Development in Denver: Inside Failure of Contentious West Highland Rezoning Bid

Emmaus Lutheran Church in West Highland.
Emmaus Lutheran Church in West Highland.
Anthony Camera

"I've seen some pretty bad public hearings, but I haven't been at a public hearing where there's been this much snickering back and forth, especially on council," said Denver City Council rep Paul Lopez at the start of his comments at that hearing on Monday, January 25. During that marathon session, 58 people stood up before Denver City Council to speak about Emmaus Lutheran Church’s request to rezone a portion of its property at West 32nd Avenue and Irving Street to allow a two-story medical facility — a proposal that has divided the West Highland neighborhood for the past three years. And some of that rancor spilled into council chambers, as members questioned each other.

After four hours and short one member, the council voted 8-4 for the application early Tuesday morning. In other circumstances, that would have okayed the request, but because the opposition had submitted a petition on January 15 from 27 percent of the residents within 200 feet of the rezoning site, the vote required a supermajority of ten to pass. (Only 20 percent of the residents needed to sign a petition to kick a vote to a supermajority of council.)

Now it's back to the drawing board for Emmaus Lutheran, the subject of a recent cover story. Council was originally going to vote on the proposal to rezone the property from U-SU-A (for residential use) to U-MS-2x, one of the most restrictive commercial codes in the book, on November 2, but that was delayed when Emmaus modified its application, reducing the area for rezoning to 23,00 square feet.

Councilmember Rafael Espinoza, who represents the area, sided with the opposition and voted against the application, questioning the scale of the project. In his first round of closing comments, the District 1 councilmember said he weighed his decision heavily on the area being classified as an area of stability under Blueprint Denver, the city’s zoning guide established in 2002.

Councilman Rafael Espinosa considers the proposal.
Councilman Rafael Espinosa considers the proposal.
Matthew L. Van Deventer

“We don’t have a small area plan for West Highlands,” said Espinoza. “So we have to rely on conformity with Blueprint Denver, and Blueprint Denver is very, very clear that this is in an area of stability and the idea is you’re trying to direct growth to the areas of change.... We are trying to stretch reality by saying this is an area of change.”

Because the application was shot down, Emmaus won’t be able to file any new rezoning application for a year. That's a concern for church president Neil Neudorff, who told councilmembers that Emmaus may not survive that long.

Espinoza acknowledged those concerns in his closing comment and offered a helping hand in trying to find the right solution. “I want to work with you,” Espinoza told Neudorff. “I don’t harbor any of the animus that you may feel that’s out there, and as the representative of that district, I can legislatively rezone this, and I would be happy to do that. So if this doesn’t pass, I will be the first to say let's talk about how to make something work.”

At-large councilmember Robin Kniech said the half-acre lot that Emmaus wanted to re-zone was not a drastic change, especially when every direction is commercial and the site is about the size of a single home in Douglas County. Kniech sees change as a necessity for an area to thrive, and pointed out Union Station’s evolution into a social hub.

“If you don’t allow a historic property to evolve, you can kill it,” said Kniech. “For the train station to live on, we had to allow it to evolve. I have seen so many churches lost in Denver.... A changing circumstance your side didn’t mention is declining church membership. That is a justifying circumstance in this city. If we don’t allow some adaptation around these churches, they will die. They are dying.”

She praised Emmaus for bringing council such a detailed plan of what it wanted to do with the lot, a plan that included a signed resolution on the building’s size and a letter of intent from Lutheran Hospital. “They have shared more with us than any other applicant, and these are the kinds of things I have heard my colleagues ask for week after week after week," Kniech said, "so now we have an applicant sharing with us. And for me, then, the only premise to vote against this is that the church is lying to us.... It stretches my credulity to believe that a church would lie in that way." 

She challenged the council to choose between accepting generalized land-use plans and appreciating it when they are told about project details.

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As for Espinoza’s promise of collaborative efforts, “I don’t have any confidence in that,” Kniech said.

Replied Espinoza: “Thanks for the vote of no confidence.” The contentious back-and-forth that has enveloped the West Highland neighborhood for the past few years spilled over into council chambers.

During his comments, District 3 Councilmember Paul Lopez called out both fellow councilmembers and audience members on the “snickering” and “hair-pulling,” saying he'd been to some bad public hearings, but this was one of the worst. “I’m pretty conflicted, and I’m very turned off,” said Lopez, who ultimately voted for the application.

Councilmembers Paul Kashman, Jolon Clark and Wayne New joined Espinoza in voting against the rezoning request.

Opponents had complained that the Emmaus project was too large, that it would bring more traffic to the area, that the church did not reach out or listen to the neighborhood, that the development did not fit in with the residential neighborhood, and that there was no need for more doctors or medical facilities in the area.

But Emmaus supporters, some of whom were longtime members of the church, welcomed the idea of a medical facility and urged council’s approval so that the church could stay afloat. But as Lopez pointed out, very few Emmaus supporters actually live in West Highland.

Despite the outcome, as the meeting ended, Neudorff was smiling and shaking hands with Emmaus supportors and already talking with Espinoza about working together toward a solution. He was “disappointed but excited," Neudorff said. "There’s a beautiful plan ahead for that site — we just don’t know what it is yet. We look forward to working together and making something happen."


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