YIMBY Denver: As Naysayers Shudder, Pro-Growth Urbanists Welcome Developers into their Backyards

There's an emerging faction of urban evolutionists in Denver proclaiming, "Yes, in my backyard!" This grassroots group flips the script and welcomes the dense, mixed-use housing that others reject.
Eleven district council members and the two councilwomen at-large gather in the City and County Building, in Room 451, on Mondays at 5:30 p.m., usually to hear from a slim showing of constituents examining local issues from their podium.

If the night's agenda happens to include zoning, though, the space might feel cramped with "40 people from a neighborhood wearing matching t-shirts that say, 'No,'" as CU Denver Assistant Professor Ken Schroeppel describes it. Council meetings, he explains, are a prime place to see NIMBY in action.

NIMBY -- short for "Not in My Backyard" -- is more an attitude than a movement, according to Josh Stephens, writing for Next City, characterized by general civic opposition to infrastructure projects, usually housing.

"NIMBY," Schroeppel clarifies, "is always in response to development, and we see it when there's lots of development happening at once."

It can preserve a neighborhood's character, sure, but there's an economic downside. Nationally, lost opportunities for development might be reducing our country's economic output by as much as $1.5 trillion a year, according to a paper by economists Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti.

NIMBY is a relatively new phenomenon in Denver. For 60 years, the trend was suburban flight, explains Jill Locantore, a City Park West resident and WalkDenver's policy and program director. Speaking here as a neighbor -- not a representative for WalkDenver -- Locantore continues, "In the past 10 to 15 years, that's reversed, and we see people moving back into cities."

This new urban boom catalyzes development counter to what came before. "So much of Denver's greater area demonstrates the negative effects of post-World War II suburbanization," says David Zucker, president of Zocalo Community Development. "Places like Cherry Creek, therefore, or the Highland and Lower Downtown, are successful because people have an aspiration to be in each other's personal space again. That's the new public realm."

Denver has experienced one of the nation's highest rates of in-migration. In 2015, the city's population jumped by nearly 20,000. For some citizens, more people means more hassle: standstill traffic, for example, stalled in front of century-old storefronts that have been all but swallowed by development of a much larger scale.

Those opposing construction take issue with a range of associated matters surrounding traffic flow, parking, mountain views and shadows. "They view these concepts as a way to express their opposition to change more generally," Schroeppel says.

When it comes to NIMBY versus YIMBY -- the latter being the NIMBY backlash of "Yes, in My Backyard" -- stratification isn't based on age, gender, race, ethnicity or political affiliation. "Some of the biggest NIMBYs I know are totally liberal," says Ian Harwick, the local consultant who co-hosts a Denver Urbanists MeetUp with Schroeppel. The real divide, says Schroeppel, falls on one's stance toward change.

Not in my backyard

Denver's West Highland neighborhood is rebounding after a six-year saga over luxury apartments planned near West 32nd Avenue and Lowell Boulevard. When neighbors learned of the five-story development plans in 2011, they voiced concerns over traffic and congestion, and a lawsuit ensued.

The halted project regained momentum in 2014 when the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission approved an application to connect the historic Beth Eden Church building to the forthcoming apartments. Today, the Broadstone Highlands Square project is still listed as under construction, though national development firm Alliance Residential Company confirms it is nearing completion.

"Nobody wants their neighborhood to be the next Highlands," says Harwick, admitting that, yes, development can impact a district's charisma. That's why he advocates for dispersed, citywide construction. "YIMBY is finding ways to bring a heck of a lot of housing and density into neighborhoods throughout the whole city, whether that's market-rate or affordable."

Affordable housing and services for the homeless have been at the center of bitter debate. "We experienced NIMBYism over a potential facility planned for the Athmar Park neighborhood," explains Harwick, referring to the Solutions Center proposed for a vacant 25,000-square-foot building identified by Denver's Road Home in 2014.

The Solutions Center would provide services to help stabilize homeless and other individuals. Its charitable vision, though, was met with resistance. Says Harwick, "There was a lot of fear; a lot of concern from neighbors that this would become a stomping ground for the homeless."

The City and County of Denver currently owns the building, and -- while there's no set timeline for development -- confirms it is moving forward with plans for its Solutions Center. A city spokesperson said the city worked hard with neighbors to adjust the proposal to minimize concerns and lay the foundation for a long-term Good Neighbor Agreement and community engagement plan.

Meanwhile, a Boulder counterpart -- the apartments for the formerly homeless at 1175 Lee Hill -- celebrated its one-year anniversary last spring. "Neighborhoods fought this project vehemently, to the point where police were needed at public meetings," says ULI Colorado Executive Director Michael Leccese.

Despite contention, Boulder Housing Partners persisted in installing the first permanent supportive housing apartment building in Boulder. "A recent survey of neighbors revealed basically zero complaints," says Leccese. "A couple of the most vocal opponents admitted they were wrong."

A place for urban evolutionists  

Boulder welcomed another milestone this year: In June, the advocacy group Better Boulder hosted the first YIMBY conference in Boulder as a way to rally folks who actively embrace housing development.
In June, the Boulder YIMBY conference had 150 attendees.
YIMBY adherents nationwide believe a silent majority of citizens would benefit from more housing in urban areas. "We have approximately 60,000 migrating commuters," says Molly Tayer, who coordinated the conference.

These employees drive into Boulder to work, but can't afford to live within city limits -- a phenomenon that illustrates the findings of a body of economic literature that indicates anti-growth sentiment contributes to widespread American inequality.

"Better Boulder wants to shift the paradigm by creating new density formulas that would allow opportunities for moderate income people and young professionals," explains Tayer. In researching that topic, the organization discovered other cities were struggling with similar issues, and decided it was time to throw together a conference.  

Make that an un-conference; a "three-day exploratory adventure," as Tayer describes it, with keynote speakers and group-guided breakout sessions centered around making cities more affordable and equitable. The sold-out program capped at 150 guests, and attracted activists from Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City as well as Cleveland and Sitka, Alaska. "We even had attendees from Australia," Tayer adds.

YIMBY takes shape in Denver

"The conference in Boulder was the first to bring everyone together; I'd be surprised if something more cohesive didn't form here," says Harwick, who's looking to organize a Denver YIMBY group.

Adds Schroeppel, "A number of us in Denver came back [from the conference] feeling there was a need to think more strategically about pulling together a YIMBY coalition. That's where we are now."

That coalition wouldn't advocate for indiscriminate building, but rather thoughtful development addressing the city's shifting needs. To that end, local YIMBYs aim to spark dialogue that's less adversarial than what they've seen in past debates.

Frustration over development stems partly from the fact that there isn't always an official public outlet for positions on new construction. Zoning restrictions have been around for decades. If a developer wants to use a parcel in a way that would contravene current land-use laws, he or she must submit to a rezoning process, which includes a public hearing.

But when land is already zoned for what a developer intends, all that's required by law is code compliance. In this latter scenario -- which accounts for an estimated 99 percent of the building happening in Denver -- a developer isn't obligated to engage the neighborhood. Hence, some neighbors worry their voices won't be heard unless they shout. Maybe that's why several local developers have begun voluntarily seeking civic engagement.

The City of Denver, for example, launched Denveright -- the brand name for four major, interconnected plans to update the city's 2002 land-use bible, Blueprint Denver -- in an effort to open public dialogue over the next 18 to 24 months.
Zocalo won rezoning for Coda Cherry Creek.
That dialogue is well underway in Cherry Creek North, where the retail landscape has changed dramatically since the city approved a district-wide rezoning. "We preceded the legislative rezoning by about a year and a half," explains Zucker, whose firm, Zocalo, developed Coda Cherry Creek, the property at the intersection of First Avenue and Steele Street that opened to residents in August.

Zocalo had to petition for added height, and hardly expected its successful rezoning from one story to 12. "It became so because we addressed neighbors' underlying concerns around traffic and transportation," Zucker says.     

"Neighborhoods," he continues, "know what they want." Problem is, discrete concerns often fall on the deaf ears of developers. Zucker, though, gauges a project's success by how the community members feel after development occurs.

When it came to Cherry Creek North, Zucker says he and the neighborhood shared an important objective: "I like Cherry Creek so much because it's walkable, and I didn't want our project to harm that," he says. When folks expressed concern over traffic, Zucker listened.  

Zocalo and the neighborhood ultimately teamed up with the Transportation Solutions Foundation to identify, for example, opportunities for shared cars and bike stations, and to address the management of commuting and parking. Zocalo also voluntarily contributed $80,000 to the Transportation Solutions Foundation. "We feel as if we're taking real steps toward mitigating traffic issues, and thus becoming a partner with the community," says Zucker.

To that end, Zocalo aims to bolster the district's strong community vibe through a partnership with The Kitchen, which will eventually activate Coda's ground-level space. Construction on The Kitchen started in early September; once complete, the restaurant will open to an adjacent lobby. Zucker describes the desired outcome as akin to "the grand hotels of our older cities, where the hotel lobby is the gathering place, where people and new ideas find each other."  

YIMBY triumphs

Continuum Partners engages residents near 9th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard with an ongoing series of community meetings. The firm reports overwhelmingly positive feedback on its plans to redevelop the former University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.
A rendering of 9th and Colorado.
Spanning 12 city blocks and abutting six neighborhoods -- Park Hill, City Park, Mayfair, Hilltop, Congress Park and Country Club -- this 26-acre 9th & Colorado site changed ownership several times in a decade, as developers struggled to meet demands from neighbors who wanted -- and are ultimately getting -- a more dense and mixed-use urban development than was previously proposed.

Demolition began in May 2015, and will continue into 2017; Continuum's plan for the historic site calls for the adaptive reuse of several iconic buildings, and blends 1,100 apartments and townhomes with retail, 150,000 square feet of office space and greenspace, too. Continuum's walkable, bike-friendly design is projected to reduce auto flow from the health campus by 40 percent.

It's pretty rare to see an entire community group actively advocate for more density and more height -- but that's exactly what's happening in the River North (RiNo) Art District.

"We really pride ourselves in RiNo on doing things that have never been done before, and this has never been done," says Andrew Feinstein, managing partner of EXDO Management. He's referring to petitions to add height to current zoning regulations.

Feinstein co-chairs the RiNo Art District and serves on the board of the RiNo Business Improvement District, and has been working with Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks and several key stakeholders for the better part of a year on increasing the law for height in the area surrounding RTD's 38th & Blake Station. Amazingly, there's been overwhelming support from the community, according to Feinstein.

The density and zoning previously granted to development around the station maxed out at eight stories and was "too timid," as Feinstein puts it. "We've been working hand in hand with the city, marching this thing forward," he adds, noting that the community and zoning board have already approved taller structures and several caveats, including calls for ground-level activation and shape and size diversity.

Activists believe added height will guarantee more access to affordable housing. But, Feinstein adds, "As we densify the neighborhood, we want to make it culturally unique and walkable and bikeable."

The rezone won't be approved by the city, Feinstein says, until an affordable housing component is added to the plan. "My gut feel is that this will all get adopted by the end of the first quarter 2017," says Feinstein.

Will development bring bustle? Sure. "Sirens, traffic, distractions," says Feinstein. "That's just city living."

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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