Can The Suburban Fringe Be Downtown Adjacent?

Denver Suburbs.jpg

For many suburban Americans, the thought of migrating to a center-city environment holds an intriguing appeal, fueled by urbanists who tout the benefits of stunning cityscape views, walkability, proximity to civic and cultural amenities, and street vibrancy. I happen to be among those suburbanites who have harbored a secret fantasy of living in a dense downtown environment, replete with throngs of creative millennials roaming the streets, fancy coffee houses, and close access to fine dining. A decision to move from suburban Sacramento to Denver has been the result.

The urban/suburban residential conundrum has generated epic debates that match the joys of city living against the benefits of suburbia. Terms such as “sprawl,” “drivable urbanism,” and the “slumming of suburbia” appear in the news regularly, often in an attempt to sway the pendulum in favor of dense city living.

The tsunami of hoopla around “urban livability” has been of growing interest to my family and me as we prepare to relocate to Denver. I've come to believe the accuracy of the assertion, often voiced on this site, that America’s interest in suburbia has not abated. It has become abundantly clear from the brisk interest of potential buyers of our current Folsom, California residence, that living in a suburban locale still holds a special appeal. The environmentalist clamor aside, what people really want from a community is amenities that appeal to their specific interests. Folsom, a city of 72,000 nestled on the outskirts of Sacramento, offers myriad advantages for leisure — such as boating and biking — to basic requirements like low crime rates and quality schools.

For us, the move to Denver is a transition from suburbia that's been a challenge. Despite steady buyer interest, our 3100-square-foot house is still on the market. Suburban critics, like Urban Land Institute-fellow Christopher Leinberger, would likely cite a potential cause as being declining interest in what are affectionately known as McMansions, those big cumbersome houses replete with big lawns, big mortgages, and big utility bills. Demographic trends also show a steady rise in the number of adults without children, who are presumably less likely to purchase a big house. And, as a real estate professional pointed out to us, people are holding out for a windfall deal these days amid the abundance of foreclosures in the Sacramento metro area.

Finding a family home in Denver has been even more interesting. While the downtown Lo-Do District has great appeal to us because of its vibrancy, civic amenities, and proximity to Coors Field (Rockies Baseball), Invesco Field (Broncos Football) and the Pepsi Center (Nuggets Basketball and Avalanche Hockey), it simply doesn’t strike my wife and me as the ideal environment for raising our seven-year-old daughter. The questionable schools in the city-center core were the deal breaker, and the catalyst for our decision to explore quasi- suburban areas on the fringe of downtown.

As is the case with many downtowns across the country, real estate values in central-city Denver have taken a severe beating. With tepid demand, large inventories of condos have sat vacant for months, leading some developers to convert them into rentals.

After several exploratory trips and careful consideration of our options, particularly since our house in California is still on the market, we elected to rent in a neighborhood called Cheeseman Park. An eclectic, diverse enclave just on the outskirts of downtown, the area offers the hybrid urban/suburban environment that we were seeking. It also has a top-notch elementary school for our daughter.

Our choice of location within the Denver area seems to support a national trend that was much discussed at the recent Urban Land Institute Summit/ Spring Council Forum in Boston; namely, that the vast majority of population growth in U.S. urban regions will occur not in downtown cores, but in suburbs, and of those, most notably the close-in suburbs exuding an urban feel.

This is something that leaders in our current home region of Sacramento failed to grasp recently. The City Council made the decision to pursue a mixed-use project with 256 housing units in the downtown core, over a more ambitious proposal outside of downtown featuring a complex with live music, a year-round farmer’s market, and a venue showcasing California’s rich agricultural history. The choice seems ill-advised, since previous downtown housing projects have failed, in part due to tepid residential demand.

In the end, urban living has its benefits, although decisions to reside in a denser environment should be sprinkled with a dose of pragmatism. The large population is one factor that maintains Denver’s robust spectator sports scene, which is a huge draw for me personally. And, like many bigger cities, it also offers a wider selection of social and cultural activities than that of the Sacramento region. While urban housing has captured the imagination of many Americans, downtowns may be best suited for the role of civic and cultural centers – places that people come to visit, rather than where they reside.

Photo by Michael Scott of a "suburban" neighborhood in Denver.

Michael P. Scott is a Northern California urban journalist, demographic researcher and technical writer. He can be reached at

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Can The Suburban Fringe Be Downtown Adjacent?

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Understanding Denver Neighborhoods


Welcome to Denver! Since I grew up here and invest and redevelop in these “inner ring neighborhoods” I jotted down some random observations and history.

1. Denverites are crazy about their tree-lined, old-house neighborhoods, and as one might expect, hate change. (If you love it, why change it?) That attitude recently resulted in a huge downzoning, eliminating some 40k potential dwelling units in the most desirable neighborhoods citywide.
2. Denver itself isn’t very big, about 10 miles by 10 miles. Only in the south part of the city in the outermost 2-4 miles will you find anything that fits the concept of “suburban”. Closer to town, most homes are built on a rectangular grid on 50’x125’ lots, and single-family. The new zoning code and map identifies this well, and calls this form "urban", even though it's not dense by any standard.
3. Cheesman Park and Capitol Hill are by far the densest residential areas, and closest to downtown. Even close-in Congress Park, Curtis Park and Whittier are mostly single family.
4. The inner ring neighborhoods have been re-establishing themselves as the most desirable primarily because of the charming streetscapes, not necessarily because of the livability of their older housing stock.
5. As in many U.S. cities, these neighborhoods developed as “streetcar suburbs” before cars were common. They haven’t been truly walkable since the streetcar system was removed in the early ‘50’s and the neighborhood grocery stores vanished.
6. Forced busing in the 60’s caused “white flight” and further decaying of the inner ring. The school system, DPS, still hasn’t recovered from these blows. Because the Middle and High Schools in some of the best neighborhoods are still substandard, some families still flee to the non-DPS suburbs when their kids get older. (It should be noted that students can often choose which school they attend, Bromwell excepted)
7. Walkability has returned to many areas with the light rail system, which is expanding. Buses work well for non-drivers, but if you own a car, you won’t take the bus regularly.
8. The new b-cycle bikeshare program has added to the bike friendliness of Denver. Many cross-town commuter routes are quickest by bike, and the weather suits bicycling nearly year-round so expect more improvements in bikability.
9. I believe that housing dollars will continue shifting to the inner ring at the expense of the far-flung suburbs. These new homes and carriage houses will be smaller, ultra energy efficient, close to transit, low maintenance, _____________, and _____________ (please help me fill in the blanks)

No response?

Many neighborhoods are like this. I think my challenge is that areas defined as suburban are usually viewed as subdivided areas without a natural street grid, mixed zoning, and so on. Similar to a below comment - this neighborhood was an "original suburb" and developed in the late 1800s. That doesn't seem suburban by today's standards.

My Wife and I have future

My Wife and I have future plans to relocate out of the Bay Area to Austin TX, primarily because the cost of housing where we live now is still ridiculously high.

I'm not sure why there has to be a "debate" between metro or suburban living. The type of environment people choose to live in is a personal choice. Its like visiting an art gallery: an exercise of subjectivity. You mentioned your Wife and kids. If there was to be any gauge as to why people choose to live where they do, kids are perhaps the biggest reason. We have no kids nor plan on having them. But if we did I imagine that our choices would suddenly narrow down considerably for the exact same reasons yours did: schools. It seems that no matter where you live school quality makes a huge difference on many levels and affects real estate prices drastically.

As for us, well I grew up in the sticks, have lived in urban city cores on both coasts, and now live in the suburbs of the Bay Area. All environments have their advantages and disadvantages. In my rural upbringing I felt that the level of independence and personal space was a lot better. But there was also a lack of culture. In the urban core I had to get used to living crammed with lots of people, the heightened cost of living, and the constant noise. But then again it was easy to access things like culture, music, people, and so on. In the suburban area I live in things are somewhat pleasant, I have a little more personal space, and there is an adequate level of culture, etc etc.

That said, I guess with my rural upbringing it really doesn't take a lot to keep me happy. I'm happy to tinker around in the yard or garage all day. At this point we're just ready to own our own house and in the last 8 years we've saved enough to buy something out of state, with cash if we chose to even though that would be financially stupid. We visited Austin last year and it seemed to have a wide variety of affordable housing choices and the city is small enough to live in a rural area and be within close proximity to the downtown. Since we don't have kids we can look in areas that don't have great schools and save a lot of money.

Good luck selling the house.You are smart to rent before you sell. Incredibly, I've met more than my fair share of people who just knew they could sell their house and went ahead and bought another in a new city only to find the old house wouldn't sell. That's a bad situation to be in.

Austin Relocation

Thank you for your comments and good luck on your plans to relocate to Austin. I had the opportunity to visit there earlier this year and was very favorably impressed by the sense of community and vibe of the area.

You are so right about the school factor. It is definitely a variable that merits the highest of consideration when kids are involved.

Michael Scott
Centro Inc


Congrats on the move.

I'm curious why a neighborhood that developed 1880 - 1900 and has a density of over 10,000 people / sq. mi (IIRC) is "quasi" suburban. More so, if you're eyeing some other neighborhoods for a permanent home. Maybe Park Hill? Wellshire? Platt Park? West Highland? Baker?

re: Suburban

The "Quasi Suburban" reference was an attempt to describe neighborhoods like Cheesman Park that possesses urban elements yet are located on the outskirts of the urban core.

Thanks for referencing several other neighborhoods that may fit this genre. I will include them in my future research.

Michael Scott
Centro Inc


This article is a good case regarding how people perceive downtowns. While many wish that the "city center" meant something, the reality to most people is that downtown is just another burb - and not a very competitive one, according to Mr. Scott, who as an urban journalist knows the arguments for and against downtowns.

When downtowns compete against suburbs they come up short for the reasons that Mr. Scott mentioned. As Grady Clay pointed out over 30 years ago, our fixation on the center is long gone.

Richard Reep, M. Arch.
Winter Park, FL