Denver Dabbles in Affordable Housing-Focused Zoning, Thanks to...?

The mayor and city council president are at odds over who should be thanked for affordable housing-focused zoning in Denver.
The mayor and city council president are at odds over who should be thanked for affordable housing-focused zoning in Denver.

When any sort of housing squabble erupts in Denver, advocates like to point fingers at city officials for not trying hard enough to curb displacement. So it should come as no surprise that two leaders who often take the brunt of such complaints — Mayor Michael Hancock and Denver City Council president Albus Brooks, whose district encompasses such hotbeds of gentrification as Globeville, Elyria-Swansea and Five Points — are at odds over who is behind new zoning changes designed to create more affordable housing in RiNo.

According to a statement on the city's website announcing the changes, it is Mayor Michael B. Hancock's administration that is proposing zoning changes that would twist developers' arms into creating more affordable housing and a more pedestrian-friendly area near 38th Street and the Blake Street RTD Station: "If approved at City Council on February 12, it would be the first time the Denver Zoning Code has included incentives focused solely on affordability."

“This is what collaboration looks like, and we’re going to pull on every lever we can to offer more affordable options to our people,” Hancock says in a statement on the site. “We brought neighbors and developers to the table and came up with an innovative way to support this community in a way that reflects Denver’s values.”

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But this isn't the mayor's initiative, according to Brooks. "I'm sponsoring this [in city council], not the mayor," he says. "The mayor doesn't touch zoning issues."

The changes, which city council is voting on tonight, February 12, would require that developers that want to build above a certain height in the area pay five times the city's affordable-housing fee per square foot, build a certain number of affordable-housing units, or implement in any commercial development services that go toward the community, such as daycare or space for artists.

"For any project that is 50 percent or more residential, apartment builders must provide affordable units," explains Alexandra Foster, communications program manager at Community Planning and Development. "Projects that are 50 percent or more commercial can exercise the additional options of paying fees and including community-serving uses."

Residential projects like apartment buildings would have unique affordable-housing requirements: anywhere between 8 percent and 15 percent of the total units, Brooks says.

The changes also include overlays, which supplement zoning-code requirements, that focus on design that discourages the kind of fugly apartment buildings that are often accused of not blending in with their neighborhoods and creating foot-traffic impediments.

It is Brooks's signature on a November 17 note to Brad Buchanan, executive director of Community Planning and Development, asking that the department create the legislative text establishing the incentive and design overlays. "The proposed overlays are the result of a robust 12-month process with CPD Staff, property owners and the public," Brooks wrote.

The overlays add stronger teeth to the 38th and Blake Station Area Plan. Presented to city council in 2016, the plan recommended taller buildings to support transit-oriented development in the area and "building height transitions" to blend with the more residential areas, such as Curtis Park. The version that passed council mandated that taller buildings must include affordable housing.

Brooks says that other councilmembers have considered applying his overlays to their districts. "This is going to provide inclusivity in the city of Denver," he says.

Update: On Monday, February 12, Denver City Council passed the zoning changes.

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