Event Recap: Talent & Housing Panel Tackles Big Questions

On Thurs. Apr. 16, Confluence Denver and Otten Johnson Robinson Neff + Ragonetti presented a panel discussion on talent and housing challenges and opportunities in the city. Held at Green Spaces, the event sparked a conversation that participants were eager to continue. 
"There's a lot of issues -- and a lot of complexity to those issues," said Denver Housing Authority Executive Director Ismael Guerrero during his introductory remarks as the moderator of the panel. 

Bearing the brunt of the city's housing boom: teachers, firefighters and other civil servants, or "middle-paid workers," said Guerrero. "All of them are employed and working and struggling to make ends meet." The baseline wage for affordable living in Denver has risen to $35 an hour. 

Noting that more than 20 founder/CEO/president types were in attendance at Green Spaces -- alongside community organizers, creative directors, bloggers "and at least one explorer" -- Guerrero called the event the perfect platform to start a conversation about the city's housing issues.

Kyle Zeppelin, principal at Zeppelin Development, noted that RiNo and other central neighborhoods in Denver are building plenty of rental apartments for Millennials, but "families and the other 90 percent aren't accounted for." He blamed a "herd mentality" and a quick-buck approach for the singular focus and highlighted the family-oriented FR8 residential project at TAXI as an example of defying the trend.

Megan Devenport, program manager for Denver Shared Spaces, noted that the increase in housing costs correlates with higher commercial rents. Small businesses and nonprofits "are being squeezed and pushed out."

In her mind, the best solutions are outside of the box. "We champion the concept of collaborative shared spaces," she said. "These creative approaches to real estate increase the positive impact these spaces can have on the community."

"We've been really, really busy," began Brad Buchanan, executive director of Denver's Department of Community Planning and Development. Permit activity in the city is more than double what it was five years ago, increasing 24 percent in 2014 and another 10 percent year to date.

Adopted in 2002, Blueprint Denver identified areas of change and areas of stability, and there's been 500 percent more investment in the former since 2014, Buchanan said. "It's working -- a lot," Buchanan said. "But it's working faster than we expected."

The rate of change can accelerate gentrification. Noted Guerrero: "Denver has joined the high-cost housing club, with San Francisco, Portland and Seattle."

The elephant in the roomThe newly expanded Green Spaces at 26th and Walnut streets hosted the panel discussion.

As affordable housing was on a list of priorities recently released by Denver City Council, the question of the night: How to catalyze development that balances affordability, community and the ability to attract talent?

Zeppelin said that the passage of SB 91 is critical to catalyze for-sale condo projects -- they account for less than 5 percent of housing starts in Denver, down from more than 20 percent a decade ago. Attorneys have stymied condo development through excessive litigation, he added. "There's a whole cottage industry that exists that's driving up the price of housing."

Construction-defects reform will grow the pool of funding that stems from for-sale, multifamily residential development with more than 29 units -- a primary source of funding for affordable projects in the city --  Zeppelin argued. "Right now, the burden for affordable housing is on a small part of the market." 

And the ultra-low inventory isn't helping, either. "When somebody pops a top in Sunnyside, that depletes the supply," Zeppelin said.

Guerrero noted that every 1,000 newcomers to Denver are currently met by only about 30 new residential starts. "Are we going to grow out or grow up?" he asked. "Are we going to become a Portland/Seattle or an L.A./Phoenix?"

The jury's still out, answered Zeppelin. "Sprawl is not slowing down," he said. "The concern is we're going to be chasing commuters from the suburbs around with really expensive resources and we're not going to have resources to do anything else."

Many developers aren't helping the push for vertical, Zeppelin added. "The lots aren't being built out even close to what they're zoned for," he noted. "That's the key to providing affordability: taking advantage of the opportunities that already exist."

And creating new ones is another part of the puzzle, added Buchanan, noting that the city sees 25 to 30 rezonings in an average year. "They become these bellwether moments, these flashpoints," he said. "It's hard to throw too much change at me. If things aren't changing, I'm nervous. Other people don't want any change -- ever."

One side has inevitability on its side. Denver is currently characterized by massive change, Buchanan continued. "It's SimCity on Brighton Boulevard right now. It's remarkable."

In this context, it's critical that the city's car culture get kicked to the curb. "That's how we mature as a we become a place where it's: 'I've got a car, but I'm not going to drive today,'" Buchanan noted. "That is generally not the case right now."

Creative collaborationMegan Devenport, program manager for Denver Shared Spaces, noted that the increase in housing costs correlates with higher commercial rents.

Devenport argued that developers need to look beyond the bottom line. "That is part of the solution: having developers who are going to invest in the city for the long haul and invest in the community as well as the vitality of our business."

In this context, nonprofits are the "glue" that holds communities together in the face of the housing crunch. "Part of the solution is keeping nonprofits, small businesses and social enterprises in our city affordably as well," Devenport explained. Part of the payoff comes in the form of less traffic and cleaner air -- about half of workers in Denver commute in from outside city limits.

And that means figuring out how to promote first-floor retail and office space. Said Zeppelin: "You have a situation in Ballpark where whole blocks go dark at night." Zeppelin Development's residential projects in RiNo strive to incorporate ground-level commercial space as well as early childhood education centers and artist-friendly workspaces and amenities, he added. "Artists are the indigenous residents in RiNo."

This is compounded by RiNo's position on "the front end” of the wave of change currently sweeping Denver. "It's a new idea and a new type of neighborhood," he said. He pointed to the bike lane on Brighton Boulevard going from an afterthought to the "centerpiece" of its transportation plan. "Change is almost always uncomfortable but rarely detrimental."

Mixed-use development "is about creating community in a place, rather than seeing how many units we can cram in," said Buchanan. He touted Denver Housing Authority's Mariposa in La Alma/Lincoln Park and its health-oriented development. "Ismael and DHA are doing unbelievable things with our city. They're creating a place where it's harder to be healthy than unhealthy."

Buchanan said there's also pressure on the city's parks and open spaces. "As we grow and densify, we have to put as much focus on green spaces as vertical construction, and it's hard," he said. "We need to find a sustainable, long-term funding source for green spaces and park construction." 

CPD is launching an initiative to catalog parks and open spaces in the city center, he said. "That's how we're going to create a human and humane downtown."

Communication with residents is a key part of the planning process, added Buchanan, noting, "In Denver, the best idea wins."

Near the end of the conversation, Guerrero asked the three panelists about their favorite places in Denver.

"I get pretty excited about eating and drinking," said Zeppelin. "TRVE Brewing is on the list. It's a death metal brewpub."

Devenport highlighted riding the bike trail in Lakewood Gulch as it approaches the Platte River. "Every time I'm on that trail going down to the Platte, I think, 'The city made this for me,’" she said.

Buchanan highlighted a tree at the northwest corner of 17th Avenue and Washington Street. "It was hollowed out by nature and there's a really fine cabinet infill with a door, and there's a little bird inside," he said. "That somebody loved that place that much to do that -- it's amazing."

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

This event at Green Spaces was sponsored by Confluence partner Otten Johnson Robinson Neff + Ragonetti, a Denver-based law firm with a focus on real estate. Refreshments provided courtesy Declaration Brewing and Heirloom Catering.
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Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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