Scraping Bottom

Suburbanism invades the city.

Kent Olson is driving through his neighborhood with a notepad in one hand and the steering wheel in the other, and it's all he can do to keep on course as he surveys row after row of modest brick-and-frame homes. He checks the mirror, flicks his turn signal, slows at the curb.

"This is a scrape-off," he says, nodding toward a brand-new, two-story brown stucco house with large columns framing the front porch. "They have every right to do this, but it's out of character here. It just doesn't fit."

He flips through his notepad and hits the gas.

Think big: A new house on South Clayton Street dwarfs its neighbors.
James Bludworth
Think big: A new house on South Clayton Street dwarfs its neighbors.
Another monster's on the way.
James Bludworth
Another monster's on the way.

Details


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Olson is vice president of the Cory-Merrill neighborhood association. For the past three months he and his colleagues have attended meetings, compiled surveys, buried their noses in zoning codes and scanned block after block for signs of new construction. They're trying to prepare for what's coming: a wave of redevelopment sweeping through their part of Denver like a tsunami, scouring away everything in its path.

"Here's a 'For Sale' sign," Olson says. "That's four in the last month. It could be something as innocent as one family moving out and another moving in, but you never know. We have to be alert. We have to be vigilant. It could portend another scrape-off."

Cory-Merrill, tucked between University and Colorado boulevards just below Bonnie Brae, used to be a simple, unassuming neighborhood, Olson says. Middle-class couples bought two-bedroom homes, settled down, raised families and stayed well into retirement. Some houses were remodeled, others were sold, families came and went, but nothing much changed in Cory-Merrill.

Until recently.

"We're a real bargain to developers now," Olson says. "Everything around us has become too expensive or is built out. Wash Park. University Park East. Bonnie Brae. Belcaro. To developers, we're the only game in town as far as this area is concerned. In price and availability, we're a bargain."

Olson stops at a clapboard home on Milwaukee Street with boarded windows and a brochure box in front. He hops out and grabs one of the fliers. It announces the imminent arrival of a 3,450-square-foot home with four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a balcony porch, a study, a wet bar/butler's pantry and a guest suite. The price tag: $599,000.

"They've found us," Olson says. "It's Columbus discovering the New World."


Without getting too long-winded and technical -- and Olson and his neighbors have a way of doing just that -- here's the problem:

Developers, speculators and real-estate marketeers, fueled by Denver's red-hot housing market, are gobbling up smaller, older and cheaper homes, tearing them down (or scraping them off) and replacing them with "trophy houses" that are three times bigger, three times fancier and three times more expensive. In the process, they're blocking views, hiking property taxes and transforming diverse communities into cookie-cutter clones of the suburbs.

Since January, there have been ten scrape-offs and scrape-off construction projects in Cory-Merrill, Olson says. None match the neighborhood character.

"We're talking about the difference between a 1,000-square-foot house and a 5,000-square-foot house," he says. "You're getting beaucoup bedrooms, beaucoup bathrooms, and lots of glitz. They're trying to get the maximum square footage that they can get, and there's very little room left for trees, flowers and shrubs or anything else."

And it's legal.

The zoning in many of Denver's older neighborhoods, including Cory-Merrill, allows developers to build structures much larger than the one-story cottages and bungalows now lining the streets. In some areas the zoning hasn't changed in forty years, city officials say, but larger houses weren't built back then because homebuyers, who were often ex-GIs, wanted more affordable starter homes.

"These neighborhoods were built when lifestyles were completely different," says Kent Strapko, Denver's zoning administrator. "If you were a kid, you didn't have your own room, the family didn't have a den, and only one garage was adequate. Developers built single-story ranch houses with basements because that's what the market demanded."

Not anymore.

Today's homebuyers want big bangs for their big bucks. They want 4,000 square feet, three-car garages and as many extras as developers can pile on. And as long as developers follow building and zoning codes, they're free to keep piling it on, even if their two-story stucco trophy houses are bigger, fancier and uglier than anything else on the block.

City Hall decided long ago that it did not want to review the design of every house in Denver. So unless a neighborhood has historic designation or special zoning, developers and homeowners are free to decide whether they want one or two stories, a cottage or a bungalow, brick or wood.

"If you meet the zoning and building guidelines, you have every right to go into Cory-Merrill and build a two-story house that does not match the other houses," Strapko says. "People have the right, if they meet the codes, to do certain things without interference."

Olson and his neighbors understand that. They don't like it, but they know there's not much they can do about it short of a citywide zoning overhaul (which some community leaders are calling for). What they don't understand is this: Why does the city consistently bend the rules so that these big stucco trophy homes can be built even bigger?

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