13 December 2010

How Will We Use Vacant Public Space?

Empty Public Space Abounds

Denver is littered with grand old churches that are empty or have Congregations of a few dozen in edifices built for many hundreds.

The Denver Public Schools has far more space in schools than it has students, a few neighborhoods have overcrowding (like Green Valley Ranch and Stapleton) while other neighborhoods have a particularly great excess of empty school space. My neighborhood has the old Beyer's School (once home to Denver School of the Arts which relocated to fill part of an abandoned North Campus of the Universty of Denver, the rest of which was filled with Johnson and Wales University) looming over it and fervantly seeks to make it the home of a new Denver School of Science and Technology Charter School.

As the volume of mail sent via the postal service declines in favor of e-mail, one by one, post offices are going to sit vacant. Budget cuts have left communities like Aurora and Colorado Springs, and even Denver, unwilling or unable to keep recreation centers open, leaving more public spaces vacant. As multiplexes replace humbler theaters, the old theaters have had to find new uses. Dead malls lurch quietly. And, the declining rolls of service clubs from the Masons to the Eagles chronicled most famously by Robert Putnam continue to dwindle, their lodges and halls sit underused or empty. Converting old public spaces into private ones is a growth industry.

Taken together there is a lot of empty public space.

New Uses

Sometimes, old churches and public spaces become lofts. S. Broadway has a church converted to lofts at about 1st Street, University Boulevard has another church converted to a residence at about 5th Street, 10th Street in Congress Park features an old fire station converted to residences. There is an old school converted to residences near Old South Gaylord in Washington Park. The home can be delightful, but it is also a shame to see public space become private.

The old late night post office and mail sorting facility in LoDo was replaced by a shiny new, eco-friendly EPA building. In my home town, Oxford, Ohio, an old post office became a municipal court.

Train stations are seeing a renaissance, ironically, as train stations, mostly supporting metro area transit rather than intercity rail, although rejections of federal high speed rail funds in Ohio and Wisconsin, and indifference towards them in New Jersey and Florida, makes Colorado's hopes of securing some of these funds look like less of a pipe dream. Denver's Union Station is already well in the process to be restored to glory as a transportation hub (even as the Greyhound Station looks for a new home).

The dead malls at Cinderella City (in Englewood, Colorado) and Villa Italia (in Lakewood, Colorado) were razed and replaced with mixed use neighborhoods, in the case of Cinderella City, complete with a new city hall and library.

Movie theaters have found mixed dispositions. Some, like the Esquire and Mayan have been subdivided into multiscreen art house theaters. One at S. Colorado Boulevard and Alameda in Glendale became a gym. One on S. Broadway was converted into a climbing gym. Several have been converted into venues for live rock band performances. One on Federal Boulevard was converted into a missionary megachurch.

Libraries are beautiful public spaces, but I can't think off hand of what has become of any of them, despite the fact that I know some that have closed fairly recently, and others that are at grave risk of closing.

An old grocery store, converted to a church, near East High School, originally slated to become a new Central Denver Recreation Center, has wound up for the time being, as a community garden and dog park instead. Across the street, an old live theater has been converted into a book store, record store and restaurants, as well as a movie theater that died and since has been reborn with the Denver Film Society relocating there from Tivoloi on the Denver's Auraria campus.

Challenges To Come

This, of course, only scratches the surface of the general issue of finding new uses for no longer needed properties. Greater Denver has a variety of spaces that need repurposing.

Old Saint Luke's Hospital has now become Post Properties in the rechristened Uptown, and Old Elitch Gardens has become a residential development (which defeated efforts to have a Wal-Mart put in their neighborhood, only to have one spring up ten blocks down the road in Lakeside). The old Children's Hospital Campus is reportedly going to be the home for a new Saint Joseph's hospital, because its existing tower has fire code issues.

But, the disposition of the old University Hospital, abandoned in part of the effort to remake the old Fitzsimmon's military base and turned over to a redevelopment company, is not yet clear. In a year or two when Saint Anthony's Hospital off Colfax in Northwest Denver relocates into its under construction new facility, there will be yet another big hole for Denver to fill in a space where the impetus for new development has not been as vigorous.

A defunct public school which has passed from one speculative investor group to another in the Golden Triangle remains vacant. Ironically, the neighorhood has transformed enough that it could really use a school again, although that use for the space seems unlikely.

Denver also has its brownfields. The financial crisis stalled the redevelopment of the Old Gates Rubber Plant, but sooner or later, it will have to find a new use. I know of a couple of families who have turned old industrial buildings in North Denver into residences and art studios. Between Sante Fe and Kalamath a few blocks North of Alameda, old industrial properties have been repurposed to be a micro-distillery and a Hispanic cultural center. Another old public building near the Auraria campus off Colfax was also repurposed to be a cultural center. Perhaps this trend will continue.

The Coming Inversion Of Center And Fringe

Maybe Denver proper will be O.K.

Infill construction has continued steadily while suburban Denver construction came to a screeching halt. The rising price of gas, increased dissatisfaction with long commutes, and increasing public faith in the Denver Public Schools, represented most recently by a remarkable surge in middle school enrollments may fuel an influx of new people to the central city. For most of history from the Middle Ages until the construction of street cars, central cities were considered more desireable than the urban fringe. Street cars created street car suburbs, like Washington Park. Interstate highways pushed attractive housing even further away from the core for a generation or two. But, the trend seems to be reversing itself. It may be only a matter of time before the metro area's ghettos are in Highland's Ranch instead of already gentrifying Five Points.


Michael Malak said...

"Ironically, the neighorhood has transformed enough that it could really use a school again, although that use for the space seems unlikely."

And of course there is a school in the neighborhood, currently ages 1-12 years old (toddler through sixth grade).

We are also considering a move into that PS-1 building.

"For most of history from the Middle Ages until the construction of street cars, central cities were considered more desireable than the urban fringe."

That remained so everywhere in the world except the U.S. It was FHA's redlining that gradually drew whites into the suburbs until it reached a tipping point and the white exodus began. The MLK Jr. assasination riots were the nadir of U.S. cities.

Dave Barnes said...

"it is also a shame to see public space become private"
The land goes from producing zero tax revenue to producing some (or even a lot).

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...


Because the buildings were built to be suited most to uses other than as private residences and public uses (by which I mean "shared by many people" rather than "government owned" in this context) strengthen communities.

Michael Malak said...

"Third Places" are dwindling. First, home theaters and home gyms supplanted those places. Also Amazon.com, Wikipedia, and the web in general supplanted libraries (to the point where libraries just now provide Internet connections rather than books). And of course clicks continue to erode bricks, with a big help of bricks bankruptcies over the past two years.

But now with Facebook, people don't even need to socialize in meatspace anymore.