The raucous four-hour West Highland neighborhood meeting on Wednesday night that that drew more than 200 people and dozens of speakers – all of whom spoke against the three, 5-story apartment buildings planned by Denver-based RedPeak Properties – raised some questions in my mind.
I’m bringing up some of these still unanswered questions and observations in this column, not because I am taking sides, but because I truly believe an open dialogue is fundamentally important to a free society. Also, I think this proposed development, and the issue swirling around it, such as forcing a down-zoning against the wishes of the owner of the property, could very well prove to be a microcosm of future developer-neighbor disputes across Denver.
As in West Highland, other neighborhoods may very well be in the dark about potential construction allowed under last year’s massive overhaul of the zoning code. Many other neighbors may reach the same conclusion as many in West Highland fear – that tall and dense developments could change the character of an area and accelerate congestion and parking woes.
The motto of E.W. Scripps, the owner of the Rocky Mountain News, where I was a reporter for 26 years, before it shut down in 2009, was “Give light and the people will find their own way.”
So in the interest in shining light, here are some observations.
1. Does the construction quality matter? One of the audience members who packed the “listening session” at the Highland Event Center at West 29th Avenue and Julian Street, said that he did not care, nor does he think the neighborhood cares, that RedPeak is proposing luxury apartment units on the parcels just north of West 32nd Avenue on Lowell Boulevard, Meade Street and West Moncrieff Place. Mike Zoellner, president of RedPeak, said they plan finishes and construction levels higher than found in most luxury condo projects.
I wonder what that resident and others would have thought about another proposal for the land, which until now has not been publicized.
Mercy Housing close to developing land
What few people know is that Denver-based Mercy Housing Inc., one of the nation’s largest owners and developers of affordable housing, had those three parcels under contract about four years ago, when the land was zoned R-4.
Mercy Housing, a well-respected non-profit that has developed more than $2.2 billion in affordable housing across the country, was planning to develop the three parcels to the maximum allowable density, which was far greater under R-4 than the current zoning of U-MS-5. The deal, which would have included market-rate rental apartments and retail, as well as housing for low- and moderate-income residents, did not happen because the Denver Office of Economic Development had not targeted that area for affordable housing and wouldn’t help finance the deal.
Jennifer Erixon, senior vice president of real estate development for Mercy Housing, was unaware of the RedPeak proposal, but when I told her about it on Friday afternoon, she said she thought the sites would be “incredibly marketable” as a luxury development.
If the RedPeak deal fell through, she said she thought the sites would be just as appealing as an affordable housing development.
“Absolutely,” she said. “We are seeing an affordable, rental housing shortage in Denver. We have long waiting lists for our multifamily projects. We really liked that site because of its proximity to downtown and public transportation. We also think it is important to diversify neighborhoods with affordable housing.”
While many people embrace affordable housing, I have found over the years that many people do not want it near their homes, even though groups such as Mercy Housing develop units that are virtually indistinguishable in appearance from high-end units.
3. Impact of the church. The existing church has a congregation of 500 people and offers many wonderful services to the neighborhood, such as baby-sitting to couples wanting a date night.
I couldn’t help but wonder if a lot of people arriving and leaving a church at the same time contributes to as much, or even more traffic, than renters who are leaving and exiting three new buildings at different times.
One of the readers of InsideRealEstateNews had the same question, posting this comment on Friday on my blog: “John – mentioned in the meeting was the fact that the church is used by hundreds of families/kids for activities during the week, and for date night babysitting. I would be curious to know how much those activities now affect parking and traffic, and if the addition of multi-family housing unit dwellers would make any more impact, or possibly less impact if they have a parking garage for their vehicles?”
It seems one could argue that traffic is traffic, whether generated by renters or church-goers. Brad Buchanan, the architect hired by RedPeak, said a traffic study will be conducted. It will be fascinating to learn what it concludes.
38th zoning calls for three-story buildings
3. Right development, wrong place. One constant from many of the opponents has been that this is a “great development at the wrong place.” Numerous people have said that it would be more appropriate along West 38th Avenue. However, I hadn’t heard from anyone from that area six-blocks north of the site. I wondered if they would welcome five-story buildings near their homes and was prepared to make some calls. But with a bit more research, I discovered that apparently is a moot point. Almost all of 38th Avenue between Sheridan and Federal boulevards is zoned U-MS-3, allowing a maximum height of three stories.
4. On board with the right plan? Another oft-repeated battle-cry from opponents is that they are not anti-development, but only this development in particular, which they believe is the result of a zoning error. I believe them.
Yet, a number of the speakers, including shop owners along West 32nd Avenue, voiced concerns of what 18 months of construction would do to their businesses. That is totally understandable, especially in light of the toll on merchants along Tennyson Street during its construction.
On the other hand, if the parcels are down-zoned to three stories from five, it would have an incremental impact on the construction time-line. It would trim 3 1/2 months to 4 months from the 18-month construction process, a veteran Denver developer, who is only vaguely aware of the RedPeak project, told me today. In other words, the area would still be a construction zone for more than a year, under a best-case scenario. Since a number of people at the meeting voiced skepticism that it would only take 18 months to complete, would they welcome a smaller project that by their assumptions would still take a year and a half or more to complete?
Separate from the meeting, I feel the need to make some other observations.
I have been criticized for writing an article that cites numerous studies that found that nationwide, high-density developments do not tend to lower nearby home values. In some cases, homes near high-density developments appreciate a bit more than the overall market.
There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what these studies are saying.
Tall buildings cast shadows, block views
The studies are not claiming that some people will not be robbed of sunlight and views by tall buildings. Without a doubt, losing views or sunshine or green-space is heart-wrenching. If you are forced to look at an ugly building, or a concrete wall, the psychic pain is all that much greater. Do you deserve that fate, just because you didn’t keep tabs on potential land-use and stop it dead in its tracks? Sure, that’s easy to say, but the truth is it would be generous to say that is on the radar screen of even 2 percent of the population until they are confronted with the possibility of bulldozers tearing up the ground.
However, keep in mind that every building casts shadows and most buildings – most likely including the house you live in – blocks a view of someone else, just as your neighbor’s house blocks your view to some extent, especially if you live in a city. If you live on a ranch in Elbert County that will not be a problem, but it also means you can’t step out your door and walk to Stella’s or bang!
That aside, what the research shows is that the benefits of well-built, dense buildings can increase the vibrancy of a neighborhood, making it that more attractive to home buyers. Indeed, it is not unreasonable to think that a certain percentage of people who are paying rent of $1,400 to north of $2,000 each month will ultimately buy a home in the area.
Of course, maintaing the value in your home may be small comfort if you lose something precious like a view, which can be priceless, even if you can’t hang a specific dollar amount on it.
Along the same lines, some people have criticized these studies because some have included cities such as Chicago, where big buildings are more common than in Denver.
I used to live in Chicago (2400 North and 3200 North, which you will only understand if you are from the Windy City with its grid-street system.) I assure you there are many pockets in Chicago that are very comparable to West Highland. Chicago is more than downtown, the Loop and the Gold Coast. Indeed, some neighborhoods in Chicago, such as Wicker Park, not only share many traits of West Highland – such as a historic housing stock and a bustling, walkable retail and restaurant area – but it also has weathered neighbors protesting numerous apartment developments they considered too dense and not a good fit.
And when I took my brother-in-law, Bruce Horowitz, to West Highland about a dozen years ago, he surprised me by saying it reminded him of the part of Brooklyn where he grew up. Indeed, we had lunch that afternoon at Heidi’s Brooklyn Deli.
Could be the first down-zoning of its kind
On another issue, it has been pointed out since the massive rezoning took place, a number of properties have been down-zoned, the argument being that down-zoning these parcels is not the ordeal that some in the city have argued.
The first part is correct.
The Denver Planning Board has considered about 15 zoning changes since the overhaul of the zoning code took place in June 2010.
There are two ways to look at it: That represents, on average, almost one zoning change request per month since the zoning code was overhauled. On the other hand, they represent 0.01 percent of the 150,000 parcels in Denver that were rezoned.
But more importantly, when I asked the Denver Community Planning and Development department how many of the zoning change requests came from someone who did not own the land, the answer was: “Zero. All have been with the consent of the owner.”
In other words, convince Tom Wootten, who owns the parcels with partners, to down-zone the land and it will be a slam-dunk.
Good theater, but were people respectful?
Finally, anyone who attended Wednesday night’s meeting knows it didn’t exactly follow Robert’s Rules of Order.
People shouted out questions and comments throughout much of the night. As a reporter who has covered thousands and thousands of mind-numbing, tedious meetings and trials during the past 35 years, I thought it made for very good theater.
And since no one was shouting fire in a crowded theater, it was certainly was within their First Amendment rights. It also was exactly what I had expected, because in this increasingly polarized society, there seems to be little or no tolerance of opposing views, whether you are on the right or the left.
On the other hand, Buchanan, by my count, called out the names of at least nine people who, like Elvis, had left the building, before it was their turn at the microphone.
Many of them, I’m sure, would have spoken against the project.
Chilling effect on supporter
On the other hand, one person told me she was planning to speak in favor of the RedPeak proposal, but ducked out before her name was called because she was scared.
“I was intimidated,” said the person, a resident of West Highland for more than 15 years, who is not a public figure and had no desire to be publicly derided. “I didn’t want people booing me and yelling at me.”
She said that people were so full of rage that the thought even crossed her mind that someone might find out where she lives and smash her car windows, if she dared take an unpopular stand.
The woman also didn’t think the behavior of many in the crowd reflected well on the neighborhood that she loves as dearly as any of the opponents to RedPeak’s proposal, but for environmental, social and diversity reasons, welcomes a mix of housing.
“I was embarrassed. Some of the people there seemed so nasty. I can’t believe they’re my neighbors.”
At the same time, she not only believes that the residents have every right to pursue a down-zoning, she thinks they are right to do so.
“Honestly, I have two minds about it,” she said. “Even though I knew the zoning change was happening – there were signs all over the place; you would have had to be blind not to see them – I didn’t pay too much attention. I like density and I think density is good for a city. We have to make the city more dense. The alternative is suburban sprawl that increases our commutes, pollutes the air and eats up our farm land. I also want to see a diversity of housing in this neighborhood. We can’t just be a neighborhood of single-family homes. I would support affordable housing on that site, if RedPeak walks away.”
Still, listening to some of the arguments of the neighbors, especially those on Meade Street, she admitted they were not without merit, and she sympathized with their concerns. That was reinforced when I told her the land had initially been re-zoned to allow only two-story buildings.
She just wishes the people had been a little nicer when presenting their side of the case.
“I really felt sorry for Susan Shepherd,” the city councilwoman who put together the listening session, and was jeered when she didn’t immediately support a call for a down-zoning. Some already are talking about efforts to recall her,
“Susan really looked like a doe caught in a headlight. I don’t think she was prepared for that kind of a reaction.”
Anyone wishing to volunteer for a citizen committee regarding the proposed RedPeak project should email email@example.com and include any qualifications or expertise you might have that could be a benefit to the process. The committee expects to have its first meeting on the week of Dec. 5.
John Rebchook, who has lived in West Highland since 1984, can be reached at JRCHOOK@gmail.com< class="related_post_title">Related Posts:>