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Entering the Twilight Zone of Denver's new zoning code

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Being civic-minded and all, you've probably already spent a great deal of time on the City of Denver's spiffy new zoning code website, absorbing all the new terminology and figuring out exactly how it's going to affect your neighbor's plans to build an enormous treehouse that will blot out the sun and leave the rest of the block in perpetual night.

No? Haven't got around to it yet? Then consider this fair warning.

Although the site is earnestly intended to invite more public participation in the process, it's largely incomprehensible to anyone who doesn't already possess a doctorate in wonkiness. It's a slough of bureaucratese, best avoided before lunch and after cocktails.

True, zoning codes are inherently complex, with exceptions to even the most exceptional exceptions. But the new code, as well as the site's efforts to make sense of it, turns out to be hopelessly burdened by overly dense terminology and explanations that explain nothing, because said terms are so poorly defined.

Take, for example, a typical FAQ: "How are the new zone districts named and do the names mean something?" Personally, I longed for a cheeky answer: "It's all random gobbledygook! It's absolutely meaningless!" -- but no such luck. Instead, there's a head-scratching rundown of the "naming convention" by which the first set of letters indicates "neighborhood context" (huh?), the second indicates "predominate use or form" (well, which is it?) and the third is either a number or a letter, depending on whether you're talking about number of stories or size of lot.

So you could have a U-MX-3 if you're talking Urban Neighborhood Context, mixed use, building height of 3 stories or less, or you could have E-SU-B (Urban Edge Neighborhood Context -- come again? -- for a single unit with a "B" lot, meaning minimum lot size 4500 square feet).

Good luck finding out what those contexts mean. And why we're being counterintuitive enough to refer to a single unit as "SU" and two units as "TU" (because numbers are reserved for stories, that's why!). A readily searchable glossary would be nice.

So would some respect for the conventions of the English language. The online material is full of syntactal demolitions that sound like a bad translation from some eastern European backwater. "As a draft, there remain items still in progress," reads one line of a memo that's supposed to highlight the major changes. As a reader, there remain items still in confusion.

The same document then explains the difference between standards that are "under consideration" (but might not be needed) and those "under construction" or "in progress" (no difference between those two, as far as this simpleton can tell).

It's hardly a surprise that government types are immersed in awkward language and murky ideas. But given the daunting character of the project -- the first major overhaul of city planning standards in decades -- the inability to make the draft plan accessible to most citizens is disappointing. Maybe it's time for a redo of the website, too. Anybody in the mayor's office want to take this suggestion under consideration -- or better yet, under construction?

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