures in our pilot projects when the data suggests it won’t cause adverse transportation network issues and the community is supportive,” city spokeswoman Nancy Kuhn said.
Pandemic experience mobilized planners
During the pandemic, city planners observed Denver residents seeking more open space, which led to city officials hastily setting up partial closures of 11 streets around the city, running about 7 miles overall. Crews set up temporary concrete barriers to encourage local-only car traffic at slow speeds. Over two years, city transportation officials measured a 287% spike in walking, riding scooters, and biking. In August 2021, streets reverted to vehicle-priority status and barriers were removed.
Meanwhile, restaurant managers struggling to stay open seized opportunities to create outdoor dining areas by expanding onto public right-of-way sidewalks and streets, leading to temporary closures. City crews counted more than 300 such expansions a couple of years ago. Now there are less than 150. Some of the streets temporarily closed to facilitate outdoor dining — such as a stretch of Seventh Avenue between Sherman and Grant streets — recently reopened partially to vehicles.
Just north of downtown, Crema Coffee House owner Noah Price, near the stretch of Larimer Street that has been closed temporarily to cars since the pandemic, said he’s “impartial” about a business-led proposal to make the closure permanent. But he strongly supports a broader overhaul of citywide transportation.
“We are all about pedestrian traffic,” Price said. “We are all about walkability in Denver. It is good for people to ride bikes, walk, and be outside. This is good for people physically and emotionally. It is better than being stuck in a car.”
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