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District 1 City Councilwoman said she expects to lead the effort to downzone three parcels in the heart of West Highland, which have been the subject of a grassroots battle against a proposed development for the past two months.
Shepherd told about 200 people gathered Tuesday night at a West Highland Neighborhood Association meeting with city officials regarding the history of the rezoning of the three parcels just north of West 32nd Avenue at Lowell Boulevard that she would seek input from District 1 residents until 5 p.m. Friday, Dec. 16 and then would proceed with whatever alternative supported by the majority.
“I would expect that would be a downzoning,” Shepherd told InsideRealEstateNews following the meeting at the Highland Event Center at Julian Street and West 29th Avenue.
On Wednesday, she said it will be up to the neighborhood what downzoning to seek, but she is thinking of U-MS-3, which would allow three-story buildings.
A grassroots group, No High Rises in West Highland, has obtained more than 1,300 signatures opposed to a plan by Denver-based RedPeak Properties to build three, five-story luxury apartment buildings on Lowell Boulevard, Moncrieff Place and Meade Street.
However, not all of the people who have signed a petition against the proposed project are from Shepherd’s district in north Denver.
“I represent District 1,” and will not use input from people outside of the district when reaching her decision, she said.
Shepherd seeks input
Those wanting to vote can send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. Shepherd said she would appreciate it if people sent her their names and addresses, so she could be sure they are residents of District 1.
Based on letters, calls and emails she already has received, Shepherd is all but certain that the majority of the people want her to back a downzoning against the wishes of the property owner.
Other options could include convincing the city council to approve an ordinance that would place a moratorium on any development, until the issues is resolved, or creating an “overlay” zoning that could make zoning more restrictive on the three parcels, currently zoned U-MS-5, which allows five-story buildings.
Larry Ambrose, a lawyer who had previously had competed with Shepherd for the District 1 seat, said he favors an overlay district, which also would downzone much of 32nd Avenue between Julian and Meade Streets, which would allow three-story buildings under the new zoning, U-MS-3 for that stretch.
“When the properties in the U-MS-3 along 32nd are built out, the RedPeak development will actually not be so out of scale,” Ambrose said. “It is the MS-3 that is out of scale with the existing context of the neighborhood that will destroy the existing character of the business district and will have even more drastic impacts on the neighborhood than the RedPeak development.”
It also might be a sounder legal strategy to downzone the entire area, rather than focusing on those three parcels, he said.
“RedPeak is likely to have a good claim against the city for targeting just their zoned lots,” Ambrose said. “The city will have actual justification for rezoning if it addresses the whole over-zoning of the district rather than one development.”
Based on people who have contacted her to date, Shepherd said about 10 percent favor the RedPeak project, there is a core No High Rises group that vehemently opposes it, and a number of people in the middle, whose top choice may not be five-story buildings, but have specific questions on the impact, such as parking and traffic.
“It’s a complicated issue,” because it not only involves the wishes of constituents, but property right issues, Shepherd said following the meeting, in which members of the Denver Community Planning and Development agency explained how the three parcels in question had been zoned from R-4 to U-MS-5. R-4, which no longer exits under last year’s largest overhaul of Denver’s zoning code in 50 years, would have allowed buildings of a maximum of 75 feet, or six stories on the site. Typically, R-4 had no height limitations, but in this case it did because of its proximity to residential houses.
Many in attendance were not satisfied with the answers by the planners, who said they had walked the site, but decided to go with the U-MS-5 (Urban Main Street) zoning because of the parcels proximity to the West 32nd retail and restaurant district, the walkability of the area the existing R-4 zoning, and the grid layout of streets. They acknowledged that the West Highland Neighborhood Association had protested the U-MS-5 zoning.
Not an error
Caryn Wenzara, a principal planner, told the audience several times that the U-MS-5 zoning was not an “error,” as many opponents have claimed, at least not in a specific, legal sense. Rather, the U-MS-5 zoning was a deliberate, open process to find the best solution for the parcels, given their urban context and the current R-4 zoning. She said she was aware of the preponderance of single-family homes surrounding the lots, noting that at times there are no easy answer to find the best zoning solution for rezoning parcels, in keeping with the spirit of Blueprint Denver, the zoning and transportation guide for the city.
Shepherd’s position “is a step in the right direction,” said Laura Goode, one of the founders of the no high-rises group. However, she said she expects Shepherd to lobby hard with other council members to approve the downzoning.
Shepherd said she checked with the city attorney’s office and she will be able to lobby other city members, if she seeks to downzone the parcels.
Downzoning not a slam dunk
However, it is sure to be difficult to get the council to go along with a downzoning.
Tom Wootten, head of a group that purchased the parcels more than four years ago, said they will file a legal challenge, if it proceeds with a downzoning.
That means a super-majority of the council would need to approve it – 10 of the 12 members (since Shepherd would need to recuse herself.)
Wootten, whose group is selling the land to RedPeak, said he was disappointed to learn of Shepherd’s willingness to downzone the land.
“We have yet to talk to Susan Shepherd, but we would expect that she would reach out to us, the property owners, in the discussion, as well as the neighbors,” Wootten said.
Wootten said that a downzoning would have dire consequences for the future of development and the economy of the entire city.
“Any attempt to downzone our property has to be viewed in a greater context than our site,” Wootten said. “This is a fundamental attack on private property rights in the City and County of Denver. It raises the question of what does this do to everyone who has zoned property that provides certain rights and responsibilities.
Downzoning called “catastrophic”
“It really is something that has the potentially to undue the entire zoning code, which, is far bigger than our properties in West Highland,” Wootten continued. “I think what could happen is that investment and development within the City and County of Denver could come to a complete standstill. No one will feel comfortable in investing in a city where it turns out that zoning doesn’t mean what the zoning says. The precedent this sets could be catastrophic.”
The RedPeak development alone is estimated to be about a $35 million project.
Wootten said he is surprised and dismayed by the outrage that some neighbors have expressed over the U-MS-5 zoning.
“We feel the zoning in place is appropriate,” Wootten said. “It was put in place in a very open, very transparent and very public and deliberate process.”
He said that there is a lot of “misinformation being deployed.” For one, the five-story buildings are not high-rises, as they do not meet the technical definition of a high-rise. He also said that the no high rise groups willingness to use drawings of proposed buildings that will look nothing like RedPeak is planning is inappropriate.
Beyond that, he bristles at the notion that he and his group somehow used their “clout” to push through the U-MS-5 zoning.
“First, that presumes we have political clout, which we do not,” Wootten said. “In any case, that is not the way we do things.That would be inappropriate. Nothing was done behind closed doors. There were no closed doors. It was all done in open, public meetings. Some of the people who are now against it, had no problems with the zoning at the time.”
He said he finds it “offensive” that some neighbors have accused him of cutting deals behind the scenes. “That not only impugns my integrity, but impugns the integrity of everyone involved in the city that was involved in the process.”
Planners, not landowner, proposed zoning
Beyond that, he said although he thinks the U-MS-5 zoning is the correct designation for his land, he said it wasn’t even his idea.
“I don’t believe we ever made any specific recommendations,” Wootten said. “We thought it was a good zoning change because it allowed ground-floor retail uses and was in line with the R-4 zoning, which I believe had been in place for something like 50 years. The ability to build density on those sites had been in place for a very long time. My recollection is that the CPD (Community Planning and Development) staff weighed all of the various information they gathered, including information they obtained from stakeholders, such as us and the neighbors, and reached their own independent decision.”
Since his group has owned his land, a number of proposals have been floated for the parcels, including a subsidized, affordable rental project by Mercy Housing, as earlier reported by InsideRealEstateNews.
“At one point, the city even floated the idea of building structured parking on one of those sites,” Wootten said. “While that might have addressed some of the parking needs of the area, I think the proposal that RedPeak is working on really is the best one and the right one for the neighborhood.”
RedPeak, in a statement released today, had this to say:
“The property has been zoned R-4 since 1961 (50-years) and recently lost height and density when the city rezoned the site to C-MS-5 during the Zoning Code Update in 2010. We are continuing to work with the neighborhood and look forward to convening the first design advisory committee tonight with representatives from the neighborhood organization, merchants association, Councilwoman Shepherd’s Office, and the No Highrises group.”
Contact John Rebchook at JRCHOOK@gmail.com< class="related_post_title">Related Posts:>