New construction crams too much building into too little space. The structures are ugly and overpowering. There’s more traffic. It’s harder to park.
These are some of the more common complaints about new development in Denver, and on Monday, the Denver City Council will vote on a pair of moratoriums that would put a temporary halt to two parts of the zoning code that some people think contribute to these problems.
Those provisions are the small-lot parking exemption and the garden court form.
Let’s take them one at a time.
The small-lot parking exemption allows builders to not provide any parking on the lot itself if it’s 6,250 square feet or smaller and it’s located in a mixed-use commercial zone.
This exemption was first deployed in the Main Street zone on East Colfax in 2005 and expanded to all mixed-use commercial zones in 2010. It’s only been used once so far, so you can’t blame it for more people parking on the street. Yet.
There are nine projects in the pipeline that intend to take advantage of the exemption. Those that have submitted a formal application include:
- 16 units with six parking spaces at 1411 S. Pearl St.
- 43 units in two buildings on adjacent lots at Stout and Downing streets in Five Points with no parking.
- 108 micro-units in two buildings at East 16th Avenue and Humboldt Street in City Park West with no parking.
There are four projects that have submitted plans for concept review, including an office and apartment building with 37 residences at 135 Adams St. in Cherry Creek and a four-story office building at 2420 Welton St. The necessary caveat here is that proposals can still change a lot at the concept plan stage.
Now that developers are actually interested in this tool, some people are wondering if this is really what the city intended, and what the consequences will be. Will it become really hard to park on the street in some neighborhoods? (And is that a bad thing?)
Councilmen Paul Kashmann and Albus Brooks proposed the moratorium this summer. Halting new applications would give the city time to change its regulations.
Why did the city create the parking exemption in the first place?
There are a few reasons. One of them was to encourage the re-use of existing buildings, rather than see developers tear down a building to make room on the lot for the necessary parking. They also didn’t want developers to assemble a group of small lots, combine them and build a larger building just to have space to provide parking.
The idea was that on a small lot like this, it wouldn’t be that big a burden on the neighborhood to have people park on the street. And in mixed-use zones, there might be one set of people — shoppers and office workers — parking during the day and a different set — apartment residents — parking at night.
There’s also a symbiotic relationship between density and transit. When a lot of people live close together in a place where it’s hard to park, they have more incentive to ditch their cars and take the bus or train, which in turn makes public transportation more viable. These neighborhoods are also easier to walk around.
There’s a school of thought in land-use planning that our focus on cars and parking has distorted our cities. Streetsblog Denver makes that case on the regular, and Streetsblog has cast the moratorium as “choosing storage for cars over housing for people.”
The counterpoint is that lots of people still have cars and still need parking. Denver isn’t New York City and never will be.
If it’s approved, the moratorium won’t affect the projects that have already submitted applications. Those projects listed above could still be developed. The moratorium also won’t affect smaller projects — residential buildings with 10 units or less and commercial buildings with one or two stories or less than 35 feet.
During the moratorium, city planners, with input from developers and neighborhood representatives, would look at the parking exemption and whether any changes are warranted. Those text amendments to the zoning code would come forward this fall with a bundle of other text amendments.
There isn’t a neat answer with no trade-offs. A focus group that convened last year to look at the exemption couldn’t reach consensus.
To a certain degree, officials need to decide if we’re building for the city we live in now –one where many residents still own cars, depend on them to get to work and school and need somewhere to stash them the rest of the time — or the city we envision in the future — one where our transit system is so well developed and seamless and gas is so expensive that far fewer people own cars.
Now for the garden court form.
There’s a traditional type of apartment building in Denver (and many cities) where the apartments are arranged in a U around a courtyard. There’s usually some grass and other plantings.
Denver’s 2010 zoning code formalizes this as the garden court form. In recent years, it’s been used to build what are called “slot homes,” essentially row homes turned perpendicular to the street with a sidewalk down the middle. There’s not much in the way of grass or light, and unlike more traditional row homes, these homes turn their shoulders to the street and the wider community.
The courtyard can be as narrow as 15 feet under the zoning code. The task force that came up with the guidelines was imagining single-story buildings when it set the minimum width, but nothing says you can’t build higher. So now two- and three-story buildings are going up around narrow courtyards.
Councilmen Wayne New and Rafael Espinoza proposed a moratorium on the garden court form so the city could take a new look at its standards.
There are a few issues here beyond just aesthetics. A narrower courtyard lets developers fit more units, which means more people and more cars. These homes also change what it feels like to walk down the street.
“In the planning department, we’re really sensitive to the pedestrian experience,” said Andrea Burns, a spokeswoman for Community Planning and Development. “To have a wall facing the street, it’s partly aesthetic, but it’s also how neighborhoods feel and how people interact with each other or don’t.”
The moratorium wouldn’t apply to projects whose courtyard is as wide or wider than the building height, to projects where the courtyard is at least 50 percent permeable surface or to projects where the dwelling units are side-by-side rather than stacked on top of each other.
And the moratorium won’t stop the construction of all new slot homes. Many of them are built using a different option in the zoning code, the apartment form rather than the garden court form, Burns said. However, the analysis and recommendations could look at both forms for potential text amendments.
Unlike the parking exemption moratorium, the garden court moratorium would not allow pending applications to continue. That had been a sticking point, but the Denver Post reported last week that the developers of an affected project in Cherry Creek North would be changing their plans in response to council and neighborhood concerns.
The Denver City Council meets at 5:30 p.m. Monday. There are public hearings scheduled for each of the moratoriums.
If approved, the small lot parking exemption moratorium would last until March 31, 2017, or until a change to the zoning code addressing the parking exemption is approved (whichever comes sooner).
The garden court form moratorium would last until Aug. 26, 2017.
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