16 April 2009

Denver Considers New Zoning Code

The public process to adopt a new zoning code in Denver is underway.

Everyone agrees that the existing zoning code is insanely arcane while often not providing a clear message. But, is the proposed alternative better?

A key starting point of the new code concept is to identify six neighborhood types and an exception category, as follows.

Suburban: The Suburban Neighborhood Context consists of curving streets with varied block shapes and sizes. It is predominantly single family with commercial uses accommodated in shopping centers [the land of cul de sac's in far SE and SW Denver and possibly Gateway/Green Valley Ranch].

Urban Edge: The Urban Edge Neighborhood Context consists of both curving and grid street patterns with a mix of front driveway and alley access. It is predominantly single family with commercial uses accommodated in shopettes and main streets [?Virginia Village, Eisenhower Park and Bonnie Brae?]

Urban: The Urban Neighborhood Context consists of a regular grid and alley block pattern. It is predominantly single family with duplex and other multi-family uses occasionally mixed in. Commercial uses are embedded in the form of small scale main streets and occasional corner stores. [?Wash Park, Congress Park, etc.?].

General Urban: The General Urban Neighborhood Context consists of a regular grid and alley block pattern with convenient access to public transit. It is predominantly multi-family with commercial uses embedded in the form of medium scale main streets and corner stores [?Colfax and Uptown and Byers?].

Urban Center: The Urban Center Neighborhood Context is predominantly mixed use with both residential and commercial uses. It has convenient access to public transit and supports high pedestrian activity [e.g. Cherry Creek North].

Downtown: The Downtown Neighborhood Context consists of the tallest buildings that accommodate both commercial and residential uses. It is the hub of the regional transportation system and has high pedestrian activity [i.e. Downtown Denver].

Special Context: Special Contexts are areas that do not have characteristics of other Neighborhood Contexts and typically serve a principle purpose that is reflected in its name. Special Contexts include Civic, Industrial Park, Campus, and Entertainment/Cultural.

So, what changes?

In the summer of 2007, we heard from Denver citizens about the approaches and best practices that they preferred to put Blueprint Denver to work with The New Code. These included:

Major Substantive Changes: Instead of our current "one-size-fits-all" approach, The New Code will take into account the qualities that differ from neighborhood to neighborhood in order to preserve the character of each community.

This approach is called "context-based zoning." A few examples of characteristics that define a context are block shapes, parking, locations of residences and businesses, and proximity to public transportation. . . .

Major Procedural Changes: Again, instead of taking a "one-size-fits-all" approach, the process of reviewing of development projects will be shorter for simpler projects than for those projects that are more complex and require a longer review process. . . .

There will be a wide range of house sizes possible under the New Code. The context-based approach will not only recognize the existing range of home sizes, but will also identify a range of compatible forms for larger homes and expansions to allow homeowners considerable choice when contemplating renovations, expansion or new construction. . . .

The New Code will incorporate a variety of "transition" tools to help different types of districts interact positively:

* Require a "step-down" in building height to transition from higher-density to lower-density districts. See illustration below of how this was utilized in the "Main Street" revitalization of Colfax Avenue.
* Require landscaped "buffer areas" between the diverse districts, particularly when impacts such as glare or noise are could be disruptive.
* Where possible, encourage less intensive or more compatible land uses to improve interactions between diverse districts.

The New Code will create many opportunities for property owners to satisfy modern-day housing demands:

* Allowing new residential development on zone lots smaller than 6,000 square feet.
* Permitting, where appropriate, development of accessory dwelling units, also known as "granny flats" or "mother-in-law apartments."
* Guiding home renovations but not thwarting them with current "one-size-fits-all" zoning limits.
* Enabling development of more "urban" housing choices, such as residences located downtown or around transit stations.
* Encouraging combinations of work and living spaces in more places across Denver.

I am cautiously pessimistic. While there are some select positive changes proposed and a clean slate can tame some of the ungainly complexity of the current code, the overall gist of the plan seems to be to increase the tendency of the zoning code to discourage innovative land use, cement existing uses with the force of law, and micro-manage more details of what is built.

As in the old code, the focus will be on a command and control regulatory regime in which the city tells people where they should build what, rather than focusing on a more generalized duty to mitigate externalities that permits any use that does not adversely impact the provision of city services or unduly burden city owned property that benefits a neighborhood. The strong focus on maintaining the look and feel of existing neighborhoods is particularly disappointing, because history has shown that eclectic neighborhoods with varied building styles and types that reflect the decades in which each building was constructed, can work well.

Indeed, those neighborhoods that have thrived after periods of stagnation (Cherry Creek, Uptown, Golden Triangle, Coor's Field, LoDo, etc.) have almost universally done so by introducing new building types that differ radically from existing neighborhood character to meet the new needs of the times. Cherry Creek saw small, shoddy single family homes replaced with upscale townhouses. Uptown has replaced larger old single family homes with low rise apartment complexes, as has the Coor's Field neighborhood. LoDo turned warehouse, industrial and office space into drinking, night club, dining and residential uses. The Golden Triangle has taken a mix of urban residential, small shop and parking lot uses and spiced it up with medium to high rise condominium/apartment buildings in different styles, often with ground floor commercial. Similarly, the revivals of Cinderella City in Englewood and Belmar in Lakewood, have involved radical overhauls of the way those areas were used historically.

These changes are less traumatic when they happen on a piecemeal basis, organically, rather than at the direction of city planners who try to pick winning and losing land use types for particular areas. One shouldn't have to wait until it becomes painfully obvious to everyone that an existing land use approach is failing, in order for it to be legal for property owners to try radically different approaches through statutory change to the zoning code. But, this plan simply resets that cycle once again, rather than having means to gradually change neighborhood character to meet the needs of the real estate marketplace, the most grass roots type of public input.

This is true in bad economic times as well as sustained periods of growth such as those seen recently by Denver. While Denver hasn't seen a sustained downturn for a long time, in Buffalo, New York, the healthiest neighborhoods in the City proper are those where new building types were permitted scraping wholesale what was there before, and neighborhoods were there were widespread conversions of single family homes to multi-unit dwellings. Neighborhoods that did not change died. Some notable historic buildings were preserved, but it became clear that it was not viable to try to keep large neighborhoods as they had been.

Greater tailoring of zoning laws to existing uses than under the current code is a prescription for slow stagnation in our city.

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