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Denver demands more affordable living units, but will they be the kind that keep families downtown?






Developers and architects are concerned that the new rules are window-dressing that could lead to non-diverse neighborhoods and inferior design.
There’s been a lot of hoopla about letting developers build taller buildings near the 38th and Blake transit station in exchange for creating affordable housing, but some developers question whether the plan will do much create housing Denver’s working-class families can afford.

Recent zoning and ordinance changes increase the allowed heights in the quickly-rising River North (RiNo) neighborhood to as tall as 16 stories in some places  — if a developer provides some income-restricted apartments or condos. For mostly commercial or retail projects, developers have the additional option of paying more than is normally required into a new housing subsidies fund; building affordable housing elsewhere; or providing space for “community-serving uses,” such as a grocery store, artist spaces or a daycare center.

Recent zoning and ordinance changes increase the allowed heights in the quickly-rising River North (RiNo) neighborhood to as tall as 16 stories in some places. All photos by Daniel Tseng.

Residential and mixed-use developments that are 50 percent or more residential must build affordable units and cannot exercise the other options. The number of units required depends on the square footage of the development. Commercial developments may build affordable units, pay the higher fee to support affordable housing or pay the citywide fee and include the community-serving use.

Developer Kyle Zeppelin, president of Zeppelin Places, says the zoning overlay is simply a public relations stunt that has very little to do with affordable housing.

“A micro apartment in a 16-story building isn’t going to keep families in the city,” Zeppelin says. “It’s a very small area, and to think that’s going to make any kind of dent in the need for affordable housing is ridiculous. It’s a token gesture for RiNo.”

At least there's an effort being made to mitigate the problem before it's too late, says David Zucker, chief executive of Zocalo Community Development.

Though development firm McWhinney has submitted plans to the city proposing a 16-story building on .95 acres at 1420 38th St., Zeppelin notes that the only project currently being built that is as tall as the 12 stories the original zoning allows for is The Source Hotel. McWhinny’s plans call for 347 residential units, 11,400 square feet of retail space and 5,200 square feet of office space with underground parking near the 38th and Blake light-rail station.

“We are excited to begin pre-development activities regarding our site in RiNo adjacent to the commuter rail,” says David Jaudes, vice president of multifamily for McWhinney. “In partnership with Urban Land Conservancy (ULC) and Medici, we are designing a building that will utilize the affordable density bonus and bring much-needed attainable housing to the neighborhood.

“This project will be another high-quality development that will continue to evolve and embrace the RiNo neighborhood and community. We look forward to sharing more once our designs are in the final stages.”

The development firm McWhinney has submitted plans to the city proposing a 16-story building on .95 acres at 1420 38th St. All photos by Daniel Tseng.

The project may accomplish the goal of creating affordable housing around transit, but Zeppelin is concerned that it will do little to keep families in the urban core if the units aren’t large enough.
“None of this addresses the need for ownership,” Zeppelin says. “We need to get families to stay in the city, and that’s what it takes to keep working-class families in the city.”

David Zucker, chief executive of Zocalo Community Development, says the city’s intent is good but the issues surrounding affordable housing are so entrenched that the zoning overlay may not be enough to solve the problem.

“As a proponent of affordable housing and former chair of the state housing board, I’m more than sympathetic to the City Council concerns that it’s not enough,” Zucker says.

At least there’s an effort being made to mitigate the problem before it’s too late, Zucker says. It would be difficult to go back into RiNo and require affordable housing after developers already have built their projects.

“It’s just like Union Station,” he says. “We all assumed it would take 20 years, and it took six. RiNo will take two years. Because it’s happening so quickly, this is a great test case. Height is the cheapest, least expensive currency the city has. I think it’s really smart of (Denver Community Planning and Development Executive Director) Brad Buchanan, the mayor and Albus Brooks to recognize that. But is it enough? Some council people believe that it is not.”

And while the affordability component of the overlay has gained a lot of attention, other elements of the zoning code amendment have been largely ignored.

Residential and mixed-use developments that are 50 percent or more residential must build affordable units and cannot exercise the other options.

Jim Johnson, founding principal of the Johnson Nathan Strohe architecture firm, has been studying the code to determine how to design a potential project in the neighborhood. While he applauds the intent of providing more affordable housing, he’s found that some of the provisions in the design overlay district could make redeveloping some properties difficult. For example, the plan prohibits residential use at street level on half of the frontage for lots more than 150 feet wide.

"I did notice some things in there that are a little bit of a straightjacket for architects and developers,” Johnson said. “We’ve asked about live/work units because they can be animating. They said no.”

The other thing that disturbs Johnson is that the city has elected not to implement a design-review board for RiNo.

“This is controversial, but I like design review,” he said. “I think those things are good for architecture. This town needs that right now. This town really needs design police. RiNo, like any district in Denver, is a glaring example of why we need design review.”


 

Read more articles by Margaret Jackson.

Margaret is a veteran Denver real estate reporter and can be contacted here.
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