Denver council approves zoning plan that allows RiNo developers to build higher if they chip in affordable housing

The City Council late Monday night approved Denver’s first-ever experiment with height incentives that will allow developers who provide for affordable housing to build much higher than normal zoning allows.

But there were sharp divisions before the vote on whether the plan — which covers an area surrounding the 38th and Blake transit station in the River North Art District — marked a bold move for Denver or was a weak first step.

“The solution starts with a step, and this is a huge step toward what we can expect to see,” said Councilman Jolon Clark, one of the more enthusiastic supporters. “I look forward to this setting the table for the future of our city.”

The approved package of zoning and ordinance changes boosts allowed heights in the River North area to as high as 16 stories in places when market-rate developers meet requirements by providing for some income-restricted apartments or condos. In the case of developments that are mostly commercial or retail, builders will have the option of paying much more than is normally required into a new housing subsidies fund; building affordable housing off-site; or providing space for “community serving uses,” such as a grocery store, artist spaces or a day care.

The changes long were pushed by council president Albus Brooks, developers, and some community and business advocates. The Denver Post covered the issue in depth this week.

After a lengthy public hearing Monday, the council at 11:20 p.m. approved four proposals on 11-1 votes, enabling the use of height incentives in zoning and then applying an incentive overlay — along with a new design overlay — in the River North area.

The council then held a short public hearing on the final piece of the package, a rezoning proposal that sets base zoning levels for many properties in the area. At 11:45 p.m., the council approved that rezoning measure 10-2.

Councilman Paul López cast the sole no votes on the first four measures. He argued that while he liked the housing policy tool created by them, it didn’t go far enough in encouraging developers to offer income-restricted housing and didn’t apply widely enough.

Rafael Espinoza joined him in voting no on the final rezoning proposal, arguing that the new base zone districts, in some cases, allowed too much height without the use of the housing incentive. They set maximum heights at 3 to 8 stories; the housing incentive, while requiring step-downs in height on blocks close to single-family homes, will allow an additional one to 11 stories. Regardless, the maximum height on any block with the incentive will be 16 stories.

The map above, from a city presentation, shows where the affordable housing height incentive overlay district and the larger, overlapping design standards overlay district will apply. Initially, the zoning overlay will apply to properties with mixed-use zoning.
Provided by Denver Department of Community Planning and Development
The map above, from a city presentation, shows where the affordable housing height incentive overlay district and the larger, overlapping design standards overlay district will apply. Initially, the zoning overlay will apply to properties with mixed-use zoning.

Espinoza is eyeing the use of some kind of height incentive near the 41st and Fox station on the upcoming G-Line train in his northwest district.

“I’m under no illusion that this, as is, is a significant step toward an affordable community,” he said. “It is just not deep enough. We should be asking for more.”

Another component of the package creates a zoning design overlay, which is more common in Denver and adds a new set of exterior design rules that developers must follow.

Public testimony earlier Monday reflected a tension between some speakers’ optimism that the fast-growing RiNo district’s future can be harnessed by city policies to benefit the community and, among other speakers, angst — even anger — over the citywide consequences of Denver’s population boom and development frenzy.

“The requirements for affordability are not enough,” insisted Mercedes Gonzalez, a Spanish-speaking Globeville resident who said the spillover effects from development in RiNo are hurting longtime residents nearby who struggle to afford the city. “Considering the actual dynamic of displacement, there should be more consideration about this issue.”

“This two-year effort is a significant, important step,” said Jamie Licko, president of the River North Art District. “It is bold, it is complex — and we recognize that it may also may be imperfect.”

But she said the experience will provide lessons for further potential uses of height incentives in Denver.

The maximum incentive generally varies based on distance from the 38th and Blake commuter rail station on the University of Colorado A-Line.

More than two dozen speakers signed up to speak Monday.

Some worried about unintended consequences from the proposal as market dynamics change, about how quickly developers are building out neighborhoods and about the aesthetics of those new structures. Some speakers applauded the prospect of more density, while others feared denser development would push out neighbors of the area who are struggling with rising housing costs and property taxes.

A map of the area surrounding the 38th and Blake transit station shows suggested base building heights (marked by numbers) and incentive heights (shaded by color) if developers incorporate affordable housing or, if it's a commercial project, pay extra impact fees into a city housing fund.
38th & Blake Station Area Height Amendments plan
A map of the area surrounding the 38th and Blake transit station shows suggested base building heights (marked by numbers) and incentive heights (shaded by color) if developers incorporate affordable housing or, if it’s a commercial project, pay extra impact fees into a city housing fund.

Candi CdeBaca, an Elyria-Swansea neighborhood activist who has said she plans to run against Brooks next year, argued that the mass rezoning of the area robs the community of the chance to weigh in on changes on a property-by-property basis. She also called the height incentive overlay for affordable housing insufficient.

“True leaders would halt an overlay until we have meaningful housing solutions,” she said.

But several speakers, including urbanists and developers, took a different position. They argued that the height incentives would improve the housing fortunes of the wider area by allowing the building of more apartments and condos, increasing the supply.

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