THE COMMONS NEIGHBORHOOD PLAN
The Commons Neighborhood will emerge from a 60-acre former rail yard located next to
Denver’s existing downtown core. There are only a few “clean slates” of this size that sit next to
a major downtown area in the country. As a city within a city, this urban village will be a self-contained
place to live, work and play, yet will be connected to the energy and elements of
In 1991 no one could have foreseen a project of this scope. That year, Trillium Corporation
bought 160 acres — one third of the Central Platte Valley — from Burlington Northern Railroad.
The region’s economy was cold. The land had been rezoned for parking. As a result of
progressive planning efforts, the Central Platte Valley, once the city’s back door and dumping
ground, has experienced a renaissance. Several rail lines have been consolidated; deteriorating
viaducts have been eliminated and new arterials constructed; and Coors Field and other
entertainment facilities are transforming the area. This land’s potential is finally being realized,
and The Commons is positioned to play a crucial role.
In 1995, Design Workshop was hired to create the Urban Design and Development Plan and
PUD submittal for The Commons. The urban design team identified three goals: create a district
that would be urban in the best sense; satisfy neighborhood groups and downtown business
interests; and create an economically viable plan.
The plan builds on the new energy of the Central Platte Valley, and it also recognizes ties to
Denver’s past: the site sits at the confluence of two waterways that mark the city’s birthplace.
Covering an area equal to 21 city blocks, this urban village will include 6.2 million square feet of
housing, shops, hotels, and restaurants. In November 1996, Trillium Corporation deeded 5.5
acres to the city to help assemble land for Commons Park, a riverfront park being dedicated in
1999. Many of The Commons Neighborhood's 2,000 residences will be clustered to face the
Historic Union Station will become the focal point of an intermodal regional transit center in The
Commons — proposed to become the city’s nexus for Amtrak, rail to the airport and regional
bus service. Streets in The Commons will have an appeal all their own: Trillium Corporation
will spend $9 million to create pedestrian-friendly, tree-lined thoroughfares with ample
sidewalks. Sidewalks and tree trenches are generous and have been designed to address urban
run-off and to ensure healthy plant growth. The successful 16th Street pedestrian/transit mall will
extend into The Commons, making a new link between Denver’s founding site and the state
capitol. Instead of numerous unsightly surface parking lots with associated run-off, the plan
includes structured parking with at least 8,000 spaces.
Design Workshop was lead consultant during this two-year phase of the project and the firm’s
fees totaled $600,000. Greg Ochis and Todd Johnson served as the firm’s principals-in-charge
and urban designers; Sue Oberliesen was project manager and urban designer; and Kim Swanson
was project landscape architect. Other consultants in the urban design team included: Trillium
Corporation as owner and client; the Commons Neighborhood Task Force as participants in
review of related issues; Ron Straka as architect and collaborator on Urban Design Standards and
Guidelines; Vision Ink for 3-D computer illustration; Dan Pullen of Architectural Arts as artist
and illustrator; MK Centennial as engineers for the site survey, legal descriptions, and road
layouts; and Felsburg Holt Ullevig as traffic consultants. The team’s activities included
• THE COMMONS LAND USE AND URBAN DESIGN PLAN - After testing various site
development configurations, the Design Workshop team assessed that the site could
accommodate more than 6 million square feet of mixed-use. All could have been squeezed into
6 story buildings; but the team concluded that the result would be a homogenous district
contributing little to the character of the neighborhood. Instead the team made a controversial
decision to propose buildings from 6 to 20 stories in height. Varying the scale will allow for the
design of nine taller signature buildings, which will also distinguish The Commons from Lower
Downtown — a historically significant district with a character all its own.
• PUD PROCESS AND SUBMITTAL - To get rezoning approved, the design team created,
documented, and submitted a Planned Unit Development (PUD) application for mixed-use and
made presentations at 30 public meetings, and had another 50 meetings with city staff,
neighborhood groups and businesses. Included as part of the PUD submittal was a separate
document — Urban Design Standards and Guidelines — which specifically addresses the quality
of the urban environment and the importance of creating a pedestrian oriented, visually cohesive
and economically viable neighborhood. In addition, the urban design team conducted several
workshops with local designers to review and refine the standards and guidelines. Step by step
the neighborhood plan took shape and the PUD was presented to city council. It was approved in
• TRAVEL DEMAND MANAGEMENT STRATEGY - Design Workshop and city staff
developed a Travel Demand Management program to address air quality issues associated with
the PUD that provide high levels of mobility and livability for residents, employers, and visitors.
The TDM program provides incentives to use alternative modes of transportation through
physical improvements, financial or time incentives, and parking pricing and management.
The Commons presented the special challenge of creating an urban village from scratch. Design
Workshop had to design venues for the interaction of people, parks and urban open space, which
has been a significant part of the profession since Olmsted designed Central Park. The landscape
architects continuously advocated for the importance of site testing and conceptual thought as it
relates to the pedestrian experience, and generally shepherded the process to consider the quality
and character of the public domain. This project was also unprecedented in its complexity and
scrutiny by public groups in Denver. To synthesize the team’s efforts in these conditions,
Design Workshop played a unique role in addressing several key dilemmas of the project which
crossed into transportation planning, law, public financing, politics, and social issues in addition
to traditional landscape architecture responsibilities.
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