The Baker neighborhood is one of the most diverse in the city, sprawling from West Sixth Avenue to Mississippi and from Broadway to the South Platte River. It encompasses hundreds of nineteenth-century houses, a thriving retail strip along Broadway and large industrial tracts along the river.
When a group of residents and business owners in the area started working on a plan to guide development three years ago, many thought they would fail. It seemed almost impossible for people with such conflicting interests to agree on a vision. But they succeeded, and last month, Baker became the first neighborhood under Blueprint Denver -- the long-range development guidelines adopted by the city last year -- to submit a proposal to the Denver City Council for ratification. After years of negotiating and coalition-building, the group assumed it would sail through.
Then they ran into a lobbying juggernaut employed by one of Denver's most powerful architectural firms. Fentress Bradburn Associates, designer of Denver International Airport and the Colorado Convention Center, wants to erect two seventeen-story residential high-rises behind its headquarters at Fourth Avenue and Broadway. Because the area is zoned for high-rise buildings, the Baker Historic Neighborhood Association was willing to compromise. The group proposed nine-story buildings as a way to balance current zoning laws and their desire to keep the area on Acoma Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues largely residential.
But Fentress Bradburn intends to defend its right to build larger structures. The firm hired some of the best-known lobbyists and lawyers in town to fight the neighborhood plan. The high-priced political muscle quickly convinced a majority of the city council to exclude the block from the plan's scope -- although Baker representatives Debbie Ortega and Kathleen MacKenzie stood by their 'hood at the January 6 meeting.
"Fentress Bradburn can buy off people. I saw it happen," says Barb Scott, president of the Baker Historic Neighborhood Association. "There was no reason for the council to side with a developer against the neighborhood."
Some councilmembers agree.
"It was a victory for political juice over common sense," says Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt. "People stood up and told lies."
The neighborhood plans are intended to guide development and shape a vision, but they don't have the force of law and, in the long run, cannot alter the underlying zoning that determines what can be built. They specify, for example, where residents want new retail or high-density residential projects and what areas should remain largely unchanged. And the city planning board often uses them as guides when considering development proposals and may ask developers to scale back buildings that conflict with what the neighborhood wants.
"The neighborhood plan doesn't change the zoning," says city planner Kiersten Faulkner, who worked with the Baker neighborhood on its draft. "It's a city-approved vision for the neighborhood. The council voted to change the vision for that block."
Councilman Charlie Brown openly criticized Faulkner during the city council hearing, accusing her of not inviting Fentress Bradburn to a meeting at which the plan was being finalized. For her part, Barnes-Gelt says Brown was all but in the pocket of Fentress Bradburn and its lobbyists, Monaghan & Associates.
"Charlie Brown was abusive toward Faulkner," says the councilwoman. "Curt Fentress went to his buddies, and the fix was in."
Brown accuses the planning department of siding with the neighborhood against Fentress Bradburn, and he bristles at Barnes-Gelt's charge that he was abusive. "Barnes-Gelt calling me rude is a joke, considering her damn behavior," Brown says.
(Faulkner declined to comment on the exchange.)
Brown says that Fentress Bradburn attorney Tom Ragonetti convinced him that adopting the plan would effectively downzone the property and that a 1996 Colorado Supreme Court ruling had given neighborhood plans influence over zoning decisions. "If a neighborhood can downzone, what is the future of these plans?" the councilman asks. "The neighborhood got 99 percent of what it wanted; the other acre was debatable."
Barnes-Gelt disagrees on that point, and she fears that the council may have undermined Blueprint Denver and the city's long-range planning efforts with its actions. "There was a ton of misinformation. I've never seen anything like it," she says. "It was a plan that required enormous give-and-take among stakeholders. In my opinion, what happened sets a horrible precedent for the city." (The council did, however, unanimously approve the Shattuck Neighborhood Plan on Monday, February 10.)
Jim Bradburn says his firm still wants to work with the Baker neighborhood association as it makes plans for the future high-rises, which are in flux, with no final design ready. "There were a lot of schemes we presented to the neighborhood," Bradburn says. "We tried to scale it down. We got down to twelve stories. The neighborhood is a loose group of individuals, and we're trying to work with them."
With the downturn in the real estate market, Bradburn doubts they'll be breaking ground anytime soon. He says the firm challenged the neighborhood plan because it didn't want to run into problems later and is simply trying to defend its development rights. "All we're trying to do is build a project within the zoning," he says.
And within what he argues is the context of Blueprint Denver. That document divides the city into "areas of stability" and "areas of change," with the intent to safeguard established neighborhoods from radical change while channeling dense development into areas along transit routes. As a part of that, Bradburn points out that higher-density developments are called for along transit corridors like Broadway ("The Big Squeeze," November 2, 2000). "We think it's an ideal spot for high-density development," he says. "As you get closer to Sixth Avenue and Broadway, it's much better to go with high density."
The neighborhood association disagrees that the more residential Acoma Street should qualify for higher-density development, even if it is just a block off Broadway. And the group will still have some say over Fentress Bradburn's proposal, since the block is in a historic district and the high-rise design must be approved by the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission. It's likely that the firm will also have to get permission to vacate an alley, and a duplex in the middle of the block will be torn down while the historic mansion on the corner is preserved.
For Scott, the experience shows exactly who is calling the shots on the Denver City Council.
"In Denver," she says, "developers rule supreme."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.