A Cure for the Common Code

Tonight is all about public process, with two major city-policy meetings both running from 6 to 8:30 p.m. So you'll have to decide if you're more interested in revamping the zoning code or choosing between light rail and streetcars for north Downing Street. (Or none of the above.)

If you pick zoning, set for Johnson & Wales University Event Center at 7150 Montview, be prepared for a sleeper — and we don't mean a sleeper hit like the original Pirates of the Caribbean. We got a preview of the presentation last week, and there's not much action on the six-item agenda. Community Planning and Development Director Peter Park is a great meta thinker, but he's not always great at dumbing them down. A quick guide to getting you through this important-though-dull meeting.

1. Form-based zoning: No, this is not like the force -- though city planner Katherine Cornwell offered a funny variation on the Star Wars opener when she first introduced the concept of Main Street Zoning, the new guidelines designed to help neighborhoods create, well, main streets ("Main Street, U.S.A.," September 8, 2005). Main Street was the first new Denver zoning proposal to use the idea of the "form," which tells developers and homeowners what type of development the city would like in that particular area. It addresses issues such as height and mass and how far the building can be set back from the street, how much of the lot it should consume, where parking can be positioned, etc. With these regulations, developers can create a blank box model that their architects design around, since "form" doesn't address issues of style (such as whether the building will be Victorian or Craftsman or modern). By using form-based zoning, the city creates a predictable environment that simplifies the process for both builders and neighbors. Under current zoning, most things are based on a floor-area ratio, which means that a developer can take a parcel of land that is zoned for a floor-area ratio of 4 and do either a one-story building that takes up all the land and goes four floors high, or use half the land and go up eight floors, or use an eighth of the land and rise up to 32 floors. Under this system, someone living next has no idea what kind of neighbor they're going to get. Form-based zoning (there's a good definition here) is much like dealing with children: Telling them what you do want in advance is typically more effective than telling them what you don't want only after they've done it.

2. Currently, Denver has over 1,000 individual zoning types, whereas most cities have only fifty to sixty. Every time a developer or homeowner gets an exemption to a zoning code, it essentially creates a new zoning type that someone else could use. As a result, the zoning code is the size of a metro Denver phonebook.

3. This zoning code revamping has gone on forever, and it will continue to go on forever. This is just the "problems" phase, not the solutions phase. That doesn't start until next year.

4. The whole thing will make much more sense if you look at the handouts before going to the meeting.

If you pick the light rail vs. streetcar meeting, held at the Kingdom of Glory Christian Center at 2485 Welton Street, expect more contention and debate, less zoning-speak. RTD and the city are trying to decide whether to extend the existing light-rail line from 30th Avenue and Downing north to the proposed 40/40 interchange, or make that segment streetcar-only and then convert the light-rail line along Welton Street to streetcar (see "A Streetcar Named Desire," July 20). Right now, this is the only scheduled meeting on the topic, and the outcome will have a huge impact on the Curtis Park, Five Points, Cole and Whittier neighborhoods. Plus, there should be good snacks, so you can skip dinner and save a few bucks. But it will help if you prepare in advance by doing your homework here. -- Amy Haimerl

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun