Denver Neighbors Should Fight for Good Design, Planner Katherine Cornwell Says

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Denver residents often complain that they have no voice in the developments springing up around the city — but they definitely have a powerful way to make themselves heard, says former Denver city planner Katherine Cornwell: They can look past rezoning and focus instead on demanding good design for structures that are bound to be built. That’s what she suggests neighbors do with the Emmaus Lutheran Church project, the focus of this week's cover story, "Cross Purposes."

“With the planning board’s support for rezoning, it is likely to move forward, since their support signals to city council that the proposed development is consistent with adopted plans for growth,” Cornwell explains. “Where neighbors have power is to insist on design that is sensitive to and consistent with the durable, time-honored architecture of the surrounding neighborhood as a condition of the rezoning approval.

“In this case the developer’s architect, Anderson Mason Dale, is a firm capable of producing something wonderful, but they are at the mercy of their client, and their client is at the mercy of the decision-makers,” she continues. “The neighbors have considerable sway over their elected representatives, and in this case, [councilmembers] Rafael Espinoza, Debbie Ortega and Robin Kniech have often proven their chops as neighborhood champions who can influence their colleagues.”

Cornwell loves cities and has moved around a lot in order to work in them. She was on the job in Denver from 2000 to 2008; since 2013, she has been the city planner for Madison, Wisconsin. She is still a Denver property owner, though, and she keeps up with the city’s development — so the Emmaus rezoning proposal has been on her radar.

When Cornwell first started working for Denver, the city was developing the Denver Comprehensive Plan 2000, a vision for managing the city’s growth. The project included a Parks and Recreation Game Plan, a Bicycle Master Plan and Blueprint Denver; they provided the groundwork that Denver City Council later used to rezone the entire city. Blueprint Denver concentrated on integrated land use and transportation, focusing on three basic themes in the city: areas of change and areas of stability, multi-modal streets (streets accommodating multiple means of transportation, from pedestrians to private vehicles), and mixed-use development.

After Blueprint Denver was adopted in 2002, Cornwell led the planning department’s efforts to transform East and West Colfax. Those efforts were twofold: They focused on promoting characteristic “Main Street-style” development, with residential units over ground-floor storefronts, and also worked to stem the tide of auto-oriented commercial-strip development that prevailed under the corridor’s antiquated zoning. To push the plan, Cornwell worked with neighborhood stakeholders to create a new, “form-based” zone district and used a legislative process to rezone Colfax. This rezoning effort set a precedent for the update of the Denver zoning code and citywide rezoning in 2010.

To Cornwell, Emmaus’s request to rezone part of its lot for commercial use is smart, and more appropriate than building single-family housing. “Thirty-second and Lowell is an embedded commercial district within a neighborhood,” she notes, adding that what Emmaus is proposing “is a very restrictive Main Street-style development. The Main Street districts were based on the streetcar districts in Denver, and 32nd and Lowell is one of them. Colfax is another one.”

Embedded commercial districts like 32nd and Lowell, South Gaylord Street and South Pearl Street were considered “poster children for low-intensity Main Street-style development when we were doing the Main Street district originally,” she explains. “So when I look at [the Emmaus lot], I think that’s completely appropriate, that’s where we were headed.”

Today West 32nd Avenue has no shortage of bars, restaurants or coffee shops, all of which see traffic in peak hours; a medical facility would bring in patients for appointments during off-peak hours, adding business without adding congestion, she says. Plus, neighborhood residents would be able to walk, bike or take transit to their appointments, alleviating some of the potential traffic jams that neighbors fear a medical facility would bring. 

Some of the neighbors who oppose the Emmaus rezoning proposal point to the 2010 code, questioning why the lot should be rezoned if Denver City Council deemed the area right for single-family housing just five years ago. But while Blueprint Denver was intended as a guide for long-term planning, Cornwell says that changing conditions need to be taken into consideration. Citywide plans should forecast for the next twenty years and include an official update at ten, she suggests; that time frame should be cut in half for a small-area plan.

While Cornwell believes that the city’s 2010 rezoning went a long way toward defining the basic form that development should take in order to accommodate growth consistent with Blueprint Denver’s strategies, she acknowledges that the city still has considerable work ahead to promote the architectural quality and character envisioned by that plan and desired by residents across the city.

And there’s just nothing architecturally pleasing about the vacant lot by Emmaus. “A piece of asphalt surrounded by a chain-link fence?” asks Cornwell. “I mean, if you were to ask me what’s more appropriate, a mixed-use building or single-family residential buildings, I would be inclined to say something that contributes to the commercial character.”

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