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You Can't Go Home Again

After city councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt chastised developer Matthew Cort for razing her childhood home, he erected this sign in response.
Anthony Camera

The Hilltop neighborhood, which sits on a bluff east of Colorado Boulevard and north of Alameda Boulevard, was largely developed in the 1940s and '50s, and most of its homes are suburban-style ranch houses that could just as easily have been built in Lakewood or Littleton. For years, Hilltop was the destination of choice for Jewish families that had done well after World War II and wanted to leave behind their traditional neighborhoods on the west side of town for a quiet bit of suburbia just a few stoplights away from central Denver.

Then everything changed. A real estate boom swept through in the 1990s. Empty lots were suddenly a hot commodity, and developers took advantage of zoning that allowed them to cram two homes into spaces that were originally designed for one -- a practice known as "lot-splitting." The new homes were usually narrow, and the fronts were dominated by garage doors, leading one neighborhood activist to tell the Denver City Council that it looked like the rear of every home was facing the sidewalk. Taking a walk down the street, she said, was "like being mooned."

Soon developers went one step further and began buying existing homes, tearing them down and splitting the lots. Demolition notices became a common site, and the roar of bulldozers rudely interrupted the cherished quiet. The transformation became the topic of conversation in Hilltop, and neighbors began meeting to figure out what to do next. "For us, the issue was neighborhood preservation," says John Sternberg, president of the Hilltop Heritage Association, which hired a land-use consultant and an attorney to help fashion a proposal that would prevent further lot-splitting.

The plan breezed through the city council this past July, surprising many developers who noted that this was the same city council that had claimed to be in favor of more densely packed, urban neighborhoods as an antidote to suburban sprawl. "I'm glad people want to have a $1 million house on a lot in central Denver instead of on a three- or four-acre lot in the foothills," says Don Tressler, a real estate broker who helped split several lots in Hilltop. "People in Denver want greater density," he continues, "in somebody else's neighborhood."

Tressler and his client, Matthew Cort, found out just how true this is when they got into a war of words with city councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt at a council meeting. Barnes-Gelt is the council's foremost advocate of new urbanism, a design philosophy calling for dense development along mass-transit lines, and she's known for making passionate arguments in favor of high-density development in central Denver -- but not in Hilltop.

Earlier this year, Cort had planned to split two lots in Hilltop and build four homes. Cort, who lives in the neighborhood, says he didn't want to put up another row of houses with garages facing the street. He arranged to buy a home at 5335 East Cedar Avenue, next to a lot he already owned, so he could build an alley and put the garages at the rear. "Our whole vision was to make an attractive project unlike what the other builders were doing," he says.

But the house he bought just happened to be Barnes-Gelt's childhood home. Although she hadn't lived there in years, the councilwoman was irate when she found out that Cort had demolished it. "That son of a bitch tore down my mother's house," she says. "He makes my stomach churn. He's the worst example of a greedy developer I've ever seen."

Barnes-Gelt gave an emotional speech to the council in July about the role Hilltop had played in Denver history. "In 1953 my parents built a house at 5335 East Cedar Avenue," she told her colleagues. "It was designed by an architect. It was all brick, it was professionally landscaped. It was one of the really elegant split-level homes on Cedar Avenue. My parents built that house because in 1953, when they were ready to move into a modern house, they couldn't buy a house in Belcaro or Crestmoor, because in those days, both of those neighborhoods had covenants against selling houses to Jews. Hilltop was developed largely by Jewish people like my parents, who felt it was important to have a neighborhood without covenants. My history and my family's history was in that house."

But while Barnes-Gelt is still mourning the loss of the house she grew up in, Cort says that trying to build on the lot has caused him nothing but trouble.

Barnes-Gelt's mother sold the home in 1981 to the family that eventually sold it to Cort. A local gynecologist, Cort was fairly new to the development business. In March, when he first heard discussion about a moratorium on lot-splitting, he raced to the city engineer's office and filled out paperwork to split the lots. He was then told to go to the city assessor's office to file another form. What he says he wasn't told was that notice also needed to be given to the city zoning office for final approval. Cort had paid $575,000 for the house, but his plan to develop the lot was now illegal.

"We went ahead and closed because we thought we had beat the moratorium," he says. "It was a dumpy house that hadn't been updated since the '50s. Anybody who bought the house would demolish it.

"Filing the application at the zoning office would have taken fifteen minutes," he adds. "We were not out to cheat or scam the city. None of this would have happened if we'd been given the correct information. The City of Denver has unjustly caused me significant harm."

Barnes-Gelt wasn't feeling particularly sympathetic, however, after Cort told his story to the city council. "To suggest that Dr. Cort is absorbing financial distress, when he knew at the time he demolished 5335 East Cedar that there was a moratorium in place, is nonsense," she said. "It is despicable that this neighborhood is being overrun by greedy developers. The very last thing we should be doing is protecting a developer's property rights."

Now Cort is contemplating legal action against Denver. He doesn't disguise his contempt for Barnes-Gelt. "To have her accuse me of trying to rape the neighborhood is nonsense."

Most of the homes in Hilltop are built on hundred-foot lots, and under the previous zoning, developers were allowed to squeeze two homes onto each one. The new zoning approved by city council calls for a minimum lot frontage of 75 feet for each home and a minimum lot size of 9,300 square feet.

Tressler wonders how the city can seriously promote denser construction in its upcoming land-use and transportation plan when it did just the opposite in Hilltop. "How are you going to tell other neighborhoods they should rezone for higher density when you let Hilltop make this decision?" he asks. "They've established a precedent where the neighborhood can decide the zoning. They gave the opponents of [density] a lot of ammunition."

Even if the city had allowed lot-splitting to continue in Hilltop, city planner Ellen Ittelson says it wouldn't have become a high-density neighborhood. "Hilltop is a lovely residential neighborhood, but not a candidate for high density," she says, adding that Denver doesn't want to force radical change on any of its established residential areas. "The land-use and transportation plan has never been intended to blanket density over the city."

Ironically, some of the same consultants hired by the Hilltop Heritage Association to push for the moratorium on lot-splitting are now working on the city's land-use and transportation plan. But they insist there is no contradiction between reducing density in Hilltop and encouraging density elsewhere. "Do you densify at the expense of existing neighborhoods that have over the years developed a lot of character and loyalty?" asks Lisa Purdy, an independent consultant who helped lobby for the Hilltop rezoning and is now working on the city's land-use plan.

"You don't just rip up a neighborhood that people enjoy simply because someone wants to put in more houses," adds Malcolm Murray, a local attorney who also worked on the Hilltop rezoning. "It's not appropriate to be insensitive to the neighbors who stuck it out through the years Denver was losing population, and there was a huge flight to the suburbs. A lot of people in Hilltop stayed in the city because they liked their neighborhood."

In a recent article in the Urban Design Forum newsletter, Purdy and Murray suggest that Denver explore new ways to protect its neighborhoods, including the creation of design standards to make sure new construction blends in with the old, and a new "conservation district" designation that would protect the character-defining elements of neighborhoods without the strict limits of a historic district. They say Denver can have it both ways, protecting its established neighborhoods and bringing in thousands of new residents to projects that are more compact and urban than what Denver has seen before.

"The pressure now is toward a more dense urban fabric," says Murray. "I think Denver should embrace that. It revitalizes the city. But we need to protect the neighborhoods that make Denver different. We have wonderful neighborhoods in this city. You don't just tear that apart."