As Denver grows taller, city planners scramble to create rules that make sense

Denver's booming population is nearing 700,000 and demand for housing has pushed building heights skyward. The question: What guidelines makes sense for each urban neighborhood?
Developers are working fast and furiously to capitalize on Denver’s swelling population, which is demanding more housing closer to the city’s core.

With limited real estate available in Denver’s close-in neighborhoods, taller buildings are rising to handle the rush. That increases density and puts pressure on city planners to ensure Denver’s neighborhoods are built in a way that preserves their history and character.

The city should proceed with care, but also find a way to embrace a more compact way of living, says Ken Schroeppel, who teaches at University of Colorado Denver’s College of Architecture and Planning. Density allows housing to remain affordable and helps neighborhoods thrive.

“Density supports more walkable, transit-rich and bike-able neighborhoods, allowing Denverites to easily meet their daily needs without relying on a car,” Schroeppel says. “Growth within Denver’s established neighborhoods allows our existing infrastructure to be shared more efficiently.”

The city is working with its existing zoning code, updated in 2010, to create neighborhood plans to guide development in areas that are booming. It’s an opportunity to encourage developers to build affordable housing in exchange for allowing the taller buildings.

For example, since the University of Colorado A Line train opened last year, the city has been working with stakeholders and members of the community to refine the vision for building heights near the 38th and Blake Street light-rail station in River North.

The amended 38th & Blake Station Area Plan incorporates the plans for the surrounding neighborhoods  — River North, Northeast Downtown, Globeville, and Elyria/Swansea — into a cohesive vision. The planning team also coordinated with related planning efforts to ensure consistency, including Brighton Boulevard Design and Construction, National Western Center Planning and Implementation, Platte to Park Hill: Stormwater Systems, and the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative Master Mobility Study.Since the University of Colorado A Line opened last year, the city has been working with stakeholders and members of the community to refine the vision for building heights near the 38th and Blake Street light-rail station in River North.

Recommendations, developed with public input,  include developing taller buildings near the station platform, with appropriate height transitions from the platform to established residential areas. And where heights are greater than those recommended in previous plans, development should provide community benefits, including integrating affordable housing within the station area.

The plan also calls for integrating existing structures, buildings or other noteworthy features into new and taller development projects with the goal being to preserve the existing fabric of the community.

“The key recommendations are to create a system that allows height bonuses in return for providing affordable housing,” says Abe Barge, Principal City Planner with Denver Community Planning and Development. “We’re working on specific zoning rules to implement that. It probably won’t be ready for adoption until sometime this summer at the earliest.”

When Denver amended its zoning code in 2010, it specifically left out theArapahoe Square and the Golden Triangle areas because it wanted their neighborhood plans updated first. The first plan to be adopted was for Arapahoe Square, a 21-block area between 20th Street and Park Avenue. Under zoning approved last summer, the area was split into two districts that allow 12-plus story-buildings closer to Park and 20-plus story buildings closer to 20th Street on the neighborhood’s boundary with the Central Business District.

If developers want to go higher — up to 20 stories near Park and to 30 stories near 20th — they’ll be required to meet certain criteria, such as concealing parking garages from the street or designing slimmer towers on top of shorter bases, but there are no incentives to encourage affordable housing.

“Arapahoe Square and 38th and Blake represent a move toward using more incentives in zoning,” Barge says. “As investments are made, particularly around 38th and Blake, that pave the way for growth and development, a lot of needs must be met. We’re looking at zoning systems that help get us those things.

“We’re saying, ‘Yes, you can build taller buildings, but you have to contribute more to the pedestrian realm and you also have to provide affordable housing in that area at a greater rate than what is required.’”

Next up is the Golden Triangle, which was delayed when the city was addressing the issue of “garden court” town homes, which often are squeezed in sideways into residential blocks.

The Golden Triangle adopted a plan about three years ago that envisions a neighborhood that is eclectic, connected, creative and livable. The eclectic character of the neighborhood is a strength to be built upon. Its diversity of large and small buildings is one of its assets and provides an authentic identity and creative culture that distinguishes the neighborhood and enhances its appeal, according to the plan.
Developers are working fast and furiously to capitalize on Denver’s swelling population, which is demanding more residences closer to the city’s core.
“It doesn’t say a lot of really specific things about what should happen, but a key goal will be to preserve a range of building scales,” Barge says.

Denver’s Neighborhood Planning Initiative is completing plans for the city’s neighborhoods in phases. In addition to RiNo, Arapahoe Square and the Golden Triangle, the first phase includes  South Park Hill, Hale, Montclair, East Colfax, Capitol Hill, City Park, Cheesman Park, Congress Park, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch and Denver International Airport.

Phase 2 could kick off as early as 2019. Those neighborhoods include Chaffee Park, Sunnyside, Highland, Jefferson Park, Sun Valley, Villa Park and Barnum.

“There’s nothing cued up specifically other than interest from the private sector for big projects around Mile High Stadium,” Barge says. “We’re kind of waiting on getting more information from developers on their rezoning requests.”

Read more articles by Margaret Jackson.

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