Take a poll at the end of this blog.
The answer: All over the map.
The question: How did Denver rezone parcels that previously held the R-4 designation?
The question is timely because three parcels near West 32nd Avenue and Lowell Boulevard, in the heart of West Highland, had been zoned R-4, and last year were rezoned as U-MS-5, or Urban Main Street zoning that allows a maximum of 5-story building, outraging a grassroots group, No High Rises In Northwest Denver.
If the move to downzone the land proceeds, it is expected to ripple throughout the fabric of Denver. One developer in northwest Denver, who is quietly working on his own plans of a 5-story apartment building, told InsideRealEstateNews that he will pull the plug on his plans if he feels that a group of neighbors who don’t like it could petition the City Council to change the zoning. He talked on the condition that his name not be used, as he is still negotiating to buy the land.Neighbors opposing current plans for the three buildings on Lowell, Meade Street and Moncrieff Place by Denver-based RedPeak Properties are anxiously waiting to see if City Councilwoman Susan Shepherd agrees to move to rezone the parcels against the wishes of the current landowner, a group headed by Tom Wootten. If she decides to move forward on changing the current zoning, she must recuse herself from voting, and it would require a super-majority of the council, or 10 of the remaining 12, to downzone them.
Chilling effect on development?
“What is the point of zoning if you can’t count on it? It serves no purpose,” he said.
I asked Denver’s Community Planning and Development agency to analyze how every R-4 zoned parcel had been changed, in part to see if the rezoning of the West Highland parcels were unique. The CPD describes West Moncrieff Place and Meade Street as “undesignated local streets” and Lowell Boulevard as a “Residential Collector,” which opponents to the RedPeak project say should not allow such high density under guidelines from Blueprint Denver. However, the CPD said noted that the three streets are at an “important intersection directly near a Main Street Collector,” West 32nd Avenue, which is one of the reasons the department recommended U-MS-5 for the parcels.
The CPD did not have a data base that allowed it to sort and analyze the zoning changes as I requested. However, it created a map showing every former R-4 designation and what the new zoning on the land is now, following last year’s first major overhaul of the zoning code in more than 50 years. The department allowed me to look at the map on Wednesday, as well as one showing every 5-story designated parcel in the city, but did not allow me to keep copies of the maps.
The first map showed about 130 parcels that had been R-4. Of those, neither I nor members of the CPD staff with me, identified any other parcels that had been rezoned as U-MS-5, other than those in Wes Highland. However, there are seven new zoning designations that allow 5-story buildings and there are hundreds of parcels with those zoning designations. About 30 of the approximate 130 former R-4 zoned parcels now allow 5-story or higher buildings. Some parcels allow up to 20-story buildings, while one was rezoned as open space, which planners said they believe is its current use.
However, Principal Planner Tina Axelrad cautioned that simply quantifying what had been allowed and the zoning changes is misleading and doesn’t tell the entire story.
“That doesn’t consider the size of the parcels, the configuration of the land, or whether it is vacant or already has buildings on it,” she said. “In some cases, land might have been rezoned for 12-story buildings, because it already has a 12-story building on it.”
Rezoning R-4 parcels was especially difficult, she said.
“R-4 was an odd duck,” Axelrad said. “The “R” stands for residential, but it also could include office, hotels and limited retail. It typically had no height limitations,” but in the West Highland case new developments would have allowed only up to 75 feet, or about six-story buildings under R-4, because of its proximity to single-family homes.
One size doesn’t fit all
Axelrad said the map that shows the fate of the former R-4 parcels confirmed what the department believed.
“There is no pattern,” Axelrad said. “The results truly are all over the map. We had no formula to plug in to determine the outcome of the new zoning.”
She also noted that the CPD did not change the zoning. After public hearings to hear as many voices as possible, it made a recommendation, which was presented to the City Council member, which in the West Highland case, was Rick Garcia. The entire City Council than approved the zoning changes.
Wootten, the landowner, earlier said it is his recollection that the planning department came up with the ultimate recommendation of U-MS-5, not him.
That is most likely true, said Steve Gordon, the city’s chief planner.
“With 200,000 pieces of property being rezoned, it is hard to single out the event around any specific parcel,” Gordon said. “But it would be highly unusual for a landowner to come up with the new zoning,” adding he doesn’t recall any such efforts by Wootten.
However, Wootten’s input was sought as the landowner, which was the procedure for all rezonings. Wootten clearly preferred the 5-story zoning more than the initial recommendation for a maximum height of two stories, but Gordon said he wouldn’t consider that “lobbying” for the higher-density zoning, at least not in a pejorative fashion.
“I don’t know why you would consider than ‘lobbying,’ any more than you would consider neighborhood group wanting a different zoning, lobbying,” Gordon said. “It was a very open process.”
The planning department decided on the U-MS-5 zoning using the same criteria as it did for all of the rezonings:
- Existing conditions.
- Zoning at the time.
- Recommendations based on the Comprehensive Plan 2000 – an umbrella plan for all plans – and Blueprint Denver, an integrated land use and transportation plan approved by the city in 2002.
Opponents have said that the CPD clearly over-weighted the R-4 zoning, ignoring that the parcels are primarily surrounded by single family homes and that Blueprint Denver describes that part of the city as an “area of stability,” and not an “area of change.” An area of stability typically has less dense developments than an area of change.
But Axelrad insisted there was no over-weighting of the existing R-4 zoning.
“Our objective was to analyze everything,” she said, including the existing zoning, but also including such things as the pattern of the streets, alleys, existing buildings, its proximity to the West 32nd Avenue retailers and restaurants, as well as its proximity to single-family homes.
It also considered the feedback and perspectives of the landowners, neighbors and the West Highland Neighborhood Association, which opposed the zoning change from the get-go.
“We encouraged everyone and their mother to attend public hearings on the zoning change,” she said. “And we did have higher turnouts in West Highland than in most part of the city.”
To see a synopsis of a Dec. 6 meeting regarding how the parcels near West 32nd Avenue and Lowell Boulevard were rezoned, please visit this link.