There's high drama in Highland. In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, the Denver City Council voted to change the zoning rules in two neighborhoods, one in West Highland, roughly between 29th and 32nd avenues and Stuart and Meade streets, and one by Sloan's Lake, between 20th and 24th avenues, Meade to Quitman streets.
More than 200 people turned out for the acrimonious, ten-hour council session, not including the sheriff's deputies who were there to keep the peace. The vote was 10-2 in favor of rezoning.
The residents who launched the rezoning effort, which will prohibit developers from replacing single-family homes with multiplexes, say it's the only way to protect the area's historic housing stock from over-development. Others argue that the plan goes against property rights and limits neighborhood enhancement. The two sides have waged a block-by-block war armed with yard signs, petitions and arcane zoning rules.
"I live in one of the highest-demolition areas in northwest Denver," says down-zoning proponent Ray Defa, who owns a home at 29th and Raleigh. An average of one home is demolished in northwest Denver every week, up from a total of nine in 2004, he says.
Despite the area's largely single-family character, most of it was rezoned R2 in the 1950s, which allowed for multi-unit residences such as duplexes, triplexes and even five-plexes, to encourage more people to live in the urban area. While that didn't happen then, it's happening now, Defa says, as developers scrape old homes in and around super-hot Highland and replace them with big-box multiplexes. This trend is different from that of some other Denver neighborhoods, such as Hilltop and Bonnie Brae, where developers are scraping old homes in favor of single-family mini-mansions.
Lately the frenzy has reached a fever pitch, says April Butler, who's spent the past fifteen years turning a massive home at 30th and Perry that once contained thirteen units back into a single-family home with just one rental unit and a separate carriage house. "I've had developers drive on to my property and yell at me to sell my property because I am underutilizing it," she says.
But Sloan's Lake resident Daniel Markofsky thinks the change violates the property rights of landowners who bought land there to someday build a multiplex or sell to someone who would. "If you change this to R1, you would be lowering the value of the property," Markofsky said before the vote. He plans to build a triplex across the street from his home at 21st and Newton. Since he already has a building permit, the down-zoning won't affect his plans.
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"We have a bitterly, bitterly divided neighborhood now — worse than ever," he said after the meeting, adding that opponents of the rezoning may consider a lawsuit. "Lots of new issues get raised by this. Every property owner in Denver should be very concerned."
Development is a boon for the neighborhood, says Kathleen Genereux, who lives at 20th and Newton and has built and sold houses in the area. "If we have more appreciation of houses," she says, "we have more appreciation of schools, and the whole infrastructure gets better." Down-zoning will threaten that progress, she warns, because developers can make more money on a duplex or a triplex than a large single-family home.
Some of the worst examples of what is happening in and around the area can be found here. A massive multiplex at 29th and Perry, for instance, that has cast its neighbor's home and yard into a permanent shadow.
One point that both sides agree on is the ugliness of a particular triplex at 23rd and Lowell — nicknamed the "Flintstone Castle" by neighbors. Still, Markofsky points out, it shouldn't lead to new zoning regulations. "Denver doesn't regulate taste," he says.