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Denver Approves New Zoning Code

The Denver City Council just passed, unanimously, the new Denver Zoning Code. I haven’t blogged much about the new zoning code over the past five years because, frankly, I haven’t had the time or the energy to give it the coverage it deserved, with all those infill projects to talk about. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been a strong supporter of the Herculean effort that planning director Peter Park and the Community Planning & Development staff, the Zoning Code Task Force, City Council, and thousands of citizens have undertaken to give Denver a 21st Century zoning code.

Denver’s now-former zoning code had its origins in the 1950s. That code reflected the values at that time which could be generalized in a few words: “make our city as automobile-friendly as possible” and “old and small urbanism is bad, new and big urbanism is good, regardless of location”. The old code didn’t just allow, but encouraged the destruction of historic neighborhoods through incompatible development, required new development to be designed around the automobile, and generally dehumanized our built environment. While our values and our plans eventually changed to reflect the type of city-building that originally gave us the mixed-use, sustainable, pedestrian-oriented places we treasure most, our zoning code was still promoting—dictating even—quite the opposite. Now, the city’s zoning code, which is nothing more than a regulatory tool for implementing our plans and our vision for the city’s future, is in sync with those plans and that vision. This fundamental restructuring of how we regulate our built environment is on par with our investments in DIA or FasTracks: it is profound in the magnitude of its potential to help us achieve exceptional urbanism in Denver.

Like any major effort, the new zoning code is not perfect, and no one is saying that it is. But the city must be commended for being up to the challenge in the first place, and for the extensive outreach and collaborative process they implemented to accomplish the task. Even people who have a particular nit to pick with the new code acknowledge the exhaustive work and open process the city followed to make the new code as good as can be expected at this time. Appropriately, many tweaks to the new code will be made over the coming months and years, but as of June 21, 2010, we now have in place a zoning code that is in harmony with our land use and transportation plans and rooted in the perspective that zoning is not just about land use, but about neighborhood context and building form too. The real test of the new zoning code will obviously come through the private sector attempting to develop new projects under it, so how well it really works remains to be seen. But even a partially flawed new code consistent with our ideals and vision is infinitely better than an old code that was philosophically antithetical to our current city-building values.

In one fell swoop, yet years in the making, the zoning map and the zoning code for the entire City and County of Denver just radically changed. It’s a big deal, and I am proud of our city for achieving it.

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19 Comments

  1. TakeFive says:

    Lacking dictatorial powers, I stand in disbelief.

  2. matt.pizzuti says:

    Can somebody give me a general overview of of the kinds of specific things that were changed in the zoning code?

    For example, were a lot of neighborhoods upzoned? Downzoned? Were surface parking lots made incompatible with the new zones in many places? Is it easier to have residential and commercial space in the same building now?

    I don’t know very much about zoning beyond basic concepts you might find in Sim City, so it’s hard for me to get a sense of how things will be differently now.

  3. Tom says:

    ^^^^^^
    It is difficult to say if neighborhoods got up or downzoned in the new zoning code because of the differences in the way the new and old code is set up. What I would say is that the new code is finer grained than the old one which worked more like “sim city” zones you mention.

    The way the old code basically worked was that every lot had a zone designation and that zoning designation defined permitted use, minimum lot size, buildable envelope, parking requirements, etc. What that ended up meaning was that if something was zoned R-2 in capitol hill, it had the exact same zoning requirements as something zoned R-2 at Monaco and Evans even though the character of those neighborhoods are completely different (I don’t know if there was actually R-2 in either of those places – just making an example)

    The new code works in a very different way. It has multiple layers of rules.

    -Each neighborhood is assigned 1 of I believe 6 contexts reflecting physical characteristics and density ranging from fully suburban to downtown.

    -Each context has a series of building typologies – for example house, duplex, apartment building, store. I believe that each context has it’s own somewhat unique typologies. The typologies define physical characteristics of the buildings and also the buildable area including bulk and setbacks.

    -Each context also has a series of zones that define density. They also have a sub-zone that I believe defines what typologies you are allowed to use.

    Belive it or not this is a simplified explination – the actual code is a little more subtle but this should be good enough for a blog comment.

    To illustrate why it’s difficult to tell if something was up or down zoned, I can use the example that I’m most familiar with which is the Whittier neighborhood.

    Under the old zoning, it is a patchwork with some areas having zoning that would allow for a 4 story apartment building and most of the neighborhood zoning allowing for single family homes only. The new zoning puts a single zone over the entire neighborhood; U-SU-B1 (Urban context, Single Unit Zone, Subzone B1). Subzone B1 allows the typologies “Urban House” and “Detached accessory dwelling uint”. What this means is that the only permitted structures are single family houses with a alley house. In effect this upzones all the areas that were single family and downzones all the areas that were multi family. I suspect that something like this is true for most of the city.

  4. Ken says:

    Tom, I think you provided a fair quick summary of how the new zoning code works. The New Code website I linked to does a good job of providing both the details and the overview of the code.

    Matt, the answer to your question is that both upzoning and downzoning occurred, depending on the location. The new code is closely linked to Blueprint Denver, so an Area of Stability that was overzoned probably got downzoned, and an Area of Change that was underzoned got upzoned.

  5. Ryan says:

    Score for Denver! It’s amazing to see what this city keeps doing for the present day and future.

  6. UrbanZen says:

    It also depends on where you’re at within a certain neighborhood. Take Congress Park. The southern portion of the neighborhood was zoned R-1 and is now zoned U-SU-B, which both districts are restricted to single family detached on medium sized lots. No change. The mid section of the neighborhood was zoned R-2, which allowed for a max density build of a 2-unit attached townhome/duplex on a minimum lot of 4,500 sq. ft. There are some duplexes and larger apt building on the corners of these blocks, but the majority of the homes along the interior of the blocks are detatched single family on lots around 4,200 sq. ft. The area is now zoned U-TU-C, which allows a max density of a 2-unit dwelling on a minimum lot of 5,500. So it technically became a little harder to build an attached townhome, but not really because you would have always needed to combine 2 lots anyways, or bought one of the existing duplexs on the larger lots. No real change. The northern section of the neighborhood is where the zoning really changed. It used to be zoned R-3, which essentially allowed as tall of an apartment building as the lot footprint would have accommodated. Now the area is basically zoned U-RH-3A, which has a max density build of 3-storey rowhomes on a minimum lot of 3,000 sq. ft. This is all actually more compatable with Blue Print Denver, since the neighborhood is “an area of stability”. Where it really helps is with the density around the transportaion areas and along the mainstreets.

  7. ohwilleke says:

    My rough first read is that some areas (basically those with strong neighborhood activism) were effectively downzoned (i.e. made less easy to develop), some were effectively upzoned (i.e. made easier to develop), and that in areas where it isn’t clear that there was a tendency to allow more accessory dwellings while being much more anal about precisely what new buildings and renovations can look like.

    The new system is at the moment more coherent and logical than the previous one, although keep in mind that it applies essentially only to changes in use and new construction. Everyone in the city in grandfathered so on day one the impact is nil.

    The new changes will probably reduce conflict in the planning progress for a few years, because it has reconciled the law to what those actively involved in the planning process are agreeable to now. It date stamps current preferences to now and cements the current political power in the city status quo.

    I’m deeply ambivalent at best. I really don’t agree that “even a partially flawed new code consistent with our ideals and vision is infinitely better than an old code that was philosophically antithetical to our current city-building values.”

    Institutionally, the new code give the force of law to many NIMBY concerns that weren’t on the table and weren’t easily put there in the old system. I have a particular distaste for giving aesthetic and intangible concerns of neighbors the force of law and the new code does that to a much greater extent.

    On the other hand, by making the planning battles that might have been losing ones even harder to win, and making the planning battles that might be winning ones easier to win if one is willing to play ball with the status quo design sensibilities.

    The biggest threat from the new code is that it may gain credibility and legitimacy that it doesn’t deserve. Because the old code was so happenstance, it wasn’t that big of a deal to request and get a deviance from it which promoted flexibility. But, with so much time and so many egos now invested in the zoning plan, it will be much harder to deviate for legitimate but unforeseen new developments because of the perception that a carefully reasoned recent decision was made and widely supported.

    I don’t really believe that the planning process actually makes those kinds of decisions. The decision makers are too distant from those who are affected when issues actually come up, and mankind’s ability to plan and foresee the future in a systemic way are vastly overrated; particularly when change is part of an overall citywide effort whether residents are motivated to participate or not, rather than a grass roots driven process. Moreover, a cementing of the status quo results, and that stifles creativity and positive change which are especially likely when the people making the change have their own property at stake. People with substantial property interests are not prone to making bad decisions that the zoning code will prevent them from making. It is much more powerful as a force to prevent people from making good decisions.

    I don’t share Ken’s optimism that it is a good thing that “our land use and transportation plans and rooted in the perspective that zoning is not just about land use, but about neighborhood context and building form too.” My inclination is that neighborhood context and building form are a bunch of hooey, and that our land use plans made no significant beneficial contribution to our city’s health and basically had nothing worthwhile to say.

    Is that negative? Yeah, it is. But, I simply don’t have much faith that plans made by do gooder with good intentions are likely to produce good results. It isn’t that those involved want to do harm. It is that top down visionary planning is fundamentally a poor process for decision making, no matter how noble. It can work when there is a clean slate and a necessity to build a lot at once. It can work when the status quo neighborhood quality is so abysmally bad that turning it around has reached a crisis point. But, generally speaking do gooders with good intentions are unimaginative and both unduly idealistic and conservative in the sense of resistant to change simply because it is change, to the point where their views are mostly counterproductive.

    The most important bad decisions in the plan were philosophical, big picture decisions made very early on, like a continued commitment to hyper-regulation of lot size and density levels, and a lack of a very effective way of generalizing an acceptance of mixed use across all zones rather than in specifically designated areas. Likewise, the strong distinctions that remain between multi-family housing of various subtypes and single family housing will serve us even less well than what came before. By my counter the permutations of the available factors in a particular zone leave the city with almost as many categories for classifying a zone as it had before, which is not progress.

    If we’d had four or five zones, instead of a scores of them in the overall permutations, it might have been an improvement. But, the notion that the government that regulates best regulates only what absolutely must be regulated was lost.

    In short, the overhaul was deeply conceptually flawed. Fighting it seriously would have been futile. But, that doesn’t mean that it is a good thing.

    • Eleanor says:

      You seem to oppose the very concept of urban planning itself.

      • ohwilleke says:

        There has to be some urban planning.

        Cities own lots of real estate and infrastructure and need to manage their own property in a sensible way.

        Cities also rightly regulate impacts that property owners impose on municipal services. If you want to build an eleven story building in an area that have three story tall fire ladders, you ought to expect to have to pay for the fire department upgrades. If your use will exhaust street parking supply, you need to be able to have parking on your property for the excess.

        Building and fire codes likewise protect everyone. A collapsed building or fire can put whole neighborhoods, in addition to non-owners in buildings and guests at risk of serious injury or death or massive losses of property.

        But, urban planning to the extent that it is practiced today has been a dismal failure. New Urbanism is basically an attempt to restore the kind of uses that arose before zoning codes with any bite were widely adopted. But, the optimists case that new zoning laws are needed to roll back the harm done by old zoning laws (a harm almost universally acknowledged in the planning community) seems doubtful. If the old zoning laws caused the harm, and the use patterns we saw before the old zoning laws were in place were use patterns we now acknowledge were better, why not simply repeal the old zoning laws without replacing them?

        Urban planning solved a non-existent problem in existing communities. It may have made some sense at the time it was adopted in very rapidly expanding suburban communities that were not growing incrementally the way that older communities had grown. But, urban planning did an immense amount of harm to existing communities, discouraging infill development, exacerbating the decline of central cities, and producing the failures that still leave negative legacies like the urban renewal programs of the 1970s and the dysfunctional crime ridden large public housing projects built in that era.

        • Eleanor says:

          Your analysis is an oversimplification, it seems to me. Simply because some urban planning was badly done in the past does not mean that all future urban planning will fail or lead to bad results. Your analysis is akin to opposing all criminal laws on the ground that some particular criminal laws are ill-advised. That’s painting with too broad a brush and doesn’t contribute much to the discussion of which urban planning should be encouraged and which should not.

  8. Melinda says:

    I attended some of the public meetings on the zoning. Many people got up and spoke for 2-3 minutes. Every third person wanted to be allowed to raise chickens in their back yards here in the city. Was that allowed in the new plan ? So many people wanted it I’d be surprised if it was not allowed in some form. Does anybody know ?

  9. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Warren Karlenzig, You Post Denver. You Post Denver said: Denver Has A New Zoning Code! – Denverinfill Blog — Tue Jun 22 04:16:58 UTC 2010 The Denver City Council just … http://ow.ly/17PO7I [...]

  10. SDL says:

    there is no such thing as GRANDFATHERED IN in the Denver code.

    • matt.pizzuti says:

      The term “grandfathered in” means that existing buildings are not forced to adapt to the new code. That means that a 6-story building on a block now zoned for 2 stories does not have to demolish its top 4 floors.

      “Grandfathered in” is just a term people use to express that idea, and no, it may not be literally phrased anywhere in the zoning code, but the term was never meant to be literal.

  11. The new system may lead to increased density in transit served neighborhoods.
    The Denver VALUES Mapping must now be set forward for the requirements of the next 50 years.
    Doing this will have extraordinary economic and social value. The Zoning code provides for the Accessory Dwelling Units (dADUs )which are the perfect urban-infill entitlement for our live/work real estate markets. The fact that they are scalable, low cost and put available land, and infrastructure in service. Detached dADUs are financed and hosted by the Main house dADUs will prove have inherent advantages which few other transitional building forms can offer to our metropolis. ADUs will prove to be a catalytic economic component, as regenerators of existing transit fed neighborhoods, ADUs will help sustain Denver’s neighborhoods…one alley at a time! Way to go Denver Infill!
    -nico

  12. saint says:

    For fast growing areas, I’m all for a strong building code, but for long term allowances, I’d rather something highly flexible. If I look at a building code and have to scratch my head for more than 10 minutes to fully grasp what the heck’s going on, that doesn’t seem to me a good thing. Simplicity and flexibility should be the key in any code. I liked ohwilleke’s comment. Here’s my addendum: what zoning broke in the first place, zoning ain’t gonna fix.