A major portion of Denver has a guide for the next 20 years of change. The East Central Area Plan is supposed to guide growth and development in Capitol Hill, North Capitol Hill, City Park, City Park West, Cheesman Park and Congress Park over the next two decades. On Monday, Denver City Council adopted the plan by a vote of 11 to 1, with Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca voting no and Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval absent.
The “east-central” neighborhoods currently combine for 32,000 homes with about one-third of them inhabited by people struggling to pay their rents or mortgages, according to city planner Curt Upton. About 49,000 people and 63,000 jobs exist within the east-central neighborhoods. Most residents — 79 percent — are white. Latino and Hispanic locals make up 9.5 percent of the area’s population. Almost 6 percent are Black.
Anyone who reads the overarching goals of the plan might think they’re reading a utopian manifesto. It aims to make the local economy stronger, make housing more affordable and diverse, improve homelessness services, prevent people from losing their homes, drastically improve walking, biking, and public transit, and combat climate change — all while preserving the look and feel of the neighborhood. Easy!
The East Central Area Plan, a 282-page document authored by the planning department after a three-year public process, does not create policies to turn these ideas into reality. Instead, it is basically a really long list of suggestions for political leaders to act on. Some of the recommendations are spelled out with specific ideas. Others are ideas without directives.
Bus rapid transit on Colfax Avenue is fundamental to the area’s future. The redesigned street will have two bus-only lanes and train-like stations that will serve 50,000 riders with buses that come every five minutes or so — eventually.
City planners see the project as an anchor for a lot more homes, businesses and community services that will cater to a greater mix of people. Funneling density to good transit makes sense, urban growth experts say, because it allows more people to take everyday trips without a car.
Those goals are some of the most controversial but are only some of the goals and tools contained in the plan. The planning department made 271 recommendations throughout the plan. Here are some other big ones highlighted by planners.
Make housing more affordable and available to more types of people and families
In general, the Department of Community Planning and Development believes the transit project will make the area more attractive for developers. So they’re urging the city council and mayor to lure developers to build homes for low- and middle-income residents or other “community benefits” in exchange for taller building allowances on Colfax.
Councilman Paul Kashmann questioned that approach and alluded to the less-than-stellar results of similar height incentives at the 38th and Blake RTD station. City planners have learned lessons from that experiment, Upton said, and this plan would demand more with zoning tools.
“I think what we can do in a plan is articulate the goal of … using all of the tools we have at our disposal to prevent involuntary displacement,” Upton said, “and that includes zoning which often times creates very intense opinions on how to use zoning for some of these goals.”
Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca criticized the vagueness of “community benefits” while Denver faces severe housing pressures. She voted against the plan and said she could not support it without “firming up expectations of affordable housing development.”
“We have multiple plans across the city that have tried to address affordable housing … and what we’ve found is that our plans don’t guarantee any movement on our goals,” CdeBaca said.
The plan also calls for a greater mix of homes, like guest houses, duplexes, triplexes and family-friendly apartments and for-sale units.
Strengthen the local economy
The plan calls for a partnership between the city and the hospital district to provide job training and affordable housing for employees. It also calls on propping up small businesses with financial aid during the construction of bus rapid transit on Colfax.
Improve services for unhoused residents and prevent displacement
Among dozens of recommendations, the plan calls for the city government to “enhance support for tenants” and working landlords, whose affordable housing agreements are set to expire, to keep their homes affordable, though it doesn’t get specific on that point.
City planners also float the idea of helping landlords improve their properties in exchange for affordable housing commitments.
Making streets better for walking, rolling, biking and bussing
Aside from the bus rapid transit system, the plan focuses on building sidewalks and safer crossings on a car-first Colfax. It also calls out 13th, 14th, 16th and 17th avenues for transportation modes other than driving. Most of these ideas are part of previously adopted plans.
Preserve historic buildings
A lot of people wrote comments and spoke about how their neighborhoods look and feel. The plan recommends the city council create an “adaptive re-use” ordinance that cuts through some red tape that makes it harder for people to adapt old buildings for new uses.
The city government should also incentivize preserving historically significant buildings and adopt design guidelines, the plan states.
Combat climate change
The plan calls for policies that reduce carbon pollution by creating more places to live and work near transit, making cars less necessary. It also recommends preserving and planting more trees, among several other strategies.
Some questioned the diversity of the plan’s leaders, as well as the planning department’s ability to reach non-white, non-wealthy residents.
Some locals who spoke at a public hearing Monday criticized the city’s outreach, which began in 2017. The volunteer steering committee, appointed by previous city council members, comprised just two non-white residents, one who participated only at the plan’s start and one at its end — CdeBaca.
Other residents who spoke at a public hearing Monday said they thought outreach to lower-income people and people of color was lacking. One resident, who spoke in Spanish, said she could not participate because of a lack of translation.
Over three years, over 3,500 people participated with the planning department’s process, according to city documents, and made over 10,000 comments. The department held over 70 meetings and put out 22 surveys. Upton said the department tracked the demographics of who it was reaching and pivoted to target younger, lower-income renters when they realized they weren’t participating as much. Planners also targeted people experiencing homelessness for their opinions.
Advocates for affordable housing including All In Denver and the Urban Land Conservancy came out in support of the plan Monday.
The City Park West Neighborhood Association opposed the plan, citing a process the group said was not inclusive enough. Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods came out in favor of the plan, as did the Denver Streets Partnership, Transportation Solutions Foundation and the Denver Sustainable Food Policy Council.
Councilman Chris Hinds, who represents much of the neighborhoods being planned out, said he wanted a stronger affordable housing component but believes the process was sound and that if not everyone’s happy, that equates to a compromise.
“I don’t think anybody received 100 percent of what they wanted,” Hinds said.