Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Million More Mouths Myth Mantra

by Larry Ambrose, INC President, May Newsletter

Larry Ambrose
A recent interview with NW Denver Councilwoman, Susan Shepherd, in the March 19 edition of the North Denver Tribune has revealed the rationale behind her tacit approval of the massive development plan at the old St. Anthony Hospital site. The author, Laurie Dunklee writes, “Her priority is preparing Northwest Denver for sustainable population growth. “An estimated one million more people will move to the Denver area by 2030,” Shepherd said. “If we fight the influx of people into the city, more single family homes will be built on the outskirts and more agricultural land will be lost. Our water supply will be further endangered because all those lawns take tons of water. So multi-family housing is far more sustainable. We can’t keep building single-family homes or we endanger our future.”
This same million more mouths mantra was repeated at the INC ZAP meeting Saturday, March 21 by Shepherd’s fellow Councilwoman, Robin Kniech. Now we know that our city’s decidedly dense future has a definite number associated with it and from this, we undoubtedly can extrapolate that approvals for whatever developments meet this 1000 K, Council driven target will be forthcoming. We might as well get used to it, that’s the way it’s going to be!  No disrespect to our two knowledgeable Council members, but I did a little research to see from where this number may have emanated. Turns out, this million person number was first forecast back in 2009 in a PBS “Blueprint America” Report on Boomtown Denver and was memorialized in a Denver Regional Council of Governments’ (DRCOG) “Metro Vision 2035 Plan” published in 2011. The only thing is that this population increase is forecast to be region-wide, not just within the City and County of Denver! Annual growth of 2% to 3% still would mean only 200,000 to 300,000 more residents in our fair City; however, that may not justify the kind of additional density being requested by many developers who fund Council election campaigns.
So, Council Members, here’s conversation points for the immediate future:
·       How much growth can Denver actually expect and handle by year 2030?
·       And what logically follows: How much development can our fair city accommodate under the new and current zoning code which was overwhelmingly and enthusiastically adopted by City Council only four years ago?
Official declarations from the City have claimed that the public, transparent and open process by which this Code was adopted in 2010 has resulted in the vast majority of Denver citizens knowing and embracing the City’s new zonings. Perhaps, although most people I have talked to, didn’t have the slightest idea their land use rights have changed. The City itself, however, should not be able to plead ignorance to just what the new Zoning Code encompasses.
Granted there were areas which were down-zoned and areas which were upzoned.  But, shouldn’t our planners be able to tell us, “OK, overall, if the city were built out to all of the height and density under the Code, we would be able to accommodate X number of people more (or less) than we have now.”
I asked the Planning Office’s chief staff person who managed the new Zoning Code project, Tina Axelrad, this question two years ago. She said she didn’t have the slightest idea.
Most recently, I asked the Mayor’s new Planning Executive Director, Brad Buchanan, if he had heard that a million more people are coming. “Yes, that’s DRCOG’s estimate” he said. So, I asked him the same question about the Zoning Code’s existing density. His answer was the same, he hadn’t thought about it, although he admitted it would be important information to know and nuanced his statement with the disclaimer that “it is unrealistic to think that it would ever be built out to its maximum”.
Our leaders need to accurately represent how many more people we actually need to plan for. When they come up with a number for how many more people the existing city zoning will accommodate, then, even if one discounts that number by a specified percentage, we can realistically figure out how much more density we need; and, assuming Mr. Buchanan is right that development cannot be expected to only go where we already planned for it.  I suspect there is enough density built into the new code to accommodate at least this amount of projected growth. But if not, then we can intelligently talk about what additional density is logically needed and where to put it.


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