Denver Development

Denver City Council Chipping Away at Old Zoning Code Remnants

Denver is finally chipping away at remnants of an obsolete zoning code.
Denver is finally chipping away at remnants of an obsolete zoning code. Larry Johnson at Flickr
With over 20 percent of Denver still zoned under an obsolete code, Denver City Council just took a major step toward the future.

"This is something that we heard from our constituents loud and clear, and we made it a priority in the interest of equity," council president Stacie Gilmore said during the April 5 Denver City Council meeting, right before the council voted unanimously to apply increases in allowed household size recently approved for the rest of Denver to areas under the old code, which dates back to the 1950s.

"Very few households may make use of it, but for those who do it, it may be very important for them," said Councilwoman Robin Kniech.

The initial household size increase came as part of a group-living zoning amendment that council passed 11 to 2 in February. Aside from increasing the number of unrelated adults allowed in a single-family home from two to five, the amendment also made it easier to establish residential-care facilities — such as homeless shelters, halfway houses and sober living homes — throughout Denver. Except, of course, those parts of Denver still zoned under the old code, commonly referred to as the former Chapter 59 zoning code.

After the measure's passage, city planners vowed to move ahead with the long-overdue work of bringing all of Denver under the current zoning code, adopted in 2010.

"The [2010] code is a hybrid, form-based code that focuses primarily on the look and feel of development and the way it interacts with the pedestrian realm, and the way it creates a city fabric that’s appropriate for a corridor or neighborhood," Andrew Webb, the senior city planner who led the group-living zoning amendment project,  told Westword.

That new code applied to most of Denver. But master planned developments, such as Green Valley Ranch and Lowry, were left out of the 2010 update, since they didn't fit neatly into a revised code that focused on broader zoned districts. Those areas accounted for over one-fifth of Denver.

Retired city officials who worked on the 2010 zoning code say that they expected Denver City Council to follow a programmatic approach to rezoning the land retained under Chapter 59. But that never took place.

The zoning disparity only came into the spotlight in 2020, when opponents of the group-living zoning code overhaul project pointed out that a fifth of the city still under the old code wouldn't be subject to the changes being suggested by planners.

Members of the city council vocalized some of their objections, particularly the worry that the city's disjointed zoning policies could create equity concerns. Gilmore, for example, pointed out that in her far northeast Denver district, Green Valley Ranch wouldn't be affected by the proposed changes, while much of neighboring Montbello would be.

In order to pass the group-living zoning amendment proposal, which had been in the works for three years, city planners promised to work on updating Chapter 59 areas later. To do so, Webb and his team first focused on applying the household size increases to spots still zoned under the old code; that came to pass April 5. They plan to offer additional proposals to bring all of Denver under the 2010 zoning code — which now includes the group-living amendment — in the near future.

Alex Foster, a spokesperson for the Department of Community Planning and Development, says that planners are working out this process, but there are no specifics to report at this point.

But there's a possibility that all efforts to update group-living zoning changes across Denver could become moot: Safe and Sound Denver, a group that formed in opposition to the original amendment, has gotten the green light from the Denver Clerk and Recorder to collect signatures for a November 2021 initiative that would repeal the changes.

"Our goal is to offer all Denverites a voice and a choice about what happens in their neighborhoods," says Florence Sebern, one of the people leading the signature-gathering efforts.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.

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