In parking and slot home moratoriums, a debate about Denver’s future

There’s more at stake than just buildings.

staff photo
Slot home. Garden court form. The apartment complex ay 21st and Decatur. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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A slot home at 21st and Decatur. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The votes taken Monday by Denver City Council dealt with parking exemptions and slot homes, but to listen to both elected officials and community members discuss them, you might think the future of the city was at stake.

“What do we want Denver to be?” Councilman Paul Kashmann said. “What is Denver’s ultimate population? Is it 900,000, or is it 4 million? That’s at the heart of this discussion.”

That’s because both of these issues pit the desire to build as much housing as possible against concerns about the impacts of dense development.

On the one hand, the two moratoriums adopted unanimously by City Council Monday night are fairly modest in their scope: They put a temporary halt to some buildings that use two particular provisions of the zoning code. They don’t affect all development, and they don’t even affect all development of the sorts allowed under these provisions.

On the other hand, the policy recommendations that come out of these moratorium periods will affect what gets built in Denver and how that fits with existing neighborhoods for years to come.

Here’s what Denver City Council did.

There’s now a seven-month moratorium on use of the small lot parking exemption.

This exemption allows people with lots 6,250 square feet or smaller in mixed-use zones to not provide any parking on site. The goal was to encourage the reuse of existing buildings and smaller scale development. If parking had to be provided on-site, developers might tear down an inconveniently located older building or consolidate lots and build a larger building just to make room for required parking.

The exemption has only been used once, but now there are nine projects moving through the approval process, including a two-building, 108-unit micro-apartment building with no parking at East 16th Avenue and Humboldt Street.

The moratorium won’t apply to the projects that already submitted applications. It also won’t apply to residential projects with 10 units or less or to commercial buildings that are 35 feet high or less.

During the moratorium, a stakeholder group that includes planners, developers, housing and transit advocates, experts in real estate and finance and residents will try to come up with a recommendation for a new policy.

Neighborhood groups brought their concerns to Councilman Albus Brooks and that led to the moratorium proposal.

“We are already so overwhelmed by cars that we should be talking about building parking spots to take care of the crisis, and to build a building with no parking spots is pure insanity,” Doug Gragg told the council. “The American dream is still to have a car. … We might have a few enlightened, educated people who dream of a carless future, but we’re not going to see it in our lifetimes. And we have to plan accordingly.”

Hilleary Waters, who ran Life on Capitol Hill for many years, decried “massive high-density development in a monotonous prison-like style driven by developers exploiting every inch of property.”

Johan Barrios gave a different perspective. In six months, she said, she’s expecting to have a baby and her lease is up. She drives a car every day, but she wants more housing before she wants more parking.

“When I’m driving around the block four times looking for parking, it drives me crazy,” she said. “But I also need a place to live in six months.”

Councilwoman Robin Kniech said the city’s land use planning has gotten ahead of its transportation network, but there are more options every day for people who don’t want to drive. It would be a mistake to keep building for cars, and she warned that there might not be an easy consensus.

“I’m not okay with saying we should never build another building in Denver without parking,” she said.

The garden court form is also mostly on hold.

There’s a year-long moratorium on use of the garden court form, whose implementation also raised questions about density and what our neighborhoods feel like.

Instead of the spacious grassy courtyards envisioned in the garden court form, it’s being used to build “slot homes,” townhouses or rowhomes perpendicular to the street with only a paved path between the rows.

Councilman Wayne New said some of them look like prisons to him. They also generally have more housing in them than more traditional courtyard apartments.

As with the parking exemption moratorium, a handful of projects that already submitted applications will be allowed to proceed.

And projects whose courtyards are wider than the buildings are tall and where developers agree not to stack units can still apply.

This moratorium won’t even stop slot homes from being built. Roughly 80 percent of them are built using the apartment form or other similar forms, not the garden court form.

Asked why the moratorium wasn’t broader, Councilman Rafael Espinoza had a practical answer.

Putting a moratorium on apartment building would be “disastrous,” he said.

While the working group will focus on the garden court form, which is allowed in some zoning districts where the apartment form is not, its recommendations could be adopted for some other forms as well.

“The intent of the moratorium is to make sure we don’t keep creating a problem in neighborhood after neighborhood while we are correcting the garden court form,” Espinoza said. “This is not an easy task, but there is a need for this form and appropriate uses for this form.”

Justin Archuleta of Berkeley said some of the rhetoric around development is “fearful,” and he asked for understanding of different lifestyles.

“I am about to move into a slot home,” he said. “I’m under contract. I am very excited. My neighbors are excited. I volunteer in the neighborhood. Just because our choices do not conform to those of previous generations, there needs to be some understanding.”

There is more at stake than just buildings.

Brooks noted that these moratoriums come in response to neighborhood concerns at a time when many people feel like the city isn’t listening.

“We need to show that public engagement in this city works,” he said.

Developers point to the need for more housing, but Councilwoman Debbie Ortega said what gets built doesn’t meet the needs of families and long-time residents.

“The issue is that 100,000 people a year are moving here from other cities and that creates the pressure and demand,” she said.

And Kashmann, quoting a colleague from Indiana he met at a National League of Cities event, expressed a sentiment familiar to many people who miss the Denver that is slipping away.

“There’s something to be said for being a second-tier city.”