Rising to the Challenge in Denver
Denver is creating new ideas and programs in response to COVID-19
By Eulois Cleckley
Although our recent public health crisis has brought changes to the way we operate and communicate, Denver’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure (DOTI) has continued its work to make Denver’s streets safer for all and keep the city’s infrastructure in a state of good repair. Our city streets and infrastructure move life; whether it’s people, goods that people purchase or earthly elements such as wastewater, streets are the lifeblood of a city. DOTI is also rising to the challenge of supporting the city’s response to COVID-19 with innovative new ideas and programs to help residents and businesses thrive amid the pandemic.
One new program is allowing restaurants — and bars that serve food — the ability to expand into outdoor spaces to provide patrons room to social distance. DOTI, which oversees use of the public right of way in Denver, is reviewing and permitting requests from establishments to expand into public streets, sidewalks, and on-street parking spaces so guests can enjoy dining out with greater physical distance and safety. The city, overall, has approved more than 250 requests from restaurants to expand onto public and private property, such as adjacent parking lots, to support businesses amid these challenging times.
The need for space has been a common theme. DOTI has responded to the need for social distancing with an unprecedented effort to close stretches of streets to thru-traffic, creating more room for Denverites to walk, bike and enjoy the outdoors amid the pandemic. The stretches are in neighborhoods with greater population densities where there’s a greater need for space and connect to nearby parks. Through an equity lens, DOTI prioritized areas that don’t have immediate access to a park or trail. The program has been well received, with DOTI seeing up to 12 times more people biking and walking than normal in some locations. The streets are shared, so people in cars who need to access homes and businesses along these stretches are allowed to do so, but signage encourages drivers to go slowly and people who are walking and biking are reminded to social distance and wear masks. In addition, DOTI partnered with local artists and community leaders to beautify these temporary closed streets through the installation of unique street murals, bringing a sense of neighborhood pride.
Meanwhile, Denver’s efforts to build out its bike network are taking on even greater significance amid COVID-19, with people looking for ways to exercise and travel, while distancing to a greater extent. In 2018, Mayor Michael Hancock announced the city’s plans to install 125 miles of new bike lanes by the end of 2023 and DOTI is charged with ensuring the commitment is met. To meet this aggressive timeline, DOTI has developed new levels of coordination with street paving operations, installing bike lanes after roads are paved to create new efficiencies and minimize impacts to residents. DOTI’s goal is to ensure every household is within one-quarter mile of a high comfort bikeway, which is a bikeway that provides greater levels of separation between bikes and cars and is a more comfortable place for people of all skill levels to ride. DOTI has also implemented a new community-based strategy to gather input from residents as they design Denver’s multimodal networks and low-stress bike projects.
DOTI is not only focused on making transportation improvements; it is making extraordinary progress toward reducing flood risks in Denver with significant stormwater management projects. The Platte to Park Hill: Stormwater Systems program is investing nearly $300 million in neighborhoods east of downtown that have historically flooded in larger storm events. The program has included a completed redesign of Denver’s historic City Park Golf Course to include a new detention area and open channel that manages and controls the stormwater that naturally flows through this location, while reducing flood risks in neighborhoods north of the course, providing water quality and making play at the course more interesting. The redesigned course is reopening to limited play this fall, as the city continues to monitor and establish the new turf.
Another exciting and significant stormwater management project in the Platte to Park Hill: Stormwater Systems program is wrapping up this fall. The 39th Avenue Greenway, as it is known, is a mile-long greenway and open channel, built to convey the 100-year storm while providing water quality benefits before the water reaches the South Platte River. The greenway adds 12 acres of recreational space to adjacent neighborhoods, including a walking and biking trail, natural paths for crossing the channel, plaza areas, an outdoor amphitheater, a community garden, natural play areas for kids, shade structures, and two new vehicular bridges that increase connectivity and enhance mobility in this part of town.
While our sense of normalcy amid COVID-19 may have changed, our mission has not. Through its employees, DOTI continues to enhance the quality of life in Denver. It continues to efficiently deliver effective, high quality, safe and equitable public infrastructure and services. DOTI will also continue to prioritize safety initiatives and leverage partnerships to advance this work in our great city of Denver.
Eulois Cleckley is the executive director of Denver’s Department of Transportation & Infrastructure.