Growing Pains: One decision ‘can change an entire neighborhood’

Residents, city officials talk about how development impacts the city

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On the southeast corner of South Logan Street and East Tennessee Avenue, in the middle of a neighborhood of single-family homes, apartments and small businesses, is a rectangular, 15,750-square-foot plot of land. A 25-unit, two-story apartment building called Logan Square will rise from the dirt. Blue Family Development, the company building the project, is just waiting on constrution permits from the city a staff member said.

Lauren Muñoz, who lives nearby, is dismayed.

She and other neighbors had no idea that kind of project could be built in their neighborhood, part of which connects to the Interstate-25 overpass. They only learned of it, she said, when the city notified residents the developer had filed for a variance to the zoning code to add five feet to the top of the building, which otherwise conformed to existing zoning requirements.

Muñoz, a real estate lawyer who prepared a statement against the project, and her neighbors attended the Board of Adjustment for Zoning Appeals meeting in early February to protest. But Muñoz said the board didn’t read her statement at the meeting and she felt like their voices weren’t heard. The board approved the zoning change and the project has moved forward.

Although the city notifies residents on new zoning or other adjustment applications through direct mail, that notice “means nothing” if community members don’t have a fair say, Muñoz said. “A decision like this can change an entire neighborhood.”

Traffic among biggest challenges

Development in Denver was a key campaign issue in the mayor and council races that will be decided May 7. The topic has been at the forefront of city discussion and resident concerns for many years, since the continuing population influx into the state has created a demand for housing and sparked a commercial boon.

The problems are well known: Expensive rents and home sales prices that make the city unaffordable for many, pushing them out to the suburbs or even out of state. Roadways that can’t accommodate increasing traffic congestion. A loss of lifestyle and green spaces.

What sometimes gets lost in the excitement to capitalize on growth, residents say, is exactly how development affects their daily lives and the character of their neighborhoods.

With projects such as Logan Square, residents are concerned about more than just a new building going up.

Muñoz and her neighbors also worry about an increase in traffic and the subsequent need for more parking. Logan Street crosses over I-25 and is often clogged with traffic, Muñoz said, making it difficult — and sometimes unsafe — to walk as a pedestrian in the area.

That issue is being felt citywide, said Councilmember Paul Kashmann, who represents District 6, which includes Washington Park, University and Virginia Village.

Developments often come with a catch-22, he said: The more parking you provide, the more you encourage people to travel by car. More cars means more traffic in areas that have been traditionally more residential.

“Traffic’s big for every neighborhood,” Kashmann said. “With so many cars on the roads, and our arterials getting clogged up, they’re cutting through the neighborhoods.”

For the past several years, the city of Denver has been working on creating a way to better deal with traffic and growth. Denveright, a plan for growth and development is comprised of four sections: Comprehensive Plan 2040 looks at where the city overall will goin the next 20 years. Blueprint Denver specifically addresses land use and transportation. Both of these plans were approved by city council on April 22. The other two sections tackle park space and how to move people throughout the city through mass transit or trails.

The new Blueprint Denver version is an update to the one first adopted by the city in the early 2000s, following a growth period in the 1990s, said David Gaspers, Blueprint Denver’s project manager. The updated plan has a specific strategy of dealing with growth within Denver’s neighborhoods, such as keeping building development near transit centers and focusing on design quality to make sure projects fit the context of certain neighborhoods.

“We wanted to take a fresh look at how we wanted to be directing growth,” he said. “It was the right time to update the plan.”

Luxury overwhelms affordability

More than 12,000 units were completed in Denver in 2018, said Robert Bratley, first vice president of capital markets with the CBRE in Denver, a nationwide real estate services and investment firm. A majority of the development projects sold last year — nearly 90 percent — were bought by out-of-state companies and individuals, Bratley added.

He believes developers will continue to build in Denver because prices are better than what companies are seeing on the coasts.

Building luxury units is how developers make money back on their projects, Bratley said. A high demand for those units means the city will continue to see more of those projects. The demand for affordability, however, also is pushing a new trend of micro-units that could help fill a “desperately needed” inventory of affordable units, he said. (Zumper, a website for rental home and apartment listings, says micro-units are typically about 350 square feet.)

“That’s going to continue in Denver for the foreseeable future,” Bratley said. “The affordability factor is coming back in.”

But rents listed in Apartment List, another website for rental listings, show at least one micro-unit complex isn’t advertising lower prices. The website says the average rent for a studio in Denver is $870 a month and for one-bedroom units $1,063. RiDE, a new micro-apartment development in the River North neighborhood, is charging $1,249 for a 393-square-foot unit.

Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications and public policy for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, doesn’t see relief any time soon.

The federal government calculates area median income, or AMI, based on census data for geographic regions. According to the office of economic opportunity and development in Denver, the AMI for the Denver area is $63,000 for a one-person household and nearly $90,000 for a household of four.

For people making less than the AMI, housing is becoming difficult to find, Alderman said. Often,housing prices are forcing people to move out of the city they work in, Alderman said. For the homeless population, which at one point was growing at the same rate as the rest of Denver’s population, it’s even more difficult, she said.

“They don’t even have a shot at finding a place to live,” Alderman said.

Fighting displacement

In October, the mayor’s office created a new team to combat displacement in the hopes of keeping more long-term residents in their homes. Irene Aguilar, a former state senator in Colorado, took the role of program director of the Neighborhood Equity and Stabilization Team (NEST).

One of Aguilar’s key initial efforts is outreach with neighborhoods.

“Often,” she said, “people don’t even know what type of supports we provide.”

Those supports, which can be as simple as providing funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Development for community projects, can be catered to what individuals or neighborhoods need, she said.

So far, the team’s efforts have focused on neighborhoods such as Park Hill in northeast Denver and Elyria Swansea that have already been impacted by displacement. Every three weeks, her team meets with other city departments that work with local businesses and housing to see where their resources are most needed.

The NEST team has helped local businesses work with the city’s Department of Public Health and Environment office to make sure they stay in compliance. Later this year, Aguilar said NEST will have the Office of Financial Empowerment provide a list of residents who did not pay property taxes. NEST will use the list to do outreach and see if any of those residents need assistance.

“That may be a good proactive way to provide support to people to stay in the community,” she said.

Home sale prices also have spiked in recent years. Although some areas in Denver remain affordable for home sales, they are becoming more and more scarce, said Tom Snyder, a Realtor with Snyder Realty Team.

In Platt Park, where Snyder lives, recorded a single $1 million home sale in 2016, he said. Last year, that number increased to 11 home sales in that range or higher.

More housing projects are starting to move to south Denver because areas close to downtown are seeing a saturation point, Snyder said. In the next five years, Snyder hopes to see a shift in the market toward condos. Condos can be a more affordable option for people looking to buy a home, but who can’t afford Denver prices.

“That’s going to have a very, I think, positive effect. I’d love to see a lot more condo stock,” Snyder said. “Part of what makes Denver not affordable is we have very limited single-family homes, we’re not creating more of that and, of course, those prices just keep going up and up and up.”

For her part, Aguilar pushed for people to accept the Denveright plans, even if they thought it wasn’t enough.

In her time in the state Senate from 2011-19, Aguilar said she learned that progress in government doesn’t happen overnight. Denveright, at the least, gives neighborhoods the tools to push for better rules regarding development, she said. She also is hoping that NEST can begin looking more into the policy side of development.

It is, she said, a start in the right direction.

“For an idea to become a reality,” Aguilar said, “it takes a long time.”

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