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Guest column: Open your eyes to open space

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Highlights:

  • Guest column by Chad Reischl on open space.
  • Denver is grappling with what 10% open space means.
  • Reischl supports St. Anthony’s redevelopment plan.

By Chad Reischl

Special to InsideRealEstateNews.com

Chad Reischl

Chad Reischl

 In response to recent planning efforts at the former St. Anthony’s Hospital and other projects around Denver, a coalition of neighborhood groups has recently asked the city council and planning department to amend the zoning code for general development plans in regards to the provision of open space.

Currently, the regulation states that “A minimum of 10% of the total GDP area (including the Primary Area plus any Secondary Areas) shall be included in the GDP as open space.”

While this sounds quite clear, the planning board and the city have often sided with developers in arguing that this 10 percent be based on a “net” calculation of land area (i.e. total developable land) rather than a “gross” calculation (i.e. one that includes streets and public right-of-way deeded back to the city).

The coalition is arguing that the city needs to change the zoning code to ensure that developers are providing open space relative to 10 percent of the “gross” area and not the “net” calculation.

The crux of this argument resides on the notion that Denver is somehow deficient in open space and that we need to increase the amount provided.

Unintended Consequences

While, on the surface, this seems to be a valiant cause, I believe that it’s a cause mired in misconception and one that actually might thwart good development and the provision of quality open space.

Chapel Plaza at St. Anthony's is the type of open space proposed by EFG.

Chapel Plaza at St. Anthony’s is the type of open space proposed by EFG.

I recently found myself in the middle of this discussion as an advocate for the St. Anthony’s redevelopment project. The first phase of the development will include an Alamo Drafthouse Cinema movie theater, restaurants, retail, high-end apartments, a boutique hotel and high-end apartments.

With the backing of many neighborhood residents, I sided with the developer (who wanted the 10 percent net calculation) for what we felt was a strong project that would transform a run down neighborhood and create a walkable urban development in an area of town that has no real center.

In doing so, however, I became branded (among other things) as a “hater of parks.”

For the record, I certainly do not “hate parks.”

In fact, I visit them frequently, enjoy them greatly, and recognize the importance they serve in the greater community for public health, recreation, increased land values, and civic pride.

I do, however, think that there is a common misconception about the open space requirement that is part of the GDP. The 10 percent open space required is NOT a public park. Instead it is a somewhat inferior construct known as “privately owned public space” (sometimes abbreviated here as POPS)

The notion of privately owned public space came to the forefront of planning in New York City in the 1960s.

In the late 1950s, Mies van der Rohe upended the common inner-city practice of building lot-line to lot-line (in order to maximize land use) by placing a minimally landscaped forecourt in front of his Seagram Building.

This plaza created a refreshing opening in the dense urban fabric of New York City and planners and developers latched on to the concept.

Planners liked it because it created more light and air at street level and created public open space without having to spend money to buy land and maintain it; developers liked it because the space they created allowed for better viewing of their buildings by passersby.

In any case, planners began incentivizing these spaces by giving developers “bonuses” for creating them (usually larger floor area ratios and increased heights.).Over the years it has become a common practice to incentivize these POPS in downtowns across the country. Denver is no exception with numerous examples of plazas, courts, atriums, colonnades, and even rooftop gardens dotting the downtown area.

In more recent years (as government funding for park acquisition and maintenance has shrunk and a new paradigm of public-private partnership has grown) the provision of publicly accessible open space has become a standard part of Planned-Unit-Developments, General Development Plans and the like.

The problem with this notion is that it’s gotten a bit out of hand and quite a bit out of context.

Opening up space in extremely dense New York City made sense.

It helped bring light and air to streets dominated by high-rise buildings, broke up the dense urban fabric by creating little open-space landmarks within an overly built landscape and provided gathering places for the myriad office workers, residents and tourists milling about the city.

Opening up space in a relatively suburban environment like West Denver, however, does not make nearly as much sense. Here there are houses with front and back yards, a preponderance of used car lots, extensive park land, and a predominance of one to two-story buildings. There is little need to further open the streets to light and air and create openings in the urban fabric as was needed in NYC.

Dense urban center needed

What is needed here is the opposite, a dense urban town center that is a counterpoint to a neighborhood with too much open space (granted, much of it is not publicly accessible).

Such a counterpoint will be a natural draw because it’s different from the surrounding area much like Mies’s plaza was in NYC.

What the neighborhood needs is a center that increases walkability by providing streets faced with buildings (rather than lawns, parking lots, and other big gaps in the urban fabric) and creates enclosed spaces that feel safe and encourage street life.

These enclosed spaces may include small plazas and pocket parks, but not to the extent that the development starts feeling like a suburban office park (where people rarely care to walk or hang out).

Urban fabric aside, there are other more important issues at stake here that make privately owned public space less than ideal.

POPS –  not the same as a park

Unlike a public park, the developer/owner of a POPS can regulate who uses it, how it is used and when it is open.

That is their personal property right. If the owner doesn’t like you, what you’re doing there or when you’re doing it, they can kick you out.

You probably won’t be able to hold a rally there, and they probably won’t let you throw down a picnic blanket.

Depending on the owner’s wishes for the space you might not even want to stay there long.

In NYC (and elsewhere) it is common practice to make it difficult to spend time in these spaces by either not providing seating and/or making seating as uncomfortable or uninviting as possible.

Whatever you do, you’ll likely be watched on camera lest you do something the owner doesn’t approve of.

Finally, POPS do not even have to be well designed or useable; a fenced in lawn with a single gate, a detention pond for rainwater, or an empty concrete plaza can all be construed as “open space.”

The zoning code does not dictate what this 10 percent open space needs to look like or contain and even if it did, it can’t be overly prescriptive because, once again, it’s private property.

Privately owned public space is sometimes wonderful (case in point the lovely plaza and cove of trees in front of the 17th Street Plaza Building between Lawrence and Larimer on 17th St in downtown Denver).

At other times it can be a big waste of space (such as the generally barren plaza across the street from the previous example.)

It can also be relatively inaccessible much like the roof top garden behind 17th Street Plaza (that you probably didn’t know existed.) In case you were wondering, there’s a single, long, non-descript and unsigned stair on either side that gives you access to it (If you’re in a wheel chair or can’t climb up stairs you have to go through the building and use the elevator). It’s quite nice and you should take a visit.

In any case, whether or not it’s well designed or integrated into the urban fabric really depends on the developer’s desires for the site and how much they want to invest in space that often does not have a high return on investment.

EFG doing it right

Coming back to St Anthony’s, I truly believe that the developer, EnviroFinance Group, is working hard to create good quality privately owned “open space” on this project, which it has renamed as Sloans.

Creating fun little plazas and expanded streetscapes will add value to his property and make it more vibrant for businesses to locate along the pedestrian-friendly streets.

I also believe that requiring more “open space” (as opponents are suggesting) would simply cause the developer to water down some or all of the open space to meet his budget and thus creating, banal and unusable spaces for the sake of meeting his requirement. This would likely do the developer and the public a huge disservice.

In conclusion, I believe that privately owned “open space” should never be considered a substitute for a publicly owned park.

Alternative to POPS?

If we are truly concerned about creating more parks, then we need to have the discussion about how to create more parks and not potentially inferior private open spaces.

Perhaps we need to raise taxes for the purchase and maintenance of parks rather than insist that developers give us more, “open space” on their properties.

Perhaps we could waive the open space requirement in the GDP in favor of fees to purchase land elsewhere; land that actually becomes real public park space.

Perhaps there are other solutions.

Whatever the case, we must strive to find ways to provide this needed “open space” amenity, without overburdening private property owners by mandating public uses on private property. Doing so is a substandard use of land that is inconsistent in its application and does not provide true public space.

Chad Reischl, who has a master’s degree in urban planning, is the co-president of the West Colfax Neighborhood Association.  His views in this column, however, represent his own, and not necessarily the views of the estimated 500-plus members of WeCan. Reischl lives about three blocks from the St. Anthony’s redevelopment site.

Interested in buying a home in Sloan’s Lake? Please visit COhomefinder.com.

Have a story idea or real estate tip? Contact John Rebchook at  JRCHOOK@gmail.com. InsideRealEstateNews.com is sponsored by Universal Lending, Land Title Guarantee and 8z Real Estate. To read more articles by John Rebchook, subscribe to the Colorado Real Estate Journal.