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Denver’s Central Platte Valley: A Dynamic Decade

New developments around Denver’s downtown are bringing the city back to its roots

By Mary Voelz Chandler


Waterside Lofts

Waterside Lofts, designed by OZ Architecture with Shears + Adkins Architects. Photo by Sergio B, courtesy of The Denver Architectural Foundation.

Museum of Contemporary Art Denver

Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, designed by David Adjaye, Hon. FAIA. Photo by Peter Grimes, courtesy of The Denver Architectural Foundation.

Denver Tramway Company Powerhouse/REI Flagship Store

Denver Tramway Company Powerhouse/REI Flagship Store, designed by Stearns Rogers Company, 1901; restoration by Mithun Partners. Photo by Jim Bershof, courtesy of The Denver Architectural Foundation.

Brownstones at Riverfront Park

Brownstones at Riverfront Park, designed by Humphries Poli Architects. Photo by Alan G. Gass, FAIA, courtesy of the Denver Architectural Foundation.

Colorado Ocean Journey

Colorado Ocean Journey, designed by Odyssea, a joint venture between AndersonMasonDale Architects and RNL Design. Photo by Charles J. Cordina, AIA, courtesy of The Denver Architectural Foundation.

Millennium Bridge

The mast of Millennium Bridge, designed by ArchitectureDenver with Design Workshop, rises next to DaVita Headquarters, designed by MOA Architecture. Photo by Alan G. Gass, FAIA, courtesy of the Denver Architectural Foundation.

Mark Falcone Residence

Mark Falcone Residence, designed by David Adjaye, Hon. FAIA. Photo by Alan G. Gass, FAIA, courtesy of the Denver Architectural Foundation.

ONE Riverfront

ONE Riverfront, designed by 4240 Architecture Inc. Photo by Ed La Casse, courtesy of the Denver Architectural Foundation.

1900 16th St.

1900 16th St., designed by Tryba  Architects. Photo by Frank Ooms, courtesy of The Denver Architectural Foundation.

The junction of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek is where Denver began. It is where Native Americans and early explorers met and traded, and where railroads found the space needed to bring together miles of tracks that formed the city’s early urban nucleus. 

And now, with the majority of rail lines removed, the Central Platte Valley is home to a new mini-city of upscale high-rises, town homes, office buildings, and amenities. It is where the city and passionate citizens have built new parks that offer access to open space and the rush of water, and where sports facilities bring crowds to cheer their football, basketball, and hockey teams. And, with the redevelopment of adjacent Union Station into a regional multi-modal facility, the Valley has returned to its role as a center for transportation. 

Massive sections of Denver saw redevelopment in the late 1990s, but the Valley has grown almost out of nothing. As visitors to the 2013 AIA National Convention will see, this former black hole of gone-to-seed space is having a positive impact on the vitality of downtown and the region. Acres of land have shifted from dregs to diamonds in a decade, while smart new connections have removed manmade and natural impediments between downtown and the neighborhoods to the northwest. New streets have been built and others have been extended, creating a grid that defines a dense neighborhood. As the Valley has grown, new development also has moved to the north, including the residential area called Prospect. 

It is the role of bridges and other connectors that makes the Central Platte Valley “one of the great downtown success stories,” says Chris Frampton. As president of East West Partners, one of the top developers in the Valley, he has watched change come quickly. 

“The bridges have been really interesting,” he says. Denver Millennium Bridge, which helps anchor East West’s Riverfront Park trio of residential towers, “has served a couple of huge roles. The [South Platte] River was cut off from downtown by train tracks. The bridge also brought Riverfront Park closer to downtown visually, and it’s had an important impact on the extension of the 16th Street Mall.” 

One of the best vantage points for viewing the sweep of development in the Valley is at the Highland side of the pedestrian bridge over Interstate 25. There, the transformation becomes clear, illustrating how a tangle of rail lines has become a community for work and play. 

The Connections: Bridges and the Platte River Park System

Since the city began demolishing old viaducts in the early 1990s, numerous bridges and underpasses have been constructed to span the old impediments of waterways and railroad tracks. 

Denver Millennium Bridge (16th and Little Raven streets; designed by ArchitectureDenver, with Design Workshop, 2002). This futuristic 130-foot-long pedestrian bridge with a towering white mast is a major part of the 16th Street extension and a symbol of this reenergized section of Denver. The bridge was followed by the Platte Valley Pedestrian Bridge (Platte River at 16th Street, 2004) and the Highland Pedestrian Bridge (Carter & Burgess, 2006). The former is a much more straightforward span that crosses the river at Commons Park; the latter stretches over Interstate 25 as the final link in the chain. 

Among the first things people learn when they come to Denver is that people here love their parks. Not that residents of other cities don’t, but other parts of the country are not located in high plains deserts, where early settlers encountered little vegetation and even less moisture to make things grow. Some of Denver’s most cherished urban oases are: 

Confluence Park (bounded by Speer Boulevard and 15th, Little Raven and Water streets; designed by EDAW, 1976; updated by McLaughlin Water Engineers in 1990s; plaza by Architerra Group, 2001). Confluence Park takes its name from the fact that the South Platte River and Cherry Creek meet at this point. Funded by the Greenway Foundation, public interests, and the city, Confluence Park offers urban folk a spot for reflection as well as events.

As development proceeded in the Valley, Confluence Park has been augmented by other parks, including: Commons Park (bounded by Little Raven, Platte, 15th, and 19th streets; designed by Civitas, 2000), a 20-acre mix of wild and urban landscape that serves as a “front yard” for residents of the Lower Downtown (LoDo) neighborhood and the Valley; and Northside Park (west of the South Platte River, at the eastern terminus of E. 51st Ave.; designed by Wenk Associates, 2000), created from 70 acres of land and elements of a former sewage treatment plant.  

Historic Buildings

Not everything in the Central Platte Valley is new. Historic buildings include:

Moffat Depot (2101 15th St.; designed by Edwin H. Moorman, 1906). This small Neo-Classical structure was the Denver terminus for David Moffat’s short (and short-lived) Denver, Northwestern & Pacific Railway. Empty for years, it is now being developed into a senior care complex, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Denver Tramway Company Powerhouse/REI Flagship Store (1416 Platte St., designed by Stearns Rogers Company, 1901; restoration by Mithun Partners, 2000). A purely industrial structure meant to create electricity for the Denver Tramway, this building features elaborate decorative elements. After years of housing a museum, the powerhouse was restored to host outdoor equipment outfitter REI.

New Buildings North of 15th Street:

Riverfront Park Towers (designed by 4240 Architecture, 2002). This group of high-rise towers—Riverfront Tower, Riverfront Plaza at Little Raven Street, Promenade Lofts, and Park Place Lofts—set the tone early on for the design vocabulary in the Central Platte Valley. All rely on brick, glass, and stone used in ways that stress Modernist design and the forward-thinking nature of this reclaimed neighborhood.

Brownstones at Riverfront Park (Little Raven and 18th streets; designed by Humphries Poli Architects, 2005). This 16-unit development farther up Little Raven displays a human scale and intriguing geometric compositions expressed in polychrome buff brick, metal, and glass forms and planes. 

DaVita Headquarters (2000 16th St.; designed by MOA Architecture, 2012). The corporate home of this healthcare company stands out as the flashier younger brother of nearby 1900 16th St., with a tilted roof and a wedge-shaped element on one façade.

New Buildings South of 15th Street:

Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (1485 Delgany St.; designed by Adjaye Associates, with Davis Partnership, 2007). From the outside, this serene cube-like structure reads as a smoky gray-black glass container, but the interior of David Adjaye’s, Hon. FAIA, first U.S. building tells a different story. Those glass walls are lined with white MonoPan, a polypropylene sandwich panel that allows the hallways and galleries to glow within during the day, and emit diffused light at night. Clear windows are strategically placed to frame city views.

This tight site also holds three residential complexes that appear to caress the museum. They include the ArtHouse Townhomes (1460 Delgany St.; designed by Studio Completiva and Adjaye Associates, 2007); Monarch Mills (1475 Delgany St.; designed by Studio Completiva, 2007), and the nearby Delgany Lofts (1401 Delgany St.; designed by 4240 Architects Inc., 2005). Adjaye designed a Corten steel–clad town home for the developer who donated the land for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Continuum Partners CEO and founder Mark Falcone. 

Waterside Lofts (1401 Wewatta St.; designed by OZ Architecture, with Shears + Adkins Architects, 2002). This early project forms an edge on Speer Boulevard; its design and materials help link the historic buildings of lower downtown with the contemporary design ethos of the Valley.

Colorado Ocean Journey/Downtown Denver Aquarium (700 Water St.; designed by Odyssea, a joint venture between AndersonMasonDale Architects and RNL Design, 1999). With its mix of brick, steel, and glass, Colorado Ocean Journey helped set a contemporary design standard for the area, with curving walls, vast expanses of windows, and a wraparound observation deck. Ocean Journey, however, went belly up, and was acquired by a prominent restaurant chain in 2005. Modifications ensued, but the structure remains one of the most successful buildings constructed in 1990s Denver.

Denver resident Mary Voelz Chandler has written about architecture, preservation, art, and design for more than 20 years. She is the author of the Guide to Denver Architecture and was formerly the architecture writer at the Rocky Mountain News. She was also a writer at Fentress Architects, where she completed two books on the firm’s work, and is currently a business development communications specialist at GH Phipps Construction Companies. Chandler received the AIA Colorado 2005 award for Contribution to the Built Environment by a Non-Architect, and was honored by the Denver Art Museum in 2012 with the DAM Contemporaries DAMKey Award.

Recent Related:

Civic Center: Denver’s Civic and Cultural Heart

Modernist Ideals Thrive in Suburban Denver


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