Belly of the Beast

A setback for the city is a win for residents.

One day last week, a construction crew building a behemoth in the 400 block of South Franklin Street fired up shortly after 6 a.m. According to city rules, they're not supposed to start work until 7 a.m. -- but when "Housing Goes Frothy to Flat in the Denver Area," as a New York Times front-page headline pronounced ten days ago, there's not a second to lose.

And in the Washington Park area, there's nowhere to go but up -- and out. Ginny Bayes could tell you all about that.

Last year, Bayes watched as the bungalow just north of her own bungalow disappeared. Such drastic changes have been common in this part of town for the decade she's lived here, as homeowners pop tops and developers scrape off modest brick houses, only to replace them with duplexes, townhouses, and mini-mansions as large as zoning law allows. Bayes didn't get the required notice that the house next door to hers was about to go, but the building that soon took shape at 381/383 South Franklin dwarfed all concerns about missing notices. It was tall, two stories, which is allowed under the city's Quick Wins 2 zoning that ties size to the bulk plane. More worrisome was the foundation, and then the framing, that stretched so close to the sidewalk in front.

According to city code, the front setback of new residential construction is supposed to be the average of the dwellings on either side. Bayes's house is 28 feet from the curb, as is the house on the other side of the project -- which made the arithmetic easy. But this construction was less than twenty feet from the curb, without factoring in porches or balconies. Which meant that someone's math was very bad.

As it turned out, that someone was with the city. In May 2004, the project developer, Timbercrest Homes, had conducted the required survey and concluded that the front setback should be 28 feet -- although that calculation, and that calculation alone, was considered the purview of the city. And soon after, the city told Timbercrest that the allowable setback was twenty feet. "Zoning suddenly lost eight feet off their tape measure," says Bayes.

Timbercrest took full advantage, moving the project up to create big back yards behind the 2,000-square-foot duplexes. Bayes's house was now dwarfed by what she came to see as the Beast.

She decided to fight back. She documented the error and filed a complaint, "but I was told there was no hope, because the city had made the mistake," she remembers. But Bayes, who's run her own advertising/marketing company, knew the battle had just begun. She contacted her councilman, Charlie Brown, and he convinced the mayor to come over and look at the Beast. And when Bayes got a meeting scheduled with the city, she made sure she didn't go alone. "By getting the cameras there, all of a sudden instead of no options, there were possibilities," she says.

She made sure the cameras, as well as fifty neighbors, were back for a Denver Board of Adjustment for Zoning Appeals hearing in late April, which was continued for a month. In the meantime, the city came up with a solution: It would pay two-thirds, or $42,500, of what the developer estimated it would cost to move the foundation and framing to the correct setback.

It was a simple, sensible solution, but it still took a reminder from Bayes before the developer signed off five weeks later. "The check's been cashed," confirms City Attorney Cole Finegan, who helped broker the deal. And earlier this month, the duplexes were rolled back more than eight feet. "Until it was physically moved, I was never convinced it would happen," Bayes says, staring up at the now-tamed Beast. "I'm awfully grateful. Thank God it turned out to be a victory for the neighborhood."

In the cool of the morning, the work continues.

And not just next door to Ginny Bayes.

After her battle with the Beast, the city determined that from now on, builders are responsible for calculating the front setback, as well as all other measurements, correctly. If a mistake is made, it's the developer -- rather than the city or the neighbors -- who bears the brunt. "In the past, we've always basically relied on the contractor for all the setbacks but the front setback," explains Assistant City Attorney Kerry Buckey. "Now you'd better make sure you've got it right, because we are going to check."

Neighborhood groups are also checking into problems with zoning. While the city's already working on a massive revamp of the code, "there are detail issues that are significant right now," says Kent Olson, who's heading a zoning-issues subcommittee for the Zoning and Planning Committee of InterNeighborhood Cooperation Inc. In about two months, his group will send a report to ZAP, which will send it on to INC, which will forward it to the appropriate city official. Beating back the Beast takes time, but it's worth the struggle.

No one knows that better than Bayes. "When we lose that character," she says, "we're going to lose the city."

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