Kent Olson is driving through his neighborhood with a notepad in one hand and the steering wheel in the other, and it's all he can do to keep on course as he surveys row after row of modest brick-and-frame homes. He checks the mirror, flicks his turn signal, slows at the curb.
"This is a scrape-off," he says, nodding toward a brand-new, two-story brown stucco house with large columns framing the front porch. "They have every right to do this, but it's out of character here. It just doesn't fit."
He flips through his notepad and hits the gas.
"Now I'll show you a pop top."
Olson is vice president of the Cory-Merrill neighborhood association. For the past three months he and his colleagues have attended meetings, compiled surveys, buried their noses in zoning codes and scanned block after block for signs of new construction. They're trying to prepare for what's coming: a wave of redevelopment sweeping through their part of Denver like a tsunami, scouring away everything in its path.
"Here's a 'For Sale' sign," Olson says. "That's four in the last month. It could be something as innocent as one family moving out and another moving in, but you never know. We have to be alert. We have to be vigilant. It could portend another scrape-off."
Cory-Merrill, tucked between University and Colorado boulevards just below Bonnie Brae, used to be a simple, unassuming neighborhood, Olson says. Middle-class couples bought two-bedroom homes, settled down, raised families and stayed well into retirement. Some houses were remodeled, others were sold, families came and went, but nothing much changed in Cory-Merrill.
"We're a real bargain to developers now," Olson says. "Everything around us has become too expensive or is built out. Wash Park. University Park East. Bonnie Brae. Belcaro. To developers, we're the only game in town as far as this area is concerned. In price and availability, we're a bargain."
Olson stops at a clapboard home on Milwaukee Street with boarded windows and a brochure box in front. He hops out and grabs one of the fliers. It announces the imminent arrival of a 3,450-square-foot home with four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a balcony porch, a study, a wet bar/butler's pantry and a guest suite. The price tag: $599,000.
"They've found us," Olson says. "It's Columbus discovering the New World."
Without getting too long-winded and technical -- and Olson and his neighbors have a way of doing just that -- here's the problem:
Developers, speculators and real-estate marketeers, fueled by Denver's red-hot housing market, are gobbling up smaller, older and cheaper homes, tearing them down (or scraping them off) and replacing them with "trophy houses" that are three times bigger, three times fancier and three times more expensive. In the process, they're blocking views, hiking property taxes and transforming diverse communities into cookie-cutter clones of the suburbs.
Since January, there have been ten scrape-offs and scrape-off construction projects in Cory-Merrill, Olson says. None match the neighborhood character.
"We're talking about the difference between a 1,000-square-foot house and a 5,000-square-foot house," he says. "You're getting beaucoup bedrooms, beaucoup bathrooms, and lots of glitz. They're trying to get the maximum square footage that they can get, and there's very little room left for trees, flowers and shrubs or anything else."
And it's legal.
The zoning in many of Denver's older neighborhoods, including Cory-Merrill, allows developers to build structures much larger than the one-story cottages and bungalows now lining the streets. In some areas the zoning hasn't changed in forty years, city officials say, but larger houses weren't built back then because homebuyers, who were often ex-GIs, wanted more affordable starter homes.
"These neighborhoods were built when lifestyles were completely different," says Kent Strapko, Denver's zoning administrator. "If you were a kid, you didn't have your own room, the family didn't have a den, and only one garage was adequate. Developers built single-story ranch houses with basements because that's what the market demanded."
Today's homebuyers want big bangs for their big bucks. They want 4,000 square feet, three-car garages and as many extras as developers can pile on. And as long as developers follow building and zoning codes, they're free to keep piling it on, even if their two-story stucco trophy houses are bigger, fancier and uglier than anything else on the block.
City Hall decided long ago that it did not want to review the design of every house in Denver. So unless a neighborhood has historic designation or special zoning, developers and homeowners are free to decide whether they want one or two stories, a cottage or a bungalow, brick or wood.
"If you meet the zoning and building guidelines, you have every right to go into Cory-Merrill and build a two-story house that does not match the other houses," Strapko says. "People have the right, if they meet the codes, to do certain things without interference."
Olson and his neighbors understand that. They don't like it, but they know there's not much they can do about it short of a citywide zoning overhaul (which some community leaders are calling for). What they don't understand is this: Why does the city consistently bend the rules so that these big stucco trophy homes can be built even bigger?
When developers want to build taller, wider, bulkier and closer to the street than neighboring houses, they must receive variances from Strapko or the city's five-member Board of Adjustment. Although Strapko's zoning department has narrower authority to grant such exceptions, the board, which is appointed by the mayor, has wider latitude. When evaluating variance requests, both are supposed to consider such conditions as impact on surrounding homes, the effect on the neighborhood's "essential character" and the hardship a builder would face if an exemption is denied.
But with the Board of Adjustment, Olson contends, denials aren't an issue. Each year the board grants far more variances than it denies. Last year, for example, it granted about 200 variances, denying or dismissing about fifty. And Strapko's record isn't much better; he approves between 50 and 75 percent of the approximately 200 variance requests he reviews each year.
Olson thinks that's excessive. "They're giving them out when there aren't extraordinary circumstances," he says. "What should be an exception has become the rule."
But Strapko and Janice Tilden, director of the Board of Adjustment, insist the raw numbers don't tell the whole story. Of the variances granted by the board last year, more than half involved such minor projects as adding a second backyard shed or raising an alley wall by a foot, Tilden says. And with controversial cases, such as scrape-offs, the variances were granted for good reasons: They were supported by neighbors; they made the nearby houses look better; they did not drastically affect the neighbors; there was no way around them.
"We have many cases where only a part of the house is in violation," she says. "Most will generally meet code, but they'll do something like stick up in one corner by about three feet. And that's just not the same as having massive violations that really alter the character of a neighborhood."
Strapko agrees. Although most neighbors don't realize it, he says, he gives them the benefit of the doubt when evaluating variances. If a builder cannot convince neighbors of the need for an exemption, Strapko sends the builder back to the drawing board. "People come in here all the time with permits that don't meet the requirements," he says. "Because of the enormous market pressure, many of them will press the limits or beyond. But when they're called on it, many will do just about anything they can to avoid going into a public hearing. They'll change their plans rather than go to the Board of Adjustment. I know a lot of contractors who do that. They don't want input from [the neighbors] around them."
And since most of the scrape-offs are built according to code, they don't require exemptions, Tilden adds. Last year the board considered only ten scrape-off variances. Four were approved, five were dismissed and one was denied. So far this year, there have been six requests; two were granted, two are pending, one was withdrawn and one was denied.
"I wouldn't say that's a world-shaking number," Tilden says. "We hear 400 cases on average every year. When you take the overall number into consideration, the [scrape-off] statistic probably doesn't mean much."
What neighbors need to understand, Tilden and Strapko say, is this: A variance by itself rarely transforms the look and feel of a neighborhood like Cory-Merrill.
"A lot of the changes in neighborhoods are not specifically caused by the Board of Adjustment," Tilden says. "There's just a lot of building going on in the city in general. And a lot of that building, however strange and large it might seem, is totally legal."
Olson says he understands all he needs to, and what he understands is this: When it comes to scrape-offs, one variance is one too many. With scrape-offs, developers start with a clean slate. They build from the ground up. They know the city's guidelines. They know the property's constraints. They should be able to configure their blueprints to handle any problems. They shouldn't need to bend any rules. Just because they want to build bigger and make more money doesn't mean the city should allow them to do it. Especially if it helps erode neighborhood character.
"It's bad enough to have a monstrosity on the block," Olson says. "Why go the extra mile and rub salt in the wound and grant them more than they need?"
But he already knows the answer. Developers are out to make as much profit as possible. And that means pushing the building envelope any way they can.
Strapko admits he has seen it happen. Some builders design variances into their plans on purpose, expecting him to rubber-stamp them. Others try to slip infractions by zoning officers already buried in a pile of permits that has grown 150 percent in three years. And some developers simply build houses that break the guidelines first, then ask permission later.
"I do have problems with certain developers," Strapko says. "They'll fudge things to get the maximum that they can. They'll do things they know they can't do. Some are honest mistakes, but others, especially with field modifications, you can tell."
You could tell in Cory-Merrill earlier this year. Builder Greg Weaver bought a smaller house at 1161 South Clayton Street, scraped it off and designed a new house taller than the immediate neighbors' that also intruded into the setback. Explaining that he needed to preserve an old tree in the back that added to the neighborhood's character, Weaver asked permission from his neighbors and from Strapko, and he got it.
But once construction started, he built the house even taller and farther into the setback than the city had allowed. And he didn't tell the authorities, his neighbors or the neighborhood association.
The tree's root system was more extensive than first thought, he later explained, and so he had to work around it. "Our intention was not to cause a hardship to either of the neighbors," Weaver wrote in a memo to the city. "Our only intention was to save the tree." And since the neighbors and the city had said that was okay the first time, he thought he could go ahead and build without seeking another variance.
He was wrong.
Sean McGuire, who lives three blocks from Weaver, happened to walk his dog past the Clayton Street construction zone and noticed the violations. McGuire, who knew about zoning codes because he wanted to add on to his own house, measured Weaver's project and blew the whistle. And it took considerable whistling before the city reacted, he says.
McGuire and the neighborhood association made repeated complaints to zoning authorities, the mayor and Denver City Council member Susan Casey. McGuire even attended Board of Adjustment hearings to protest personally. Ultimately, Weaver was denied a second variance and forced to tear down part of his house in order to meet codes.
For McGuire and his neighbors, that case was a wake-up call. "If people can turn in plans, get them approved and then change them without notifying anyone, that's pretty disturbing," says Wally Weston, the neighborhood association's treasurer.
Even more disturbing, Weston adds, is that it might happen again. One family on St. Paul Street got permission to make minor improvements to the front of their house, such as replacing the windows and a door. Instead, they launched a major renovation, not only of the front, but of the back, as well. And they didn't tell authorities or the neighborhood association. Once again, the project was stopped only after the association complained.
But sometimes the association doesn't know to complain until it's too late. Although builders are supposed to notify both neighbors and neighborhood associations when they request a variance, they don't always do it. Builders are even supposed to sign notarized certificates swearing that they made those notifications, but they often don't do that, either. And so neighbors and neighborhood associations frequently don't know about variances until it's too late.
Strapko's office was asked to review at least seven variances in Cory-Merrill over the past year. The association was not told about any of them.
"If we're not notified, we can't contribute anything," says Olson, who adds that he does receive notices from the Board of Adjustment. "Unless the city hears the other side of the coin, they're not going to have all the information to make a balanced decision. Unless we're notified, we can't get involved in due process."
When granting variances for scrape-offs, pop tops or anything else, Strapko and the Board of Adjustment are supposed to respect the "essential character" of a neighborhood. Although the phrase is intentionally ambiguous, a board brochure says a variance should not be granted if it allows "an oversized two-story home in an area of small one-story homes."
But that's precisely what's happening, Olson says.
"All you have to is drive around," he adds. "And if you do, you'll see houses stick out like sore thumbs."
And once one developer gets a variance, another developer will use that as a precedent to request another one, Olson says. Then another one. Then another one. Until Cory-Merrill looks like Cherry Creek North.
"It's a cancer that gradually intrudes into the corpus of the whole neighborhood," Olson says. "Once they've got a precedent, it's 'Katie, bar the door.' It's a classic case of the camel's nose. If you let the camel's nose into the tent, before long you've got the entire camel."
Olson, a self-described "retired old fart," has lived in Cory-Merrill for 28 years. He knows most of his neighbors. They know him. When he needs a tool, he knocks on their doors. When the Rockies win a ball game, he chats about it over the fence.
"It's great to have stability and continuity," he says. "You've got people looking out for you. When I lost my mom a few weeks back, the support was great."
But with every scrape-off, resale and wealthy newcomer, he sees that sense of neighborhood commitment diminishing.
"You have speculation buyers coming in for profit only. You have people living in sterile atmospheres behind walled fortresses. You don't see them sinking roots here," Olson says. "And what have you lost? A sense of community. And a sense of community is more important now than ever. People need a refuge from the hurly-burly workaday world."
McGuire puts it this way: "If people want to build houses bigger than [Cory-Merrill's zoning], that's why God invented the suburbs."
But from the city's perspective, it's not that simple. Character means different things to different people, say Strapko and Tilden. Although Olson might see a new stucco home as a bleak example of "Soviet modern architecture" and "5,000 square feet of vanilla cardboard stuff," others in Cory-Merrill might see it as an improvement that raises property values.
"I understand what neighbors are saying about character, but the ordinances do not control a neighborhood's expectation of what that character should be," Strapko says. "People are looking out their windows at the houses on the block, seeing what's there now and seeing that as neighborhood character. But the character of the neighborhood from my perspective is what can be built there legally. It's frustrating to tell people, 'I know you don't like it, and I agree with you, but I can't prevent it.' I see where they're coming from. Developers are going into popular and desirable neighborhoods and exploiting them for profit. The people who live there want to retain what makes the area desirable. But if it doesn't violate the ordinances, no one can say anything about it."
But Olson and his neighbors still have plenty to say. While other nearby neighborhoods, such as Washington Park and Bonnie Brae, are fighting scrape-offs and pop tops by modifying zoning or establishing historic districts, Cory-Merrill is taking a more traditional approach -- inviting developers to association meetings, distributing information packets about variances, bird-dogging new construction, attending zoning hearings and studying codes.
It's not that they oppose every new construction project. And it's not that they want to scare away newcomers. They simply want to protect the sleepy charm and affordability that make Cory-Merrill what it is.
"We're not trying to be an aesthetic gestapo," Olson says. "We're not in a time warp, we're not stodgy, we're not against big houses per se, and we're not getting into smaller issues. We are open to the development of new housing. But there is a place for high-density and multi-use. It should not be allowed to invade every neighborhood."
Olson stops his car in front of a small brick house on Elizabeth Street that's slated to become another scrape-off. Once again, the owner wants to build bigger than Cory-Merrill's zoning allows. "This area is undergoing redevelopment," the owner said in a building notice. "My project is in keeping with this redevelopment trend."
"To which I say, 'Hogwash,'" Olson grumbles. "There is no redevelopment on this block. Or even the next block. That is just a total misstatement."
This house will be a test case for the neighborhood association, Olson says. And if the city grants another variance and allows a monster home to become even more monstrous, they'll move on to the next scrape-off. And the next one. And the next one.
"What else are we to do?" he says. "Roll over? Give up? We have to make our presence felt. One thing is for certain. If you sit back and allow the rape to go on, there is no hope. We want them to know we're here and we're organized, and hopefully the word will get around. We're watching."
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