01 January 2006

Choosing A Denver Neighborhood

I recently received an e-mail asking the following question, and it is one I've been asked in person (often on airplanes from neighboring passengers) and in other ways more than once:

We would love to live in the city (as opposed to suburbs), but are a bit troubled by the school ratings. You have a lot of info on your blog (I found it through google), but I was wondering if you can give me the real lowdown. We have 3 year old girl, so I am most interested in the elementary school at this point, but want to think long term about staying in one community throughout her school years. We have visited and really like the Washington Park, and the Cherry Creek areas. Can you tell me anything about the elementary schools there? Are there any other neighborhoods you suggest? Thanks in advance for any info.

Of course, it is a decision my family made as well before moving here. Being an analytical type, I probably made the decision more analytically than most people.

First off, we actually made the decision in multiple stages. When we first decided to move to Denver, we found a motel for a weekend and did as much looking around as we could, and specifically looked for a rental where we could stay for a year or two while we sized up the city, rather than committing to buying a residence immediately. We moved into a townhouse at the Parkway, which is near the Intersection 11th and Speer. I believe that they still have rentals, and the proximity to downtown and a grocery store was delightful.

Since we've arrived similarly attractive rentals have sprung up in Commons Park (immediately to the West of Lodo on the South Platte), in Glendale (there is a nice high rise S. Cherry Street and Cherry Street South and a number of other decent rentals in the immediate area), in Capital Hill (i.e. between roughly 6th and Colfax, Lincoln Avenue and about Downing)), and near Colorado Boulevard from about 7th to 12th Streets. There are also a number of nice apartments in the Cinderella City area of Englewood, near the light rail stop. I'm sure that there are other options as well.

We were forced to make a decision about a year later when our townhouse went condo. I was exhaustive in my search for data. We got information about real estate for sale mostly from computer searches on Realtors.com which basically provides a close approximation of the multiple listing service listings. I had clipped an annual neighborhood by neighborhood crime report. I went to the central branch of the Denver Public Library to review the census tract data for Denver (now available online in an easy to use format) on a wide variety of measures, or the Rocky Mountain News allows one to do similar research on demographics alone. And, there were school profiles to review. The City of Denver website has interesting data on neighborhoods as well. And, we also spent some time pouring over the RTD maps as we wanted to be a one car household. If I was looking again today, I would also, of couse, consult the Mile High Buzz coffee shop location map [O.K., that part was a shameless plug, but the blog's author didn't even ask for the plug, and who knows, maybe I even would check it these days -- we did seriously consider art house theater locations as we were looking for a place to live in Denver and are quite close to two of them.]

Realistically, the concern that surpasses all others as you make a search is price and how much house you need. Basically, there are almost no three bedroom houses in Denver proper that are not in seriously seedy neighborhoods for less than $200,000. But, you can find a three bedroom starter home in a new suburban subdivision for between $150,000 to $200,000 if you are willing to drive ten or twenty miles to work everyday. A three bedroom house (or large two bedroom single family bungalow) in a neighborhood like Congress Park or Platte Park runs from $225,000-$375,000 (or at least did the last time I looked), and a comparable house in Washington Park or more expensive parts of Park Hill, or Hilltop might cost $350,000-$475,000 or more.

There are various variables one can adjust to make your needs and the price you can afford match. You can choose a smaller house or one that is in poor condition or has some other defect (e.g. it is next to a gas station or a noisy bar). I personally moved into my neighborhood by buying the proverbial least expensive house on the block (or very nearly so) and many people who could afford a four bedroom place in the suburbs choose to live in a more sought after neighborhood in a two bedroom condominium in Denver instead. You can move further out (e.g. a first ring suburb like Englewood or Lakewood or Wheat Ridge). You can move to what has historically been a less pricey (and desirable) neighborhood -- this is gentrification at work and has been taking place in neighborhoods like Baker (on the other side of Broadway from West Washington Park), Athmar Park, where the Chief of Police lives, and much of Northwest Denver (focused around a commercial strip at 32nd and Lowell and near bridges over I-25).

Most of the schools that parents seek out and choice into (or at least do not heavily opt for private schools or schools of choice to avoid) are in Southeast Denver. Lincoln Elementary (in West Washington Park) has a Montressori program it trumptes. McKinley Thatcher (in Platte Park) touts its relatively small size and very responsive administrative offices. Steele touts its British primary program (although this isn't available to all and is on a lottery that favors children in the neighborhood). Bromwell touts excellent test scores and involved parents (it is the most sought after school in the Denver Public Schools). Some parents think that Teller in Congress Park is great, others go to great lengths to avoid it. Elementary schools in much of Southeast Denver are comparable to those in much of suburban greater Denver, but also leave you in suburban style neighborhoods and require a big investment either in housing or in mastering the school choice bureaucracy and transportation (which generally isn't provided by the District if you are outside of your attendence area). Some parents take a "Slums of Beverly Hills" approach by finding a fairly cheap rental property in a mostly very expensive neighborhood in an effort to place their children in schools with children of the affluent.

My take is that just about any school that isn't wracked with violence or poverty is going to have room for children to rise to their own level. But, many parents wouldn't agree with me on that point.

The bottom line is that finding a neighborhood in Denver matters, and that it isn't an easy choice. Housing is not a great investment in Denver, whose real estate market has softened, so you need to buy because you want to live there, not because you want to earn a good return on your down payment. As always, the most important point is to spend time in a neighborhood at many times of day before buying in, so that you can "kick the tires". For example, my brother, understandably in the red hot Boston real estate market, failed to do that throughly when he bought his home, only to discover that the noise from an adjacent rail line was much louder during the rush hour during the work week than it was when he looked at the property on evenings and weekends.

COMING SOON: Profiles of Denver's neighborhoods, starting with the "new" neighborhoods of Stapleton, Lowry, Elitch Gardens, South Platte and Gateway.

1 comment:

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

The first set of profiles are found here.