Update: "Bastardized" Garden Court Buildings Temporarily Banned in Denver

Update: Earlier this month, Denver City Councilman Rafael Espinoza outlined a plan to place a one-year moratorium on the construction in Denver of certain so-called garden-court townhomes — variations on the much-reviled slot-house form in which two multi-unit buildings on a single lot could be separated by a gap of as little as fifteen feet.

See our previous coverage below.

At last night's city council meeting, the proposal, presented by Espinoza and fellow councilman Wayne New, was unanimously approved.

But only after some changes.

Specifically, an amendment by New will allow three pending applications to go forward.

Why? In part, New said, because the builders in question had been working with groups in the respective neighborhoods to modify plans in such a way as to alleviate, or at least ameliorate, major concerns.

If the bill is signed by Denver mayor Michael Hancock, as anticipated, city staffers will start enforcing the one-year moratorium by week's end.

In the meantime, a team is being assembled to look at slot-house regulations, which will take longer to address.

The anticipated time frame for identifying stakeholders, ferreting out potential loopholes before they're created and crafting a slot-house package for presentation to the council? The end of 2017.

In the meantime, Denver City Councilman Paul Kashmann took builders and developers to task for the proliferation of what Espinoza, in his previous interview with Westword, termed "bastardized" garden-court structures.

"I think we need to hold ourselves and our zoning community to a higher standard of conscience to build the city that we want," Kashmann said.

These comments provoked applause from some of the many speakers at the meeting who decried the proliferation of such buildings, which are seen by critics as destroying the character of older neighborhoods even as they increase density in ways that negatively impact traffic flow and more.

As for Espinoza, he took pains not to alienate developers.

Indeed, toward the end of his remarks, he encouraged builders to contact him to learn about "places in northwest Denver that could capture increased dwelling units" without further exacerbating the issues that he and others have with garden-court townhomes and slot houses.

He added that the moratorium will allow city staffers to create standards that will "capture the intent of the zoning code" even as it insures "that we aren't creating the same problems over and over again in neighborhood after neighborhood."

Look below to see a video of last night's council meeting. The discussion of the garden-court form gets under way just after the 2:11:00 mark. That's followed by our previous coverage.

Original post, 5:31 a.m. August 3: Slot houses, as they've been dubbed by CU Denver's Christine Franck, are among the most controversial, and most hated, building styles currently on view in the Denver metro area.

But there's another approach that raises the hackles of Denver City Councilman Rafael Espinoza: garden-court buildings, which are supposed to be built around a central open space — though many of those spaces are so slender that the structures are essentially slot houses by another name.

In a new city council bill that will be discussed at a committee hearing this morning (details below), Espinoza calls for a one-year moratorium on the construction of garden-court townhomes determined to be "bastardizations" of the council's original intent.

"It's not like you won't be able to build a garden court," says Espinoza, who assembled the proposal with the support of fellow councilman Wayne New. "It's just got to be something that has actually viable open space — not what we're seeing now."

Espinoza describes garden-court buildings like so: "We're familiar with those quads, those little fourplex developments that have a very large, grassy space in front and in between the buildings, and the units are organized around it. There's an actual yard among those U-shaped units."

Here's an example from a presentation that accompanied Espizona's bill:

Trouble is, the minimum amount of space allowable between garden-court buildings as dictated by Denver's code in districts zoned for row houses is a mere fifteen feet — only five feet more than for slot houses. This allows developers to shrink the size of the court in order to maximize every square inch of land — "and because the structures adjacent to this space can be 35 feet tall, it creates a canyon," Espinoza says. "It's not a slot canyon, but it's a very narrow one."

And there's more.

"The formal notion of a garden court is that it's surrounded by residences," he continues. "But the way these developers are doing it, they're putting the garage structure on the alley side to make it the third building enclosing the court. And when that happens, it's basically the same slot houses with an extra five feet and a garage behind it."

Another image from the bill presentation graphically illustrates Espinoza's point:

How did this happen? By 2010, five years before Espinoza was elected to the council, the City of Denver had adopted form-based zoning codes, defined by CU Denver's Center for Advanced Research and Traditional Architecture as “a land development regulation that fosters predictable built results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle for the code.”

The form-based codes aren't objectionable to Espinoza in and of themselves. However, he believes that Denver's decision to impose the codes citywide "in one fell swoop" rather than rolling them out incrementally created unintended consequences.

"I'm an architect by trade," Espinoza says. "So those of us who read the code went, 'Wait a minute. If you've got this small a parcel and you configured it this way, you can do this with it. Is that what you really want?' And the responses I got were like, 'Who would do that?'"

His answer: "Developers would. Somebody with the means would definitely do that. It gets you extra hundreds of dollars per square foot you wouldn't otherwise be able to get, and if you have that opportunity, you'll take it."

Here's another example of what Espinoza sees as a good use of the garden-court code....

...and a project that warped the council's intent:

According to Espinoza, officials have definitely been surprised by what the garden-court code has wrought.

"In the middle of the recession, people were thinking, 'We don't build like that,'" he says. "But they didn't realize what would happen when the tide turned — and it really turned. And suddenly, people were developing the bottom dollar and selling for the maximum and building as many square feet as they possibly could. That's the situation we find ourselves in."

Many longtime Denverites find these buildings to be fugly, making their proliferation that much more irritating. But in Espinoza's opinion, the aesthetics of such structures dominating entire blocks or standing side by side with more traditional residences with which they have nothing in common is hardly the only negative.

"The other forms allowed in row-house-zoned districts are duplexes and single-family homes that are oriented toward the street, and most of them are in areas of stability" as designated by the 2002 Blueprint Denver plan. "So we're taking stable neighborhoods and increasing the density two or three times — and in some cases eight-fold — and that creates parking issues and congestion. That's what happened in my area" — District 1, in northwest Denver — "but it's happening in other places, too. District 5, District 9, District 10: They're experiencing some of the same issues that my district has for years."

This isn't a short-term problem, either.

"Ask any of these developers and they'll tell you they're building thirty-year product," he says. "But in northwest Denver, we're losing a lot of fifty-, eighty-, one-hundred-year-old homes that have stood the test of time. So we're making things that are essentially disposable and replacing all the embodied energy of these historic homes in neighborhoods that we're chewing up in the process."

At a July 25 meeting, the Denver City Council voted 9-2 in favor of the garden-court bill on first reading before sending it to the Neighborhood & Planning Committee for further discussion. That conversation is slated to take place at 10:30 a.m. today in the third-floor council conference room (Room 391) at the City & County Building, and Espinoza is looking forward to it, since the session will allow him to explain the intricacies of a situation that somehow spiraled out of control. "Not everyone is a land-use expert," he acknowledges. If nothing sidetracks or delays it, the bill will get its first public hearing before the council as a whole on August 22.

Should the moratorium win approval, Espinoza says, staffers with Community Planning and Development will get to work figuring out workable solutions. In the meantime, he adds, developers who were planning to erect garden-court buildings will be told, "'You can sell the same number of square feet, but you're going to have to do it in a way that's more sensitive to the community around it. Or else you can sit on it and wait to see what CPD comes up with long-term.' Because you don't leave the water running when you're trying to fix a pipe."

Look below to see the garden-court moratorium bill.

Garden Court Moratorium Bill