Update: After the publication of the post below, Denver City Council's Land Use, Transportation & Infrastructure committee approved a moratorium on slot-home construction. Get details in our earlier coverage below.
Original post: Over the past couple of years, we've written about the proliferation in Denver of slot homes, two multi-unit buildings on a single lot that can be separated by a gap of only a few feet. Such structures are at the heart of Denver Cruisers founder Brad Evans's campaign against fugly homes in the Mile High City, and one reader likened them to 1950s prison complexes. Denver City Councilman Rafael Espinoza, who spoke to us in 2016 about the need for new rules related to garden court buildings, a variation on slot homes, was instrumental in the creation of a draft amendment to deal with the slot home phenomenon, and at a council committee meeting this morning, he'll argue in favor of placing a moratorium on their construction.
The draft amendment, the moratorium proposal and the presentation Espinoza will offer at the Land Use, Transportation & Infrastructure committee meeting, which gets under way at 10:30 a.m. today, February 6, at the City and County Building, are accessible below. The moratorium is expected to pass.
In recent days, Espinoza spoke with us about the efforts of a council task force to address the slot-home boom amid Denver's red-hot real estate market.
"Since day one, it's been the core concern of the task force to address what we've been hearing from the community — that these homes are very destructive in the public realm," Espinoza said. "They're turned to the side with an unoccupied ground floor where we once had windows and porches, and they've gone primarily into communities that were historically pedestrian in character and had a lot of traditional street orientation of the buildings. There were better solutions available, but why would you do the right thing when you could sell whatever you put up?"
Even developers noticed the public backlash, Espinoza went on, but Denver building codes "lacked clarity. Building forms were being used under the code in ways that were never intended. Certain zoned districts had a limited number of buildings on them and would allow an apartment form — and even though these clearly weren't apartments, there was no limit on the number of the structures."
He added that "one of the false arguments against slot homes is that it was all about increasing density in neighborhoods — and that if we took away slot homes, we'd be losing density. But the reality is, every one of these spaces could have a much more dense apartment building in the traditional sense. This has been a unique manipulation of current standards and low-hanging fruit for the developer. So our draft was intended to address a sort of gaping loophole that was being used. But unfortunately, it was a very complicated problem, which is why it took so long to address."
After all, he continues, "you could build slot houses using the apartment form, the garden court form, the row house form. There were so many different ways where you could get the same outcome or something just as bad. So we had to scope out the situation and look at what an improved product would look like and what other communities are doing. And we came up with a reasonable compromise that we twice presented to the community after drafting the final recommendations last October. It was not a hurried process. It was very deliberate and, in my estimation, very worthwhile."
The result is an entirely new building methodology, dubbed the Urban Town House form, which "requires Dwelling Units located near the street to be oriented to the street" but "accommodates two-unit and multi-unit Dwelling development," according to the draft amendment.
Here's an illustration of the Urban Town House form from the document:
Espinoza knows that the look of these buildings won't please everyone. But he sees the orientation toward the street as an important improvement, and one that developers won't be able to evade.
"Whenever you do these side-by-side attached homes, you'll know you're entered into the Urban Town House form and you can't use these other forms that were manipulated," he said.
Right now, what's formally referred to as the Slot Home Text Amendment is on the usual bureaucratic track at Denver City Council. It's scheduled to be evaluated at a March 7 planning-board meeting, a March 27 Land Use, Transportation & Infrastructure get-together and an April 3 gathering of the Mayor Council prior to its first public hearing on May 7. But if approved, the moratorium will put the brakes on more slot house developments earlier.
Espinoza's presentation states that the moratorium on "side-by-side attached dwelling unit projects" will impact site development plans not received on or before 4:30 p.m. on March 14. Applications eligible for approval once the moratorium is in place will then have until 4:30 p.m. on November 10 "to be approved using the existing form standards."
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The moratorium's expiration date is June 4 or whenever the amendment is adopted.
Regarding the amendment, Espinoza is pleased by the results, yet frustrated that the city council was ever put into the position of dealing with slot homes in the first place.
"If the development community hadn't forgotten about the places they were building in, I don't think we'd even be doing this," he maintained. "But they have treated every parcel as some sort of design box on a computer and not understood that these are unique neighborhoods with different characteristics that should be responded to."