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How a complete street helped turn an industrial area into a thriving neighborhood

November 17, 2021

By Michael Griffith

Brighton Boulevard—Denver’s first complete street—invites people to enjoy a rapidly changing part of a fast-growing city

Brighton Boulevard has long served as the industrial gateway into downtown Denver. But over the last 15 years, this gritty urban neighborhood has experienced a major transformation. It is becoming the most vibrant and creative district in the city thanks to a thriving arts scene and the efforts of the RiNo Art District.

For all its growth, however, the area has struggled with creating a walkable experience for visitors and its growing resident and business populations. Once the home of warehouses, the chief concern was getting freight into and out of the neighborhood. Sidewalks and green spaces weren’t part of the original urban fabric in this area.

Over the last eight years, I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of changing that story. The redevelopment of Brighton Boulevard represents the first complete street in Denver. It serves as an example of the kind of reimagining of streetscapes that our design team believes is the future of good urban design—in Denver and around the country.

A complete street, like Brighton Boulevard in Denver, is a model for street design that calms traffic and makes the road safe for all users.

Understanding complete streets

Unlike traditional street design in the US, which prioritizes cars over any other form of transportation, a complete street refers to a model for street design that calms traffic and makes the road safe for all users. It’s inviting for pedestrians of differing abilities, cyclists, scooters, and rail riders. And vehicles still have a place, too.

Denver Streets Partnership has a great definition of the elements that make a complete street, including:

  • ADA accessibility
  • Dedicated unloading zones
  • Dedicated mass transit facilities
  • Narrow vehicle lanes
  • Wide sidewalks
  • Pedestrian amenities
  • Signal timing that reinforces safe speeds
  • Signal-protected pedestrian crossings
  • Pedestrian islands on multilane streets
  • Protected bike lanes

Those elements are important in any city. For Brighton Boulevard, we also wanted a thriving urban tree canopy and elements that encourage people to choose foot or bicycle transit over the car. That includes public art, landscaping, and design features that invite examination from up close, rather than viewed at 30 mph from a passing car window.

The redesign also accounts for the physical, environmental, and social challenges of this rapidly changing corridor. The result provides an important lesson in how landscape architects can lead equitable public realm design.

The result of the Brighton Boulevard project in Denver provides an important lesson in how landscape architects can lead equitable public realm design.

Securing public/private buy-in and collaboration

The first step in creating a complete street is community buy-in. A robust public engagement process and public-private collaboration are essential.

In the case of Brighton Boulevard, previous studies had set a vision for the street. The priority was the residential needs. But those studies required additional land, displaced existing users, and were impossible to implement.

With the desire to address the competing interests inherent in this rapidly transforming district, we needed to reboot the community engagement and design process. A critical element of this effort—and evidence of success—was the formation of the RiNo General Improvement District (GID). It oversees specific taxes from property owners and businesses to address issues ranging from access to on-street parking to streetscapes.

The first step in creating a complete street is community buy-in. A robust public engagement process and public-private collaboration are essential.

The design team and local leadership committed that the City of Denver would only request access changes and expanded right-of-way as properties redeveloped—no one would be displaced. Building on this, the design team asked the community to prioritize how to use the remaining space through a series of workshops.

Understanding these priorities allowed the team to design a street that protects industrial users. How? By maintaining the critical components of a complete street within existing right-of-way. It also allows parcels to redevelop separately, expanding the right-of-way to include the complete vision.

Once the design process was underway, about half of the properties on the corridor announced plans to redevelop. That contributed the space needed to expand the right-of-way.

With a new sense of ownership in the design process, property owners embraced a collective identity expressed in the design of Brighton Boulevard. The design celebrates the industrial character of the neighborhood, its proximity to the South Platte River, and the creativity of the arts district. The design includes large gabion baskets, rough concrete, and natural steel details. Planting palettes extend the character of the riparian corridor to the street.

The RiNo GID helped to fund the streetscape construction, and they are responsible for many aspects of its ongoing maintenance. The businesses and organizations in this area are now directly invested in the success of the public realm.

Designing for a more sustainable future

To have a truly complete street, it must also embrace sustainability and resiliency. The landscape design of Brighton Boulevard not only addresses the conflicts of its urban context but also mitigates the impacts of the area's underdeveloped infrastructure.

The streetscape also pioneered new ultra-urban stormwater standards for the City. Those include 28,000 square feet of integrated water quality planters that will clean surface runoff from the roadway and adjacent properties that would otherwise contribute to pollution of the nearby South Platte River.

With a complete street makeover, Brighton Boulevard has transformed from just an industrial/warehouse district into a thriving urban arts area.

The project also includes more than 400 new trees in an area that previously had the highest urban heat island impacts in the city. Taking resiliency lessons from the adjacent riparian corridor, the tree canopy is diverse. The design team worked with the city forester to reconsider the standard tree spacing rules. We were able to pair larger canopy trees with smaller understory trees in an irregular, organic pattern that allows for competition and succession.

This irregular pattern allows trees to be removed or added as needed without upsetting the continuity of the whole. It also enabled the planting of several nontraditional street tree species that are more regionally appropriate and resilient. As part of the design, the RiNo General Improvement District, design team, and city forester will evaluate the trees every two years.

Creating safer spaces for everyone

Circling back to features that make for a complete street, the design must address the historic imbalance in the prioritization of cars over pedestrians in our urban street design.

With Brighton Boulevard, we saw this as a chance to go beyond creating side-by-side bicycle and car lanes. Anyone who has ridden in a city knows how fraught the relationship can be between cyclists and motorists who are sharing a narrow roadway. To truly encourage commuters to change their mode of transportation, we needed to create a safe, comfortable experience.

As the first raised, high-comfort, cycle track in the city, Brighton Boulevard sets a new standard for Denver. The track offers 1.7 miles of continuous, high-comfort bike and pedestrian connections. Commuters can easily connect with lower downtown Denver, Union Station, and Denver International Airport.

Putting a priority on cyclist needs led to other innovations in the design and operations of the roadway. At cross-street intersections, bikes are given priority—with highly visible bike boxes and camera systems that can identify a cyclist waiting to cross.

Among the goals for Denver Streets Partnership are ADA accessibility, narrow vehicle lanes, dedicated mass transit facilities, and protected bike lanes.

Practicing patience and perseverance

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing was made clear: Robust public open space is not a luxury. It is essential to our health and well-being.

As we build the future, urban centers must get more return on infrastructure investments. Drainage, clean air, multi-mobility, art, smart utilities, and urban canopy are just a few core services that forward-thinking design provides. As designers, private developers, and public officials are looking for new market trends, it is time for all roadway improvement efforts to require measurable quality-of-life benefits for people. It's not always about moving cars.

The process to reimagine our urban streetscapes is not without challenges. It requires many stakeholders—often with differing priorities—to agree to a plan and commit to pursing it over many years.

The result is that Brighton Boulevard offers an example and a new standard for complete street design. We hope to see it replicated across the country.  

  • Michael Griffith

    A landscape architect with a dozen years of experience, Michael delivers urban design that improves community member experiences.

    Contact Michael
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