Remembering Route 40: Lakewood, Colorado
By Mike McGrath
I have a fondness for old business routes, motel rows, kitschy gift shops, Western-themed diners and gas stations that sell Jackalope post cards.
Lakewood, Colorado’s section of Route 40 (also known as West Colfax) was once known as “Gateway to the Rockies.” If you were a traveler in the 1950s and you were looking for a tourist motel, an authentic Russian steam bath or a prefabricated diner built in New Jersey and shipped out West by rail, Route 40 was your bet.
Route 40’s heyday ended with the completion of the federal Interstate Highway System, one of the most expensive and consequential public works programs in the history of the world. Business districts dried up overnight, along with many a Main Street, USA. It’s what used to be called progress.
Today the prefabricated diner is now a historic landmark. There are still motels on West Colfax, but some of them have gone to seed. Service stations have been turned into used car lots or vacant buildings where sumac plants grow in the cracks of sidewalks.
I was driving Route 40 recently, stopping along the way to take pictures of old motel signs. West Colfax is about to be transformed again by transportation. In this case it is the Denver RTD Light Rail system, which is slated to sprout a westward line, connecting downtown Denver to Golden, Colorado, following partway the path of fabled Route 40.
When the light rail expansion initiative passed, Lakewood began to plan for the future, with an ambitious list of projects to coincide with light rail expansion. The goal was to encourage “transit-oriented, mixed use development” around the soon to be built light rail stations, four in all. This would include medium density housing, shops and office buildings.
Planning development around rail systems makes a lot of sense. It prevents sprawl and infrastructure inefficiencies. It encourages transit use and pedestrian activity and “eyes on the street,” which makes neighborhoods safer, more civically alive and, frankly more fun.
The city plans to locate a Head Start facility near one of the stations so parents can drop off kids on their way to the work commute. A company that specializes in developing polluted building sites will be building its new headquarters on a “brownfield” on the corridor.
Fittingly, the city plans to locate a historic transit museum at one of the stations, sporting a restored, 100-year-old interurban rail car, which once ran along the West Colfax route, before the interurban rail system were dismantled throughout the west. (Interurban rail systems in the Western U.S. were another victim of the interstate highway system.)
I live near a mixed use, commercial-residential district built around a light rail stop in nearby Denver, and I am a firm believer. There is something liberating about being able to talk to a light rail station and not having to park, maybe not as liberating as driving a 59 Ford on old Route 40, but an environmentally responsible close second.
Lakewood’s Light Rail Corridor planning project was one of the three community betterment efforts Lakewood touted when it won an All-America City Award last month. The other projects were an effort to “green” old office buildings (make them more energy efficient) and a successful effort to save an old middle school from being closed by building a new Boys and Girls Club on site. Link here to see a steam of their presentation of the three projects.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.