11 October 2005

Reinventing Colfax.

Colfax Avenue, which runs East to West across Denver where 15th Avenue ought to be, is the psychological divide between North Denver and South Denver, and is also an urban planner's nightmare. It is a dystopian mix of street walkers, used car lots, pawn shops, and other blight uses. Even healthy businesses receive a black eye simply by having a Colfax address. Its only virtue is that this dismal failure has almost no one coming forward to defend the status quo, which makes it far easier to secure a consensus behind a bold new experiment in zoning law in which it will be a guinea pig. Broadway may also become part of the experiment.

The local buzzword for the initiative, which has received preliminary approval with just one dissenting vote from the city council, is "Main Street zoning". It is an implementation of an idea known in urban planning circles as "form based" zoning.

The plan reduces parking requirements and aims to make the street scape more pedestrian friendly (there are even discussions of some day restoring trolley service to the street). Rather than being set back behind parking lots, buildings would have to be brought to the sidewalk and have street facing doors and windows. Use restrictions will be loosened, to permit housing over retail, for example. The focus will be on building design rather than on intended use, and on turning what is really now one big strip mall into one big small town style downtown.

The three zones (whose exact map boundaries will be determined by the Spring or Summer of 2006), will be labeled MS-1, MS-2 and MS-3. A conceptual map that doesn't use those designations can be found here and more maps are here.

MS-1 will have a 35 foot height restriction, no minimum height, and will go right up to the street. It is designed for two story low density areas. MS-2 will have a minimum height of 24 feet (two stories), a maximum height of 65 feet (five stories), and will also require new buildings to go right up to the sidewalk. MS-3 will have a minimum height of 24 feet, a maximum height of 100 feet (nine stories) and will have 20 foot setbacks. Taller buildings must step down their building heights as they move into the block behind them. The proposed ordinance has the details but is a creature that only a planning lawyer could love. The vision statement is more adorable and I'll reprint the condensed version here:

Colfax Avenue is a multi-modal, commercial and residential "Main Street" that complements and sustains the nearby neighborhoods, encourages walking, biking and transit use. The corridor teems with activity on the street and captures the attention of commuters and visitors.

* multi-storied, mixed-use buildings characterize development nodes at the intersection of major transit routes along the corridor.
* Transportation components include a uniquely Colfax form of enhanced transit, structured parking at development nodes, on-street parking throughout, enticing pedestrian amenities, and plentiful bike racks.
* Urban design integrates an eclectic mix of architectural forms and sustainable building materials which respect the surrounding historic architecture.
* Signage is simple and clear.
* Lighting and landscaping reinforce the street building line, enhance building facades as architectural features, and promote a pedestrian oriented environment.

Colfax welcomes and embraces neighborhood diversity that encompasses a wide variety of ages, lifestyles, economic circumstances, ethnic groups and family types. Colfax exemplifies the best of what a city can offer: a vibrant, hip, and progressive urban avenue.

The jury is still out, but it would be nice to see some positive change on this troubled avenue.

Hat Tip to Vanessa Martin writing for Life on Capital Hill, October 2005, a free local print paper picked up by yours truly at Joy Wine and Spirits on 6th Avenue.


Anonymous said...

I wholeheartedly agree that Colfax needs this. There are parts of colfax beginnign to show signs of this type of redevelopment (Such as the Adams/Cook/Steele street block with places such as Hooked on Colfax, Mezcal, Atomic Cowboy, Chamberlain Heights, etc.

From what I understand, there have been great plans on the books for a long time... I've been hearing about "blueprint Denver" for a while, and now "main street zoning"... my question is, WHEN is this going to happen. Until it is official, anyone can slip in under 50's era zoning laws and put in whatever they want. Let's make it happen!!

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

I want it to happen as well, but I'm not as worried. The problems the new zoning laws are designed to address have as much to do with permitting previous forbidden uses as they do with banning problem uses now.