The presentation the INC Delegation enjoyed at its monthly meeting on June 9 at the Brookdale Assisted Living Center, was edifying and gratifying. Edifying because, Architect, Jeff Sheppard, whose April 4, 2015 opinion editorial appeared in the Denver Post “Denver is a great city, so why the bad buildings?” explained his theory that Denver’s new, much touted Zoning Code, lacks “heart and soul.” Gratifying because, finally we had the 2014 Colorado Architect of the Year confirm what most of us have been feeling and thinking for the past few years: That Denver’s Zoning Code is not giving us better architecture or neighborhoods.
When then Mayor, Hickenlooper, announced that the Office of Community Planning and Development would be completely rewriting and rezoning the entire City of Denver under the leadership of his Planning Director, Peter Park, and Planning Board Chair, Brad Buchanan, we were told it was intended to streamline and simplify the existing 70 year old Zoning Code. What we got was quite a bit more complex, complicated and longer. Hundreds of meetings between the “Zoning Code Task Force” and citizens resulted in claims of unprecedented citizen involvement and inclusiveness in the planning process.
When the “New” Zoning Code was brought to City Council in 2010, the City Council en masse, gave the massive document their unequivocal, enthusiastic support and their votes. It was as if, close to being divinely inspired, this document was intended to work miracles for the next 70 years.
Now it is clear, that we, the citizens, not being planners or architects, were at an extreme disadvantage in understanding the what effects this new Code would have or what “products” it would produce. We were told it was contextual and form based. For most of us contextual meant,, don’t worry, what will be built will fit in to our existing neighborhoods. Form based was not as well explained, but somehow it was supposed to provide a template that would make designing buildings much simpler. Sounded good to us, right?
What we first began to notice in 2012 when new developments began to spring up in what used to be 1 and 2 story, single family zone districts, were homes being built by many developers to get maximum square footage with no concern for quality, design, context or character of the neighborhoods. The effect was that new development seemed out of place when you looked down the street. In addition, some zone districts seem to be more problematic than others. For example, in some areas, what was R-2 zoning which allowed duplexes and triplexes, has been replaced by a new zone district of G-MU-3. The replaced zoning allows up to 6 units, on a 6000 sq. foot area with a building height of up to 35 feet and an allowance of an additional 12 feet for a stairway and/or utility shed on top. Six units on what previously allowed only single family or triplexes and duplexes is leading to skinny, tall, building blocks with no redeeming features. Every day, traditional one story homes, zoned in what was previously R2 but now is G-MU-3, are scraped to make way for vertical “living units” which are proliferating and changing the entire context of what are supposed to be stable neighborhoods.
The new code has also promoted many thousands stick and frame construction apartments. The words design and quality never come into the equation when the multi-units are approved or being built. These “people-coops” seem to be intended to house a majority of future residents of Denver. G-d knows where these multitudes will be able to go when they go crazy and want to move out of the slightly larger-than-storage unit sized apartments.
According to Jeff Sheppard, the cheap, shoddy construction is also a result from Denver’s 2010 Zoning Code. He maintains that it does not have to be this way and that changes can be made to the Code which would promote quality design and construction replacing the build and flip, quick profit incentives which exist now. It is clear to most reasonable Denver residents who merely get out and look around at what is happening in many neighborhoods, that something is afoul in our fair City.
It is time to stop the denial, admit that Denver’s Zoning Code is not sacrosanct and demand that our elected and appointed City officials and professional employees stop and listen to the citizen outrage. The Zoning Code needs to be changed based on neighborhood concerns and on information and advice available to them from experts both here in Denver and around the country. Tragically, it may be too late for some neighborhoods, but doing nothing should not be an option.