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Archive of posts filed under the Zoning & Regulation category.

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.


#4: Progressive Plans and Policies

Number 4 in our list of Denver’s Top 10 Urbanism Achievements of the Aughts is the various progressive plans and policies the city has adopted in the past decade. OK, I know this one may not be as exciting as some of the others on the list, but it is just as important in the long run.

The reason why we find ourselves with urban development issues like buildings that are out-of-scale with their surrounding context or wide high-volume one-way streets or boring blank walls along whole blocks of Downtown is because the policies and plans we had in place at the time those things were constructed allowed, encouraged, or even required that those things occur. Change the policies, and you change the results you get.

For decades, Denver’s public rights-of-way have been under the control of the traffic engineers, because the only purpose of a street, after all, is to move the maximum number of motor vehicles from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, right? Denver was not alone in this viewpoint, of course. Pretty much the whole country went on a wild automobile orgy after World War II, ripping out historic neighborhoods to put in expressways, widening local streets in older areas to function as major arterials, tearing down buildings to put up parking lots, putting in double or even triple turn lanes at intersections and not bothering with cross-walks, designing new subdivisions with curvy and dead-end streets where nothing connects to anything and you have to drive everywhere to get anywhere, building new homes with a huge garage facing the street and with the dwelling hidden somewhere in the back… the list goes on. And then we wonder: why are we so alienated by our built environment?

Fortunately, the plans and policies that got us into this mess have been changing in Denver, and this past decade we made excellent progress on that front. The decade began with the completion of the new Denver Comprehensive Plan 2000 which established a broad vision and goals for the city. That was followed up in 2002 by Blueprint Denver, the city’s first-ever integrated land use and transportation plan that categorized all parts of the city into Areas of Change and Areas of Stability and focused on the mixing of land uses along with multi-modal streets. In 2005, the Downtown Multimodal Access Plan (DMAP) was adopted which identifies circulation patterns and routes in the Downtown area for all forms of transport and mobility, as well as cross-sections and streetscape designs for all of Downtown’s different street classifications.

The list goes on. Since 2005, the City of Denver has completed the Strategic Transportation Plan, Greenprint Denver, the Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) Strategic Plan, the Denver Living Streets initiative, and the Downtown Area Plan.  And then there’s the new Denver Zoning Code which, while not quite complete yet, has been a massive—Herculean—effort over the past five years that will align our zoning regulations with all of our new land use, transportation, and urban design goals and policies.

Are any or all of these new plans and policies perfect? Hmmm… no. But what is important to recognize is that they are all fundamentally based on the same philosophies and principles of urbanism that created Denver’s original urban districts and neighborhoods that we so treasure today, and 180-degrees opposite the automobile-oriented and modernist philosophies and principles that created most of the mess we’re trying to fix.  For that reason, Denver’s bundle of new “old urbanism” plans and policies ranks Number 4 on our Top 10 list.


Baseball Stadium District: We Need More Parking Lots!

Remember back in 2007 when, for a few months, there was a controversy over the old Light Bulb Supply Building site at 21st and Delgany behind Coors Field? The owners at the time, Bill and Paula Leake, wanted to rezone their property to RMU-30, which would have allowed their underutilized property to be developed with a building up to 140 feet in height. A few neighborhood groups and the Denver Metropolitan Major League Baseball Stadium District (owner of Coors Field) objected to the plan, saying that it would block the view of the mountains from Coors Field.

In response, a view plane ordinance was proposed that would have originated at a point in Section 222 Club Level of Coors Field, limiting new buildings within the view to a height of 72 feet. The problem with a 72-foot height limit was that, with the elevated I-25 HOV lanes soaring 40 feet above ground past the property, not enough of a 72-foot tall building would rise above the flyover to make the project profitable. Also, there was some debate as to the degree to which a 140-foot tall building at the site would really block mountain views anyway. Here’s a rendering, prepared by Buchanan Yonushewski Group (which represented the Leakes at the time) of the view from Section 222 Club Level with a 140-foot building at 21st and Delgany, as well as the Commons (Central Platte Valley) approved bulk plane behind it:

For more background on the issue, here’s a Rocky Mountain News article and editorial from 2007. Anyway, the view plane issue was put on hold so that it wouldn’t detract from the Rockies’ historic World Series run at the time, and since then there’s been no news on the matter… until now.

Jared Jacang Maher has the latest at Westword: The Denver Metropolitan Major League Baseball Stadium District bought the property from the Leakes for about $2.4 million. You may conclude that this is a win-win for everybody: the Leakes get the value out of their property and Coors Field gets to protect its view. I’m not so sure.

The Stadium District plans to turn the 21st and Delgany site into a surface parking lot after they lose some of their surface parking along upper Blake Street to RTD for a FasTracks transit line. Even that may seem reasonable. But what bothers me is the Stadium District’s viewpoint, as expressed by District director Ray Baker: “There’s just not enough [parking] currently with what we have and what will be taken.”

That’s right, there isn’t enough parking around Coors Field, and that’s a damn good thing. The point of placing Coors Field in a Downtown location without nearly the number of parking spaces that it normally would have if it were in a suburban location, was to force people to either a.) take transit, or b.) park throughout the Downtown area and walk/mall shuttle to the stadium, thereby filling the sidewalks with pedestrians and making Downtown a better, more urban place. A place will never become more urban by making it easier to get there by automobile. Let me repeat that: A place will never become more urban by making it easier to get there by automobile! Until we learn that lesson in Denver, we’ll never have the Downtown we strive to have.

“We can’t simultaneously promote walking and bicycling while continuing to facilitate driving.” – Albert Einstein

And, need I remind the Stadium District that Coors Field is located two blocks from what will be the largest multi-modal transit hub in the entire region?! Why does the District feel that they will need to replace the parking spaces they lose to RTD for transit construction, when those very same transit lines will put millions of people throughout the Denver region within a few miles of a transit line that will conveniently drop them off two blocks away from Coors Field?! Did the Stadium District ever consider that when all the FasTrack lines are up and running that fewer people might, you know, drive to the stadium?

The Stadium District should be working hand in hand with the City and the Downtown Denver Partnership to steadily, strategically, replace the surface parking lots around Coors Field with dense, mixed-use development and, if we must, structured parking. The more Coors Field is surrounded by an intensity of shops, restaurants, housing, hotels, offices, and sidewalks teeming with people, the more exciting it will be to go to a game. We want Coors Field to be in the center of it all, immersed in a pedestrian-scaled urban domain, not surrounded by a sea of asphalt like the Pepsi Center is.

In the Rocky article, Mr. Baker is quoted as saying: “We have an obligation to protect the ambience of the experience of going to Coors Field and protecting that view. I think it would be detrimental to taxpayers not to do so.” You want to protect—enhance—the ambience of the experience of going to Coors Field? Make the experience more urban, more walkable, more engaging. You want to benefit the taxpayers? Make the Coors Field experience more sustainable by discouraging driving to the stadium and by invigorating the streets of Downtown with economy-stimulating pedestrians. Seems to work just fine for Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field, and Fenway Park.

“If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.” – Fred Kent

So, the Leakes get their money but Downtown gets a new surface parking lot. I’m happy for the Leakes, but I’m disappointed in the Stadium District’s parochial perspective. I expect more enlighted, progressive thinking from the owners of our Downtown ballpark. But, I’ll make the Stadium District a deal: Develop Block C into a dense, mixed-use project, and I’ll support your parking lot at 21st and Delgany.


LPC Upholds Bell Tower Approval

At their meeting on Tuesday, the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission upheld the Lower Downtown Design Review Board’s approval of Buzz Geller’s proposed “Bell Tower” project at Speer and Market. In February, a LoDo resident had filed an appeal to the LPC to overturn the LDDRB’s approval of the Bell Tower’s preliminary design.

Now, the rest is up to Mr. Geller and his development team to move this project from concept to reality.


Bell Tower Appeal Hearing Scheduled

For those of you interested in the appeal to the Landmark Preservation Commission regarding the Lower Downtown Design Review Board’s approval of Buzz Geller’s proposed Bell Tower project, the hearing before the LPC to rule on the appeal is scheduled for Tuesday, March 17 at 1:00 PM in Room 4.F.6 of the Wellington Webb office building, 14th & Colfax.

Several of you wrote letters to the LPC in support of the Bell Tower, but showing up and vocally supporting the project before the Commission could certainly help the cause. You know that the NIMBYs in the Larimer Place condo tower will probably be there in force to oppose the project.

MARCH 12 EDIT: It appears testimony will not be allowed at the hearing, for or against. You can attend the meeting to observe what happens only.


Bell Tower Update: Return of the NIMBYs

Buzz Geller’s proposed 34-story Bell Tower received its preliminary approval from the Lower Downtown Design Review Board back on February 5. Now, a retired attorney who lives in the Larimer Place tower on Block 046 two blocks away from Geller’s site, has asked the Landmark Preservation Commission to overturn the LDDRB’s approval.

For the details, please check out John Rebchook’s article in today’s Rocky and Joel Warner’s blog at Westword.

Personally, despite what Mr. Pearson says, I think this is a classic case of NIMBYism at its worst: people who live in a tower complaining about another tower. The Larimer Place folks have done this before to Geller, and I saw them myself show up en mass when the W Hotel & Residences project was before the LDDRB.

Since I know many of you support Mr. Geller’s efforts to build the Bell Tower, rather than complain about the situation here on this blog, I suggest you send a note of support to the Landmark Preservation Commission to their general email address: Landmark@denvergov.org or you may submit your comments via the Commission’s online form here:

http://www.denvergov.org/Historic_Preservation/HomePage/ContactUs/tabid/387989/Default.aspx


LoDo Board Approves Geller’s Bell Tower

John Rebchook at the Rocky Mountain News has the details right here.

Good luck Buzz!


Geller’s Bell Park Project Moves On To Option B

Buzz Geller’s 34-story “Bell Tower” was dismissed as “too massive” by the Lower Downtown Design Review Board at their meeting last week.

You may recall the controversy over the proposed tower, located at the corner of Speer and Market on Block 242 in Lower Downtown. Geller obtained the property in a swap with the city for land Geller owned where the city wanted to build (and is currently building) the new Denver Justice Center. After acquiring the creekside property, Geller lobbied for and ultimately received the right, via the creation of a new Special Review District, to construct one of two project designs: “Option A” being a thin 400-foot signature tower with expanded public open space along the creek and a 55-foot high LoDo-esque companion building on the 14th Street side of the creek, or, “Option B” being two LoDo-esque buildings on both sides of the creek that would cover more of the site. Either plan’s final design was dependent upon the approval of the Lower Downtown Design Review Board.

Option A (left) – Option B (right)

Persuing Option A, Geller teamed with Fentress Architects and eventually arrived at this signature design:

This design was panned by the Board as not being “feather-like” enough so, in response, the design was “pinstriped” by Fentress in an attempt to appear a bit thinner:

Personally, I think the original non-pinstriped version was a cleaner and better design. But anyway, the LDDRB still wasn’t sure if the tower met the Special Review District’s guidelines, so they asked the city for a clarification. The city’s response in late September was that even the pinstriped version of the tower wasn’t “vertical and slender” enough and that “minor tweaks” to the building’s design would not meet with approval.

So, as John Rebchook at the Rocky Mountain News reports in his articles of November 4 and November 7, Buzz Geller let his Option A tower go through the LDDRB process one last time, knowing it would get rejected, which is exactly what happened last Thursday. The board found the tower to be too “massive.” For comparison purposes, the rejected Geller tower design had a footprint less than half that of One Lincoln Park.

With the rejection, Geller is now planning on persuing Option B, the two shorter blockish buildings covering more of the site. That in itself isn’t a bad thing. While I would have preferred Option A, two low-rise buildings with active ground-floor uses at that location will still be far superior to the ugly surface parking lots that exist there now.

But, I have to wonder: A developer is willing to build a $300 million archtecturally striking tower in our urban core that has a footprint smaller than just about any residential tower in this city and a site plan that maximizes views and public access to the creek, but it is rejected over what could be described, at best, as a subjective design nuance. Meanwhile, the city allows another developer to slap up not one, but three cheap beige monstrosities in the Golden Triangle that are architecturally offensive and derided by almost everyone. Does this make any sense?