4 takeaways from Charlotte leaders’ trip to see Denver transit

The city skyline looms in the background as commuter reads while taking a light rail train from the new Yale Station to Union Station in downtown Denver, Colo.
The city skyline looms in the background as commuter reads while taking a light rail train from the new Yale Station to Union Station in downtown Denver, Colo. ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS

In Denver this week, Charlotte leaders saw another city that looks like it’s shooting up faster than a toddler hitting a growth spurt: Cranes sprouting, beaming officials boasting about billions of dollars of new construction and a sense of wonder about how quickly everything is changing.

But while Denver’s boom – heavy on millennials, craft beer and yes, a Super Bowl-winning football team – is reminiscent of Charlotte’s in many ways, there are also some key differences.

Here are some of the key takeaways I saw after joining the delegation, organized by Charlotte Center City Partners, for two days in the Mile High City:

▪ 1. It takes a region to grow a transit system.

The importance of regional cooperation for a truly robust transit system was probably the major fact leaders took back to Charlotte. In Denver, a 1-cent sales tax approved by voters covers eight counties.

That has funded a $4.7 billion commuter rail expansion in the last dozen years, with a goal of 122 miles completed in the coming years. Denver has five commuter rail lines opening this year. All transit – bus, light rail, commuter rail – in the eight-county region is managed and planned by the same regional entity.

Mecklenburg, by contrast, has a half-cent sales tax that covers just the county. And while there’s some coordination with surrounding areas, a multitude of different entities run transit.

▪ 2. It’s tough to replicate the charm, character and functionality of old buildings.

One knock from visitors to Charlotte that folks who live here get tired of hearing: The city doesn’t have any historic charm. In Denver, the contrast between a downtown with hundreds of old buildings and one without was apparent.

The city’s new crown jewel, Union Station, is a renovated train station from 1881 that was restored in a $500 million project. The old station is teeming with life, with bars, restaurants, public seating areas, shuffleboard, a hotel and, of course, trains.

Adjacent to it is the Denver district known as LoDo, where the city established a historic district covering more than 120 buildings, many more than a century old. Aged warehouses were saved from being torn down, while new buildings must meet strict architectural standards. While it was controversial when enacted, the new rules preserved a huge swath of the city’s old bones.

Over decades, what was once an area full of crumbling old warehouses became one of the city’s most vibrant districts, as the old buildings were restored and repurposed into lofts, bars, restaurants and offices.

▪ 3. It’s important to keep Charlotte’s building boom in perspective.

Although Charlotte is in the midst of a massive surge of new construction, with apartments seemingly going up on every corner and office towers springing from the ground, it was hard not to be impressed by Denver. On a walking tour of the blocks around Union Station, our guide pointed out cranes and construction sites at least as densely packed as those in uptown Charlotte.

Since 2010, downtown Denver alone has seen 7,749 apartment units completed, 5,039 under construction and about 6,000 in the pipeline. Charlotte’s not the only miracle city right now – an important fact to keep in mind as the city competes for companies and new residents.

▪ 4. Housing affordability is an issue in Denver, too.

If you’ve followed Charlotte’s building boom or recent City Council meetings, you’ve heard the complaints: Rents are rising, all the new buildings are upscale and everything being built is for rent, not for sale. In Denver, local leaders expressed many of the same concerns. New condos are nonexistent in Denver, and as in Charlotte, the vast majority of apartments being built are targeting more affluent renters.

Rent at new apartments in downtown Denver is about $2.50 to $3 per square foot, just slightly higher than uptown Charlotte and surrounding neighborhoods.

▪ Bonus takeaway: The weather in Charlotte is way better than Denver, in case you hadn’t heard. On Thursday morning, we were hit by freezing rain. Enough said.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo