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Shepherd won't seek downzoning

Take a poll on Shepherd’s decision at the end of this blog.

District 1 Councilwoman Susan Shepherd will not seek to downzone parcels in Northwest Denver.

Denver City Councilwoman Susan Shepherd announced today that she will not seek to downzone three parcels in West Highland,  saying she has reached a “significant compromise” with developer RedPeak Properties.

Shepherd, who represents District 1 in Northwest Denver, in an interview, said it would have been “irresponsible” for her to seek a downzoning, especially since RedPeak agreed to lower the height of one building to four stories from five stories.

“I really felt we made these incredible gains through the stakeholders group and me working with RedPeak and the city’s public works department,” Shepherd said. “I think it would not have been prudent to antagonize RedPeak by seeking a downzoning and risk losing all of these concessions.” She said that RedPeak never threatened to renig on concessions, “but the risk of that happening was just too great.”

She said she had approached a number of fellow council members on numerous occasions about the possibility of seeking a moratorium or a downzoning.”I approached my colleagues several times and I just never got any traction. I’m just too practical to waste my time on things I know have no chance. I would rather spend my time on productive measures.”

About a month ago, she told InsideRealEstateNews that she would not let West Highland “turn into LoHi on her watch.” She said that she still stands by that and with the commitments from RedPeak and the public works department she believes that problems with traffic, safety and parking can be mitigated to a large degree.

However, she said she knows she will get a lot of flack for her decision. Shepherd said she is concerned about her safety and the safety of her staff, especially in light of an incident last month in which two women came to her home on an evening that ended in a shouting match and threats of a recall election. “We have taken safety precautions for myself and for my staff.” Asked if that meant increased police patrols around her house and the homes of her staff, she said: “Yes.”

Hancock praises Shepherd

Mayor Michael B. Hancock, in a statement this evening, applauded the collaborative work on the Red Peak development:

“Robust public engagement is critical to move Denver forward and no one has worked harder than Councilwoman Shepherd to represent all parties involved in this issue,” Hancock said. “By working collaboratively, we are able to maintain the integrity of the Denver’s development process and zoning code while respecting the residents’ concerns and the rights of the developers. In order to drive job creation, boost economic development and ensure livability of our neighborhoods, the city is dedicated to maintaining predictability in our zoning and how it’s applied throughout Denver.”

Goode: Shepherd is “spineless”

Shepherd’s decision did not go over well with Laura Goode, the founder of the grassroots group, No High Rises in West Highland.

“She has no backbone,” Goode said. “She has no spine. She has shown the community that she is spineless. She has shown she is unwilling to stand up to the establishment and the powers that be. She does not have the capacity to lead the community.”

Asked if her group would support a recall of Shepherd, Goode said she did not know, because she must discuss it with other members.

Trevor Greco, posted this missive this afternoon on the No High Rises in Highlands Facebook page: “Neighbors and friends, you may have seen Councilwoman Shepherd’s letter today. While disappointing, please know that the neighborhood still has several tools in its toolbox to ensure sustainable development in Historic Highland Square. Please remain calm and supportive of every initiative you hear of, that can make a positive difference for the neighborhood we love, in a constructive and democratic way.”

Kevin Neimond, president of the West Highland Neighborhood Association noted that the WHNA recently passed a motion urging Shepherd to seek a legislative solution that involves down-zoning the three parcels in question.

“Certainly we are disappointed to learn that she has opted against legislative action,” Neimond said.  ”We do, however, realize that finding a solution to the development issue that is amicable to the community that calls West Highland home and to the developer is a marathon, not a sprint.  We look forward to continuing our work on the Stakeholder Design Group and our efforts to reduce the height and size of the proposed buildings.”

RedPeak released this statement: “RedPeak would like to commend Councilwoman Susan Shepherd for her decision that she will not support a down zoning of the properties included in RedPeak’s planned multi-family development in West Highland.  Councilwoman Shepherd has been successful in facilitating a productive dialogue between RedPeak and the neighborhood through the Design Advisory Committee which has resulted in compromises that improve the design of the project and respond to neighborhood concerns, but also respects the vested property rights under the MS-5 zoning.  This decision helps solidify the strength and predictability of Denver’s zoning code and will help attract future capital investment in the City of Denver.”

One of the concessions Shepherd cited is something RedPeak had indicated earlier – it will voluntarily reduce the height of the luxury apartment building on the West Moncrieff Place parcel, just north of West 32nd Avenue, to four stories instead of the five stories allowed under the U-MS-5 zoning. RedPeak is planning three, luxury, energy efficient apartment buildings in the heart of Highland Square. With a cost of more estimated at more than $30 million, it is believed to be the single largest private investment ever in West Highland.

The building proposed on Moncrieff  now will be 47 feet tall, which is only two feet taller than the maximum 45 feet allowable height under U-MS-3 zoning, which allows a maximum of three stories. Earlier, Shepherd had indicated if she could not seek an agreement with RedPeak, which also has parcels on Meade Street and Lowell Boulevard under contract, she would likely seek to rezone at least the parcels on Meade and Moncrieff to U-MS-3. That was acceptable to the leaders of the No High Rise group, which more recently urged Shepherd to seek a downzoning, even if it is highly unlikely to be passed by the City Council. It would have needed a super-majority vote of 10 of the 12 votes, with Shepherd recusing herself. City Council President Chris Nevitt and council members Charlie Brown and Jeanne Robb already have said or indicated they would not vote for a downzoning, dooming any such measure.

Concessions could be lost

“I believe pursuing a down-zoning against the property owner’s wishes would be counter-productive and could potentially jeopardize the significant gains we have made, as the developer would be under no further obligation to honor concessions made to date,” Shepherd said in a statement. “Due to the extremely unlikely possibility of affirmative legislative action to rezone the three parcels or enact a moratorium, I believe prudent leadership means focusing energy on the things we can change: mitigating development impacts and advocating for design elements that respect the character of our neighborhood. We have already made significant gains but there is much more work to be done. I will continue to with all sides to address issues and settle differences as we work through this difficult process together.”

In a letter to the “community,” that Shepherd also released today, she wrote: “Many who oppose the Red Peak development have asked me to carry a down-zoning application or moratorium on the three parcels. On December 6th I told the community I hoped to make a decision regarding a possible legislative effort later in the month. Upon some consideration and reflection, it became clear to me the importance of working with the community, the city and Red Peak to fully pursue options for addressing community concerns regarding the proposed development. After numerous meetings with WHNA members and concerned neighbors, Council colleagues, city attorneys, and officials from Community Planning and Development and Public Works, I have determined an effort at down-zoning or a moratorium is not a constructive path towards rectifying this challenging situation. Not only would they be futile efforts but could place at risk many of the development concessions my office and local efforts have secured from Red Peak the past few months.”

A rendering of what the RedPeak building could look like on Meade Street.

Shepherd asked RedPeak to voluntarily consider reducing the height and mass on the buildings on the Meade and Moncrieff parcels in January, following extensive neighborhood feedback. She was especially concerned about buildings on those parcels because of their proximity to historic one- and two-story homes.

“Red Peak had responded earlier to part of my request by reducing height on the Meade parcel to 55 feet from a 70 foot maximum allowable buildout under MS-5, essentially reducing building mass by approximately 50 percent,” Shepherd said.

“With today’s commitment, we can announce to the neighborhood that Red Peak has reduced the Moncrieff parcel from five stories to four (stories) with a building height cap of 47 feet, which is only two feet higher than maximum allowable buildout under an MS-3 designation. Additionally, with these reductions, we have managed to achieve a 69 percent reduction in mass on this particular parcel, which I believe is significant.”

Since December Red Peak has been meeting with a design advisory group to both improve the design and mitigate impacts of this project. Shepherd reports that neighbor outreach to her office has consistently highlighted concerns about the project in five major categories:

  • Building height
  • Mass
  • Density
  • Parking
  • Traffic

She highlighted a list of compromises the stakeholder group and her office have secured to date:older group and the her office have secured to date:

 Building Height

Parcel A, (Meade Street) has been reduced to 55 feet from a 70 foot maximum allowable buildout under MS-5. Parcel B (Lowell) has been reduced to 60 feet from 70 feet. Parcel C (Moncrieff) has been reduced from five stories to four stories, and to 47 feet from 70, only 2 feet higher than the maximum allowable buildout under the current MS-3 designation.

 Building Mass

The building mass on Meade and Lowell have been reduced approximately 50 percent from a maximum allowable buildout under MS-5, as expressed in cubic feet Because of the reduction from five to four stories on Moncrieff , that particular building mass has been reduced by 69 percent  from maximum allowable buildout under MS-5.

 Density

Unit numbers have been reduced to 147 from an initial plan for 160.

Parking & Traffic

Red Peak is working hard to alleviate traffic and parking issues on their end, Shepherd said. That includes providing 47 more off- street parking spaces than required by code, and committing resources for a B-Cycle station near

West 32nd Avenue and Lowell Boulevard.

Public Works has made a firm commitment to conducting a comprehensive traffic and parking inventory which will commence in the next few months, sooner if possible, she noted. These inventories will:

  •  Evaluate the current parking inventory in terms of supply and demand to establish reliable baseline numbers for current parking and traffic conditions before construction activity begins.
  •  Evaluate the traffic control devices, counts, and signal timing in the area and make adjustments as needed before construction begins.
  •  Re-evaluate the parking and traffic conditions again after the development is built and occupied so that new trends and issues can be identified, and shared solutions with the community can be evaluated.
  •  Additionally, to enhance pedestrian safety and crosswalk visibility to drivers, at the Councilwoman’s request public works has agreed to refresh the crosswalk/stop bar markings to be brighter and more clearly defined at the five signalized intersections on 32nd Ave from Irving Street to Sheridan Boulevard and will also install countdown pedestrian traffic signals.

Nevitt, the council president, lauded Shepherd’s decsion.

“Rather than taking on an un-winnable fight and getting nothing for her constituents, Councilwoman Shepherd is showing admirable wisdom and pragmatism by focusing on negotiating for real and meaningful changes to the project that will actually benefit her community,” Nevitt said. “While not always popular in the short term, this is leadership for the long term.”

Goode, however, said that Shepherd should have launched legislative action to downzone the parcels even if it had no chance of passing.

“I told Nevitt…If you don’t agree with it, don’t vote for it. It happens in Congress all of the time. Shepherd should have introduced legislation to downzone the properties to show solidarity with the community. Her decision is very unfortunate.”

Before Shepherd released the letter, councilwoman Robb indicated that she would not have supported a downzoning. Because a motion is “quasi-judicial,” she said she could not address it specifically. “Hypothetically, I gave my word when we did the zoning code update to property owners and constituents alike that these were sound arguments and we would not just turn around and change them,” Robb said. “I do not believe that the zoning in northwest Denver for moderate density was a mistake. I agree with Chris Nevitt that a case could have made for two or three different alternatives for those properties with U-MS-5 being one of them.”

She added that she had met with opponents to the zoning. “They did make some cogent arguments, especially regarding Moncrieff, because of its proximity to homes. But then they also said that they thought all of 32nd Avenue had been mis-zoned and I told them that really hurts your argument. Should we just call the whole zoning code update a huge mistake and just throw it out the window and start again? That’s not going to happen.”

Robb also said that while the West Highland Neighborhood Association went on record as opposing the zoning, she said no one showed up at numerous public meetings to oppose it. “I know. I was at all of them. If it was such a serious mistake there were numerous public meetings where people could have gone on the record of opposing it, and they did not.” The WHNA had submitted its opposition and its ideas for alternative zoning designations on the parcels owned by an investment group headed by Tom Wootten with the city’s Community Planning and Development agency.

Shepherd noted that when elected to District One in the summer of 2011, “I began my tenure with little background or information about the three parcel sites encompassing the Red Peak development, along Lowell, Meade and Moncrieff. It quickly became clear as I first learned of the proposed development that there was a rich history of community dialogue the previous five years involving the two previous District One council representatives and local neighborhood interests such as the West Highlands Neighborhood Association (WHNA), as the City and County of Denver pursued the adoption of the new Zoning Code. After carefully researching and studying this history and the resulting zoning adopted in the new Zoning Code passed unanimously by City Council in 2009, I believe the Meade and Moncrieff sites are not ideally suited for the MS-5 zoning designation.”

But in an interview, Shepherd said that the concessions from RedPeak, while they will not satisfy everyone, are major.

“I’ve really hammered RedPeak. The concessions they have made, not only on the four-stories on Moncrieff, but the reduction in the mass of the overall project , are really significant.”

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Contact John Rebchook at JRCHOOK@gmail.com