Over the last decade, dozens of small brick bungalows in the Cherry Creek North neighborhood have been torn down to make way for expensive townhomes with faux European facades, and residents have gotten used to seeing entire blocks transformed every few weeks. While some regret the changes, everyone agrees that the pedestrian-friendly feel of the area is what's brought it so much interest. Most homes are within walking distance of any number of shops and restaurants; for people tired of suburban traffic, being able to ditch their cars is a joy.
"Many of us love strolling," says Sue Edelstein, a Cherry Creek real estate broker who also lives in the area. "It's a special lifestyle within the big city."
But neighborhood activists are alarmed by a recent trend in townhome design: Although Cherry Creek has alleys behind every row of houses, like most Denver neighborhoods, many of the newest developments are ignoring the alley access and instead placing their garages up front. This has given some blocks -- in what's often described as an "urban village" -- a decidedly suburban appearance.
"When they build garages and driveways, it takes away from the pedestrian feel that makes the neighborhood special," says Bill Spence, president of the Cherry Creek North Neighborhood Association. "We want the garages off the alley to preserve our streetscape."
Developers are trying to squeeze in as much square footage as possible in the new projects, Spence adds, and they do that by building out to the rear of the lot. "If they can get a garage in front, then they can push the back wall of the townhome closer to the alley," he says. "They can cover a very large amount of the whole lot. It's perfectly legal."
Edelstein observes that the trend is related to a change in floor plans. "The traditional way townhomes have been built in Cherry Creek is long and narrow units with a garage in the back," she says. "The developers have been searching for other shapes."
Several of the newest projects feature four units built around a courtyard. That means the front units have no direct alley access, and architects simply attached the garage for those homes to the front of the buildings.
Veteran Denver developer Eddie Miller has built several Cherry Creek units with driveways off the street; those units are more marketable than the typical row houses, he claims. "It's more like a single-family home," he says. "If you live in the back, you come in through the garage, and if you live in the front, you come in through the garage. On the inside of the house, you can have bigger rooms. You have more design options."
The neighborhood has always had some homes with driveways leading to the street, and Miller argues that this makes the area look more interesting. "When you don't allow garages, it makes each unit look the same. They're what we call 'side-by-sides.' Garages give them less of a row-house aspect."
Still, last fall Spence's group became concerned enough about the changes to ask the Denver City Council to pass an ordinance that would make construction of new driveways -- known as "curb cuts" -- subject to review by the planning department. The proposal failed after several councilmembers noted that many other neighborhoods with the same zoning didn't object to the construction of driveways; if the zoning were changed for Cherry Creek, it would have to be changed all over the city. And because some Denver neighborhoods still have unpaved alleys -- which means some homeowners prefer a street-side garage -- the council was uncomfortable with changing the zoning all over the city.
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Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt thinks the council made a mistake. "This is a complete violation of good urban design," she says. "It's disgusting. If you make too many curb cuts, it's threatening to the street trees and to pedestrians."
Spence agrees, adding that many residents also regret the loss of parking on the street, since they believe parked cars help slow moving vehicles by narrowing the traffic lane. And so his group is now pursuing a new strategy, trying to get guidelines that would prevent more driveways in the area included in the land-use and transportation plan that the city is now creating to direct future development in Denver neighborhoods. This tactic avoids the issue of citywide zoning, since those guidelines would apply only to Cherry Creek. "People really want to preserve the pedestrian feel of the neighborhood," Spence says.
But Miller argues that any push to ban driveways interferes with the property rights of lot owners. "If you bought a lot, shouldn't you have a right to do what you want to do?" he asks. "To say you shouldn't allow garages is wrong."