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.