Denver’s East Area Plan calls for taller buildings, more density
Denver officials say they’re seeking to shape the future of the east side by balancing the city’s explosive growth with the needs of those who already call South Park Hill, Montclair, Hale and East Colfax their home.
That can be a difficult balance to strike, but city officials stand behind the results of their work — a plan the Denver City Council will vote whether to adopt Monday evening after a public hearing.
The document, called the East Area Plan, is three years in the making and would allow taller buildings along East Colfax Avenue as well as more accessory dwelling units in neighborhoods along the thoroughfare. The plan is meant to guide the next 20 years of development in the area roughly bordered east to west by Colorado Boulevard and Yosemite Street and north to south by East 23rd and East Sixth avenues.
Some residents and neighborhood leaders say council should delay the vote and seek more community input, which has been hampered most recently by the coronavirus pandemic. They also express concern that the plan will only worsen displacement of the many rent-burdened residents there, further gentrifying the neighborhoods. City officials, however, argue that neighborhood gentrification is already worsening and the plan will instead slow that process.
While the pandemic continues to ravage Denver’s streets, the government must continue to function, said City Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer, whose district includes the Hale and Montclair neighborhoods. And the East Area Plan strikes as much of a balance as possible between current and future needs.
“What we’ve got with this plan now, I can testify, really, truly is about community engagement, it truly is about making our community a better place, it is about helping people,” Sawyer said.
The East Area Plan
Broad brush strokes are the key to the East Area Plan, said Principal City Planner Curt Upton and Planning Services spokeswoman Alex Foster. The work sets a general priority for the neighborhoods moving forward but doesn’t delve into lot-by-lot details.
Some of the top-line points in the plan include encouraging greater resident and business density along East Colfax Avenue and portions of Colorado Boulevard, directing growth to coincide with planned transportation improvements and hopefully boosting the area’s stock of affordable homes, Upton said.
“We try to create some predictability for how these areas should evolve over the long term,” he said. “Where should the growth go? What kind of lots would be eligible for more height and more density? What lots should stay the same?”
Some buildings along Colfax would be eligible to grow from three stories to five as long as they provide a certain amount of “community benefit,” Upton said. The most prominent example of such a benefit would be affordable housing. However, details of how much affordable housing a developer would have to provide remain to be determined.
Most of the locations on Colfax eligible for five-story buildings correspond with future stops along the planned bus rapid transit system, or BRT, which could be built out there over the next decade, Upton said. That should not only increase use of mass transit, but also reduce the number of cars on that major thoroughfare.
In one area near the Mayfair Plaza Shopping Center, buildings could be eligible to grow as high as seven stories, provided they also offer some sort of community benefit, he said.
“That really is the only and best location for a meaningful public park,” he said. “It’s hard to find spots for new parks in areas like this that are completely built out.”
Those community benefit requirements will be addressed later on as developers approach the city for zoning changes and more to build out their properties, Fulton said. For now, the East Area Plan merely sets broad priorities.
“The zoning is really where the rubber meets the road,” Fulton said.
Moving away from Colfax to the north and south, the East Area Plan also creates a pathway for most homeowners to more easily add accessory dwelling units — like tiny homes or converting a detached garage into a granny flat — on their property, Upton said.
Design standards and more would still apply to any future accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, Upton said. But opening a pathway toward more of the units should increase neighborhood and provide more affordable homes for people there.
Those units are also a way for homeowners to build wealth and equity, Sawyer said.
Increasing the number of ADUs and apartments should help keep prices more stable and offer additional places to live for people in the east area, Upton said. Already about a third of the population there is overburdened by their rent prices, and the neighborhood is short at least 1,400 affordable units, he said.
At the same time, the plan will encourage neighborhood improvements like better sidewalks and crosswalks and more trees and amenities, Upton said.
The entire plan can be found online at denvergov.org.
Community feedback and concerns
Residents have mixed responses to the plan, which has been under development for about three years.
For Judy Baxter, president of the Historic Montclair Community Association, the East Area Plan is much better than what the neighborhood already has in place, which is nothing.
“Montclair does not have any guiding plans that oversee change or development,” Baxter said. “And that impacts that developers and others can do pretty much anything they want if it gets approved by zoning.”
With the plan, city officials will have more guidelines to appropriately steer growth in the area, she said.
But Tim Roberts, president of the East Colfax Neighborhood Association, said perhaps council should delay its vote on whether to adopt the plan for another six months. With the pandemic continuing, neighborhood participation has taken a hit, he said.
Sawyer pushed back against a delay. Not only must government work continue during the pandemic, but also some parts of the plan could help small businesses during the pandemic, she said.
Roberts acknowledged that after residents voiced concerns about gentrification and displacement, city officials did take them into account in the plan. Some of those concerns remain, however, he said.
“We’re also seeing a lot of new construction coming in, single-family houses being purchased, prices increases, houses being flipped,” Roberts said. “Gentrification is happening there very quickly, and there are all these signs that it’s going to happen even more quickly.”
He estimated that about 70% of his neighborhood is at a higher risk of displacement, and whatever affordable housing the plan might bring won’t be enough to cover the current gap, let alone an inevitably wider gap in the years to come.
“We’re talking about 4,000 people who are not going to be taken care of by a plan that’s passed too hastily,” Roberts said.
But Sawyer said much of the current displacement comes because the plan currently covering the area does not mention affordable housing as a priority, so requests for zoning changes can be approved without considering that necessity. Gentrification is already happening, she said, and this plan would place affordable housing as a high priority, hopefully slowing that process.
Colette Carey, a South Park Hill resident and member of the Greater Park Hill Community organization, said the group is drafting a letter to oppose the plan. Personally, Carey said she feels the timing is wrong and community input is lacking.
“There is no affordability component to the plan,” Carey wrote in an email. “Density alone will not increase affordability.”
Carey also said the plan’s traffic studies are insufficient, and the document affords no new green space for South Park Hill.
The East Area Plan can’t make every resident happy, Sawyer said. Nor can it address every concern. More work within communities, the city itself and even the state legislature is needed. But on the whole, it’s solid and something the city can be proud of, she said.
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