Did Denver officials just lay the foundation to abolish single-family zoning throughout the city? It sure looks that way, and if so it’s a very big deal.
It’s a big deal about which the overwhelming majority of Denver residents are almost certainly unaware.
To some extent that’s understandable. The Blueprint Denver document adopted last month by the city council to provide future guidance for land-use policy is 300 pages and covers a variety of topics. Nighttime pleasure reading it is not.
Meanwhile, most public commentary on the blueprint has been decked out in unqualified superlatives. You’d think the document had cracked the code for urban paradise.
Well, I like much of the Blueprint, too — for example the sections calling for stricter bulk requirements on infill development to help neighborhoods retain their character, as well as the pledge to “eliminate any exemptions . . . to build sidewalks as part of the development review process.”
But I also appreciate transparency and clarity regarding major shifts in policy and that’s not what Blueprint Denver delivers regarding lower-density neighborhoods. Its overall thrust is clearly toward greatly curtailing or doing away with single-family neighborhoods, and will be cited as such by those who wish to do so. But it also includes enough reservations to provide comfort for office holders who either do not wish to acknowledge that goal or do not actually seek it.
In what becomes a drumbeat, Blueprint repeatedly argues in favor of increasing housing options and choice in every neighborhood. And that means what in practice? We need to “diversify housing options by exploring opportunities to integrate missing middle housing into low and low-medium residential areas.”
The “missing middle” includes “duplexes, fourplexes, row homes, townhomes and cottage housing,” especially on “lots on corners, near transit, and/or adjacent to centers or corridors.” And it proposes “the expansion of accessory dwelling units throughout all residential areas.”
As for what “near transit” might mean, the Blueprint defines transit’s “walkshed” as one-half mile — a huge swath of many neighborhoods.
The Blueprint later adds another wrinkle for neighborhoods it calls “suburban” and “urban edge” (the former comprising far southeast, southwest and northeast Denver, and the latter including neighborhoods such as Hilltop, Montclair, Barnum and Ruby Hill). For these, it says “accessory dwelling units and compatible two-unit uses are appropriate.” (What happened to fourplexes and row homes? Who knows.) And then, in a statement seemingly inserted to forestall controversy, the Blueprint cautions that “although the description of the low residential places includes both single-unit and two-unit uses, two-unit uses are not appropriate in all low areas.” Perhaps, but the overall tenor of the Blueprint suggests the authors believe otherwise.
Councilman Kevin Flynn, who represents southwest Denver, noted when voting against the Blueprint that “this plan is vague enough that it can be substantially disruptive when interpreted differently than what I and my neighborhood leaders and residents have in mind now. . . . My constituents don’t want single-family houses scraped off to build multi-unit structures in their midst. But this plan can support that.” Sure it can.
Single-family zoning is hardly sacrosanct. There are good arguments for increasing the housing supply in significant portions of the city through some of the options envisioned by the Blueprint. But there are also good arguments for maintaining a diversity of neighborhood types in Denver. And yet as Flynn also noted, the Blueprint’s density recommendations, if interpreted aggressively in future planning and zoning decisions, could “homogenize” distinctive neighborhoods across the city.
It’s safe to say many Denver residents don’t want that — and therefore equally safe to predict that development clashes of the future could get even nastier than those of the recent past.
Vincent Carroll is the former editorial page editor of both the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post, where a version of this column first appeared.