Vote on the overlay at the end of this blog.
When the Denver City Council in June 2010 rezoned three parcels near Highland Square to allow five-story building to be constructed on them, it also made another significant zoning change to the main commercial artery in the heart of West Highland.
As part of the first major overhaul of the city’s zoning code in more than a half-century, the City Council also unanimously rezoned much of the popular West 32nd Avenue corridor to U-MS-3 from B-2.
U-MS-3 allows a maximum of three-story buildings in an area that primarily has one-and two-story buildings. It has the historic charm of similar strips along Gaylord and Pearl streets near Washington Park that have lesser zoning designations.
Some West Highland neighbors are concerned that the new zoning could result in those older buildings being scraped and replaced with taller buildings.
In January, the West Highland Neighborhood Association narrowly adopted a resolution to limit the height of buildings between Irving and Perry street and West 30th and West 33rd Avenue to a maximum of 35 feet. That geographic area encompasses the three parcels where Denver-based RedPeak Properties has proposed developing the luxury apartment development with about 150 units. One parcel, on Lowell Boulevard, includes the former Beth Eden Baptist church, which RedPeak plans to incorporate into its energy efficient apartment community. The other two parcels are on Meade Street and West Moncrieff Place.
However, what has gone unreported, until now, is that the previous zoning allowed much taller buildings along much of West 32nd Avenue than the current U-MS-3 zoning.
B-2 a downzoning?
For the most part, the B-2 zoning allowed structures as tall as 75 feet along West 32nd, according to Rachel Chaparro, a spokeswoman for Denver’s Community Planning and Development, who answered questions regarding the former zoning posed by InsideRealEstateNews.
“Under the old code, most if not all the B-2 zoned properties along West 32nd Avenue were in what the old code called “controlled districts” because of their adjacency or proximity to R-0, R-1, or R-2 residentially zoned properties,” Chaparro wrote in an email.
“A controlled district, when across the street or behind a residential zone (up to 175 feet), triggers a maximum height limit of 75 feet and a bulk plane of 10 feet with a 45 degree angle at the closest property line,” she continued. “In this case, it is likely that most of the properties would have been subject to this height limit and bulk plane.”
Some opponents to the zoning change have implied that the former B-2 zoning allowed a maximum of two stories, and U-MS-3 is an “upzoning.” However, it could be argued that going from 75-foot tall buildings to a maximum of three stories is a major downzoning. Also, the overlay district would not prevent older structures to be razed and replaced with buildings up to 2.5 stories.
Similarly, some people initially thought that the former R-4 zoning on the parcels that RedPeak has under contract allowed a four-story height limit. R-4, however, described what is known as the “floor-area ratio” or FAR. In that case, it allowed the maximum square footage of new buildings to be four times the size of the parcels. RedPeak is proposing to develop three buildings far less in total square footage than the approximate 250,000 square feet allowed under R-4. An investment group headed by Tom Wootten paid $3.75 million, or about $60 per square foot, in 2007 for those three parcels, with a total size of 62,150 square feet, public records indicate.
But the “2” in B-2, had nothing to do with height or FAR.
“The “2″ in the “B-2″ did not relate to anything substantive like building height in stories or how much allowed FAR …but was simply part of the consecutive numbering of the city’s business zones (i.e., B-1, B-2, B-3, B-4, B-5, B-7, B-8, etc.),” Chaparro explained.
Right zoning at right time
She said that U-MS-3 is the correct zoning for the popular strip.
“There was a change in zoning from B-2 to U-MS-3 because the U-MS-3 zone district was an appropriate district that fairly acknowledges the range of building scale/height allowed under the previous zoning entitlement,” Chaparro said.
She went on to say that the “U-MS-3 choice was consistent with our adopted plans for 32nd and Lowell as a neighborhood commercial shopping district, and fairly acknowledged existing conditions on the ground.”
Old zoning irrelevant
Marie Benedix, the author of the overlay district proposal approved by the WHNA, said the old zoning is “irrelevant at best and misleading at worst.”
She said what property owners and developers care about is square footage allowed. In other words, “how much building” allowed is the key issue.
“The old B-2 zoning allowed a 1:1 ratio of building square footage to lot size,” she said. “If you had a 1,000 sq ft lot, you could build a 1,000 square-foot building. Simple math and not very dense. The new, U-MS-2 zoning allows significantly more square footage: 1.1-1.7 times your lot size (depending on lot size). Therefore, U-MS-2 is an up-zoning; but one that fits reasonably well into the character of the neighborhood. U-MS-3 allows 1.6-2.5 times as much building square footage as the old B-2 zoning and is a drastic up-zoning.”
But it’s not just about size, she continued.
“Much worse than the increased square footage is the economic incentive this unconscionable up-zoning creates to scrape a historic business district that Denverites enjoy for its character and charm, and to replace it with non-descript three-story boxes,” Benedix said. “Not acceptable on South Pearl. Not acceptable on South Gaylord. Thankfully, those two areas were zoned properly, for two-story buildings. It’s also not acceptable in West Highland – our mayor and city council now need to step up and take responsibility for saving a much-loved neighborhood from being scraped due to improper up-zoning.”
Meanwhile, a representative for Benedix has had one “pre-application review request” meeting on the overlay district, said city planner Tina Axelrad.
“The next step would usually would be to submit an application,” Axelrad, a Principal City Planner, said. “That hasn’t happened yet. Sometimes people submit applications after a pre-application and sometimes they don’t.”
Axelrad said she didn’t know how many buildings – commercial and residential homes – are in that proposed overlay area. Most of the homes in the area already have a maximum height of 30 feet.
There is a cost to filing an application, based on the size of the district. The first acre costs $1,000 and every subsequent acre costs another $500, Axelrad said. She said she did not know the size of the proposed district, and wouldn’t venture a guess, as the boundaries could always be changed.
Eventually, to go into effect, the overlay would likely require a “super-majority” of the City Council to approve it, if 51 percent of the property owners in the district opposed the district.
Separately, a group called Friends of Highland Landmark has sent a letter to the Landmark Preservation Commission saying the Beth Eden church had been given “non-historic status,” based on “insufficient evidence.” Marilyn Quinn, in the letter, said her group has reviewed “readily available public records” that show buildings on that stretch of Lowell meet the criteria for historic designations and “should not be demolished without a more thorough review.”
Larry Ambrose, who has unsuccessfully run for City Council in the past, has been a strong proponent of overlay districts in Denver since the early 1980s.
Under the B-2 zoning, anyone trying to build a 75-foot tall building would have ended up with a “very small, skinny tall building,” he said.
In any case, Ambrose agreed with Benedix that what the previous zoning allowed is “completely irrelevant.”
“We started with a new, clean slate,” Ambrose said. “The first thing that Mr. Peter Park (the city’s planning director under then Mayor Hickenlooper’s administration during the zoning change), said is that this is not going to be perfect and we can always come back and change it – tweak zoning – later.”
He then alluded to the RedPeak project.
“Five-story buildings are not appropriate next to one-story buildings – they just are not.”
Some people have said that after the new zoning took place in June 2010, there was a period to ask the city to review its decision, and no one took any steps to ask then District 1 City Councilwoman Paula Sandoval to try to change it.
“I don’t know about that,” Ambrose said. “I would say we were all sold a bill of goods.”
InsideRealEstateNews asked him if he thought the U-MS-3 zoning would increases the likelihood of buildings with historic character to be razed, when very few property owners did so under the B-2 zoning.
“It depends,” Ambrose said. “If we came back 100 years from now, I would say absolutely. Ten years from now – maybe yes, maybe no. It would depend on how hot the area becomes, how many people move here and their income levels. The point is that someone could do it and it would change the landscape and the character of the neighborhood.”
Contact John Rebchook at JRCHOOK@gmail.com.< class="related_post_title">Related Posts:>