Between a Block and a Hard Place

Not everyone wants Curtis Park to grow up.

There was a time in the mid-'80s when Stephen Gregory wondered if moving to Curtis Park was a mistake.

The neighborhood was chock-full of old Victorian homes, but a number of them were boarded up, some in danger of collapse. Drug addicts wandered the streets looking for their next hit. Property values were plummeting, and there was doubt among residents that the area would ever make a comeback.

It took twenty years, but anyone strolling through Curtis Park today would know that the neighborhood has made a remarkable turnaround. Houses are being renovated on every block, a diverse group of neighbors gathers at the Vanilla Factory, a locally owned coffeehouse, and Gregory now runs the Gregory Inn, a luxurious bed-and-breakfast.

But new arrivals have made a startling discovery: Curtis Park may have the worst zoning in the city, despite being Denver's oldest residential neighborhood.

Curtis Park is directly east of downtown Denver, roughly bounded by Broadway and Downing and Blake and Welton streets. About 70 percent of the enclave is residential -- "Curtis Park has one of the best collections of Victorians between Kansas City and San Francisco," Gregory says -- but it also contains many businesses, such as the sprawling Deep Rock Water Company headquarters. Several empty lots sit along the western perimeter, where speculators once bulldozed houses in the hopes of making a killing in real estate.

That strip of vacant land is at the heart of Curtis Park's problems.

In the mid-1950s, Denver officials gave Curtis Park the same zoning as downtown in an effort to expand the city's core. City planners were troubled by predictions that a million newcomers would flood the city in the coming decades, and since cookie-cutter subdivisions and suburban strip malls were still just a gleam in developers' eyes, they assumed central Denver would have to accommodate the coming influx. To prepare, they rezoned much of the city for high-rises, creating a little Manhattan at the foot of the Rockies. But the result was that thirty-story towers could be built across the street from rows of humble 1890 Queen Annes.

Today, many Curtis Park homes are protected from demolition by historical designation. But most of the vacant lots and commercial buildings in the area still have the same high-density zoning as 17th Street.

"They wanted downtown to move east, but instead it became a blighted area," says Scott Jackson, president of Curtis Park Neighbors.

"You have zoning that relates to a vision and reality from the 1950s existing in the 21st century," says former Denver city councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt, who voted in favor of rezoning Curtis Park just before leaving office. "It anticipated ripping down the housing stock and replacing it with high-rises."

Over the years, several other central Denver neighborhoods, including west Washington Park and Congress Park, succeeded in getting their zoning changed. This summer, Curtis Park residents asked the city council to do the same for them as one of the group's last actions before the ten newly elected councilmembers were seated in July. The council approved rezoning two areas on the east side of the neighborhood, but changing the status of a 25-acre swath between 24th and 27th streets and Arapahoe and California streets failed by one vote. That loss revealed a split between newcomers and longtime property owners.

Robert Vasquez, who has owned land in Curtis Park for decades, appeared before the council to oppose the changes. "I live here and work here," he says. "What's attractive about the neighborhood is that you can run a business out of a house. We want to preserve people's property rights."

The proposed zoning was RMU-20, for residential mixed use, which would have permitted offices, retail and homes, but excluded skyscrapers. Mid-rise construction and most commercial uses would have been allowed, but industrial development would have been restricted. And even though RMU-20 would have grandfathered in existing businesses violating the new code -- a status known as a "non-conforming" use -- Vasquez says it would have been a hassle for property owners. "It would limit the options for a property and hurt the resale value," he insists.

"There's always been a schism between the older residents and some of the newer residents. They can't communicate," says Elbra Wedgeworth, the neighborhood's city councilwoman, who sponsored the zoning changes. Altering zoning requires a super-majority of ten councilmembers, and Wedgeworth says a handful of her colleagues didn't want to oppose longtime property owners such as Vasquez.

But while the neighbors quarrel over zoning, Curtis Park's renaissance has caught the eye of developers. Century Real Estate has proposed a nine-story high-rise on a vacant lot at 24th and Arapahoe streets that is creating a whole new controversy for the Curtis Park Neighbors group.

"We didn't know anything about it until I got a notice they were vacating the alley," Jackson says.

Tyler Gibbs, from the city's planning department, says the city notified the neighborhood association of the building plans by mail. "We don't have control over how the people who get the notice share it with their neighbors," he says.

Of even greater concern to Jackson, though, are the changes in the building's appearance and purpose. He says Century approached residents two years ago with a plan for mixed-income housing and a design that included balconies and brick on the exterior. But the building recently approved by the planning department will cater to residents who make 60 percent of the area's average income and will have a contemporary design with little brick and no balconies.

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