Denver Development and Controversial Impact of "Slot Houses"

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The topic of development in Denver raises passions among plenty of locals — particularly those who don't like the looks of many new buildings being erected across the Mile High City.

Take the comment of one reader, who likened the structures to 1950s prison complexes.

Such reactions are of particular interest to CU Denver's Christine Franck. The director of the Center for Advanced Research and Traditional Architecture, shorthanded as CARTA, Franck moved to the Denver area three years ago and was soon fascinated by the local construction boom, as well as the alterations in neighborhoods that have resulted from the juxtaposition of old-school architecture and newer designs.

With that in mind, CARTA has set out to "document and analyze all new residential construction in the City of Denver from the beginning of 2014." And the first fruit of its labors — a post titled "Documenting Change in Denver" — provides fascinating insights about shifts throughout the city as a whole, as well as one specific area: the West Colfax neighborhood, supplemented by a small portion of the Sloan’s Lake neighborhood south of West 20th Avenue.

Eighteen months ago or so, Franck notes, "My partner, an architect, said, 'You're not going to believe the development taking place in West Colfax.' So I went there, and I remember standing on the sidewalk in tears. It was so sad to see what was happening to the public realm" as a result of these new slot houses — "two rows of townhouses that are turned and faced inward toward each other," she explains.

For Franck, however, it wasn't enough simply to observe what was taking place. "I wanted to figure out why," she stresses.

CARTA's analysis jumped off from Blueprint Denver, a 2002 supplement to the city's comprehensive development plan first issued two years earlier. As noted in CARTA's post, Blueprint Denver called for “a balanced, multi-modal transportation system, land use that accommodates future growth, and open space throughout the city,” and designated sections as either "Areas of Change” or “Areas of Stability."

By 2010, the city had adopted form-based zoning codes, defined 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.” CARTA believes these codes have had a major impact on the development that's followed, along with factors such as a "pent-up demand for housing newcomers, increasing land values, buyer expectations of larger homes for smaller households, density as a goal, Colorado’s construction-defects law’s chilling impact on condominium construction, projects so large they require institutional financing, nationally based architects building similar products in different markets" and more.

This graphic illustrates the breakdown in building type since the beginning of 2014. Note that in the chart on the far left, the sum of buildings with mixed use or multiple units permitted by the city is roughly equivalent to the number of one-family dwellings.

In addition to this wide-angle view, CARTA looked closely at West Colfax/Sloan's Lake for reasons Franck sees as "practical. We drilled down there to define one area to study, but also because we see so much going on in that designated area of change."

Much of West Colfax was zoned for up to five stories of development, Franck points out, and prior to the latest building bonanza, "one could fairly argue that the neighborhood was underdeveloped, underutilized."

Not now — and the reason has a lot to do with the historical character of West Colfax.

"A majority of the development is happening in the north part of the neighborhood on blocks that are square," she says. "Most blocks in Denver are rectangular — longer north to south — because that's a practical way to divide up land, with alleys in the middle and houses facing the streets. But there are a few parts of Denver, including the neighborhood to the east of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, that are square. They were actually developed so that the center of the blocks could be used for parking carriages and stabling horses."

To make the most of such blocks, architects have been putting up slot houses. But while these designs maximize the land use by taking advantage of the blocks' depth, they have consequences that go beyond aesthetics.

"These slot houses really change the way the buildings interact with the public realm," Franck believes. "Many new buildings don't have entrances that face the street, and many of them take up the entire ground floor of the building with garages. Now, single family homes on a plot of land, with front porches and front steps and a living room facing the street, give off light at night and allow people walking by to see activity; maybe someone on the porch, maybe the light from the dining room. And that makes people on the street feel safer even as it lets people in the house better see what's going on in the neighborhood."

In contrast, designs that put the garage on the first floor and elevate active living levels to upper floors "effectively kill the relationship between the public and private realm," Franck argues. "And you exacerbate that by putting the doors in a slot and turning the buildings so that the wall of one of them faces the wall of another one."

In Franck's view, such observations shouldn't be seen as an attack on development in general.

"I think developers get a bad name, but I don't think they're bad people," she emphasizes. "They're taking the risk to provide this housing that people need. And I wouldn't place the blame at the feet of architects, either. When you're designing a new building, you've got the interests of clients, of developers, and you also have to work with codes, your budget, your schedule. It's one of the most complex things you can do."

Nonetheless, Franck feels that "right now, everyone is doing the same thing. There's very little difference between some of these projects. Now, that's the nature of the development industry itself, which is risk-averse. Someone builds the first slot house and it sells, so the team does the same thing again and again and again. But architects need to help developers understand that not maximizing every developmental inch of a property can actually lead to a better quality of design, a better quality of space. I think they can make developers see that quality can actually sell for more and quantity isn't the only measure. And in that way, architects will be able to do a better job of designing buildings that are worthy of our city."

Click to read "Documenting Change in Denver" in its entirety.

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