On November 13, Denver Community Planning and Development hosted a community meeting that could have been mistaken for a social experiment in provoking neighborhood squabbles. The department packed more than 130 residents of six older neighborhoods into a high school gym, put up big posters showing how their neighborhoods could look in ten or twenty years, and asked them what they thought.
As it turns out, people are really invested in the small stuff when it's in their backyards (whether they want it to be there or not). But city planners hope that between neighbors trying to wrap their heads around new bus lanes, those worried about the "invasive" potential of so-called accessory dwelling units, and even the handful who raised their voices in concerns over proposed building heights, they'll be able to come up with a plan that reflects the community's vision for the future of neighborhoods.
The open house moved the city a step closer to finalizing the draft of the East Central Area Plan, one of nineteen area plans (all named for their general location within the city) that Denver wants to create in the next fifteen years. The guiding impetus for all of the plans is called the Neighborhood Planning Initiative, which kicked off in early 2017. It's now rolling into its second phase, wrapping up the first three priority plans and beginning to tackle the next three.
According to Caryn Champine, Director of Planning Services, Denver has a "longstanding history with planning," with formal visions for neighborhoods beginning to emerge in the late 1970s and early ’80s. But they were organized sporadically, on different geographic scales, and without a consistent format and content. Before 2017, only 20 percent of the city had a recent plan, created after the first version of Blueprint Denver in 2002. At the same time, the city was rapidly changing: It had gained over 100,000 additional residents since 2010, become whiter compared to the height of its diversity in the mid-2000s, and become denser than it had been since the 1950s.
Planners wanted to cover every square inch with a plan, but to do so neighborhood by neighborhood would take the entire 21st century, Neighborhood Planning Supervisor Courtland Hyser says. The Neighborhood Planning Initiative is supposed to speed up the process by grouping Denver's 78 neighborhoods together in chunks of up to six. The initiative lays the planning out in phases, prioritizing the clusters that are likely to experience the most change and have the least updated planning infrastructure in place as guidance.
Area plans are intended to hyper-localize the citywide policies and visions that are outlined in Blueprint Denver, a document that guides land use and transportation with social equity in mind, and the Comprehensive Plan 2040, a set of broad goals for the city. "It's an important process for the community to express," Champine says. "They get together, get to know their neighbors, and they put forth this expression of what the citywide goals means in their area and what's most important to them."
A team of city planners leads each area plan. Denver City Council members recommend stakeholders — usually Registered Neighborhood Organization leaders, business and nonprofit leaders, or occasionally a representative of a particular need to a community (such as transit or schools), if applicable — to be a part of a steering committee, which meets on a monthly basis. Over the course of 18 to 24 months, the steering committee develops a vision for the area.
The result is a thick document (see examples here and here) that details the current makeup of the area and specific future goals in several categories: land use and built form, the economy, mobility, and quality of life infrastructure. It also breaks the visioning down neighborhood by neighborhood. The "Land Use and Built Form" section of the East Central Area Plan, for example, maps the area by current neighborhood contexts (looking at character, density, purpose, and type of buildings and environments on every block) and "opportunity areas" where stakeholders think historic places could be preserved, infrastructure could be improved or new local businesses could be encouraged.
Then it gets down to the specific policy recommendations; for example, "Allow taller buildings close to Downtown and along major transit corridors when significant community benefits [such as parks, affordable housing or preservation of buildings key to the character of the area] are provided" or "Encourage renovations and additions instead of demolition in residential areas."
The planning process has to balance the needs of existing residents and preparing for increased growth and density. That balance hardly makes everyone happy. While some proposals (like planting more trees) tend to be uncontroversial, others (like increasing maximum building heights) can stir up clashes between YIMBYs, NIMBYs and everyone in between.
After the plan is approved by the steering committee, it must be approved by the Planning Board and Denver City Council. A wide range of public, private and nonprofit entities may then be involved in implementing the plan. If the residents say they want, for example, a grocery store — a primary concern of Montbello residents involved in drafting the Far Northeast Area Plan — the city can update zoning to allow for one, support local groups that are already advocating for it, and help them attract a viable option.
Since the Neighborhood Planning Initiative kicked off, only the Far Northeast Area Plan and the Loretto Heights Area Plan have been fully drafted and passed. The East Central Area Plan and East Area Plan are nearing the approval stage, and the West Area Plan recently launched. In 2020, Community Planning and Development will launch the Near Northwest and Near Southeast Area Plans.
The Neighborhood Planning Initiative is already trailing behind the original timeline planners had in mind — partly because they had to secure federal grants and because the East Area Plan has generated so much controversy and confusion, particularly around a proposed Bus Rapid Transit route on Colfax Avenue — that they delayed the drafting.
At a presentation to a city council committee on Land Use, Transportation and Infrastructure on November 12, Champine and Hyser outlined several measures they think could improve the area planning process. They want to draft plans earlier to give the community more time to comment on and amend the draft. They also want to increase community engagement to reach a wider ranges of voices — Champine said it was common for large groups with specific interests or viewpoints to start engaging in the process only near the end. The steering committee could develop a specialized outreach plan for their area, Champine says.
City council members on that committee had some broader suggestions, couched within critiques about who was represented in the planning process and how.
Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer, whose district is partly covered by the East Area Plan, encouraged CPD to have a "better process of identifying what groups should be formally represented on the steering committee." Advocacy groups, she said, "skew the data" and can be manipulative. Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval pointed out that RNO leaders aren't necessarily representing the voices of thousands of people in their neighborhoods. Councilwoman Jaime Torres said that youth should be "more of an engaged partner in helping develop these plans. They’re going to be the ones who will actually see the results of this work."
Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca grilled Champine and Hyser on whether plans actually reduce involuntary displacement from gentrification or speed it up. "A plan doesn’t mean that we’re doing equity. … A plan means we’re directing growth, and it’s usually toward the most marginalized communities with the least capital," CdeBaca said.
The solution to involuntary displacement, Champine said, isn't not to plan, but to plan better.
A central question is how CPD collects feedback and engages the residents of the area. CdeBaca said the department should use "statistically significant data" (which would require sampling a certain percentage of the population according to social science methodology) to understand how the community feels about proposals. Currently, CPD does outreach through fliers, online engagement and door-to-door contacts, and collects opinions through community meetings, online surveys and targeted outreach to certain groups.
Champine says CPD wants to improve its collection of demographic data for people who participate in these processes, but that conducting formal statistical surveys might present a challenge. "It’s really hard to deliver [statistical data] on issues where people don’t already have an opinion," Hyser explains. "You have to educate people on that, because they don’t already know."
Ean Tafoya, a co-chair of the Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation's zoning and planning committee, argues that outreach to the community occasionally doesn't achieve equal representation. "In the past, there hasn’t been real concerted effort to train [steering committee] members on getting a significant amount of input — you might talk to ten people or a hundred people, but there’s no tracking of that," he says. "There’s a deep mistrust of the government, especially by Latinos, when it comes to large projects like this."
According to CPD, while Denver is 46 percent non-white, only 17 percent of participants in community planning in general are non-white. Latinos, who make up 30 percent of the city's population, make up only 9 percent of community-planning participants.
Even the current amount and diversity of opinions that the planning process attracts can provoke discontent and splintering. Kate Fields, a Congress Park resident, says that the last meeting about the East Central Area Plan devolved into a "community tantrum" in which some of her neighbors booed affordable housing.
Ingrid Lobo, who lives in Congress Park, became involved later in the process. The November 14 meeting was her second. "The plans are complicated and hard to understand," she says. "[They city] is definitely wanting to answer questions, but I think that translation is difficult."
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