Inside West Highland Fight Over Possible Large Commercial Property on West 32nd

Tonight, Denver City Council will vote on whether to rezone a portion of the Emmaus Lutheran Church property off of Speer Boulevard at West 32nd Avenue. Built in 1907, the church is surrounded by other businesses and is close to Highlands Square which is filled with restaurants, bars and shops. Approving the application would allow the church to build a massive, two-story medical building that could become the largest commercial property along this stretch of West 32nd, which in recent years has attracted several retail and residential projects — projects that have in turn attracted neighborhood opposition.

Emmaus Church has seen a declining membership and revenue from the medical facility would help subsidize its income and keep it afloat, explains Sundari Kraft, who was hired by the church this past January as a liaison to the community. In 2008, Emmaus sold the property across the street — currently occupied by Pinche Taqueria — to fund the now-defunct school that was run by the church. Emmaus had no say in the use of that property, and is trying to avoid that situation again.

The initial application called for rezoning approximately 39,000 square feet of the church’s property. That was knocked down to 31,000 square feet, a proposal approved by the zoning board. But after an unsuccessful mediation with neighborhood residents, Kraft says, Emmaus agreed to further downsize to 23,000 square feet — and that application was submitted last Monday, shortly after opponents to the 31,000 square-foot plan turned in petitions protesting the proposed rezoning.

During the rezoning process, the church has been attacked with more than petitions. Neighborhood opponents have been verbally aggressive, Kraft says; at one point the pastor felt it necessary to call the police. Stories have been spread about Neil Neudorff, the church’s volunteer president, who signed the rezoning application. Neudorff has struggled with drug use in the past and does have a criminal record, Kraft says; however, he has been sober for nine years, and off parole for three months.  “From my perspective, Neil went through the system and paid his debt to society, and the fact that now he has turned his life around and has committed to not only leading a normal good life but trying to serve his community as the president of a neighborhood church,” Kraft explains.

Emmaus has taken steps to be responsive to the neighborhood, she continues, such as conducting a traffic survey and decreasing the building’s hours of operation. Also, a design vision was put together through two workshops with West Highland residents and Andrew, Mason, Dale Architects. The firm considered unique characteristics of structures in the neighborhood from pictures taken by residents and incorporated them into twenty sketches of the two-story building. Residents then marked up those sketches, noting what they liked and didn’t like.

“The goal is, we want to create a building that does honor and respect the architecture and the neighborhood, that fits in, blends and complements [the neighborhood],” says Kraft. “That’s what we sincerely want and that’s part of why we hired AMDA. The design vision statement was created by the neighbors and that’s the guiding principle behind the building design.”

After he learned of the proposed project early last year, West Highland resident Randy Mast formed the neighborhood group Zone It Right, which keeps a watchful eye on development in Highland. Zone It Right still opposes the Emmaus rezoning, despite the changes to the plan. “The concerns are the dramatic size and scale of what they are hoping to do,” says Mast. 

While he understands Emmaus’s “business model,” Mast says he feels the church could achieve similar results with the current residential zoning. Mast garnered enough signatures from disgruntled neighbors — 20 percent of those who live within 200 feet of the project — to require a super-majority vote (ten or more votes) from Denver City Council members on application to re-zone 31,000 square feet of the Emmaus lot. "That is a high bar, and why I believe the Emmaus development team submitted the modification request," says Mast.

This evening, city council will first vote on the modification request to decrease the affected lot size from 31,000 square feet to 23,000. If the change is approved, the protest signatures would be nullified and the final vote will be delayed a minimum of 21 days; Mast would need to collect those signatures again for a super-majority vote. If the modification is not approved, city council will then vote on the original application.

The majority of the West Highlands Neighborhood Association feels the lot is correctly zoned as is, according to WHNA member Conor Farley. But if the application is approved, “we are willing to work with Emmaus as good neighbors, to allow them to have something more than single family residential on the parcel," he says. "But it has to be mutually agreeable...they are the only ones who are satisfied with it; the rest of the neighborhood is not."

Neighbors sent 32 letters and e-mails of support to Denver City Council, Kraft says. District One Councilman Rafael Espinosa, who represents the area, did not return a phone concerning the rezoning. 

The council meeting begins at 5:30 p.m., and the public hearing on this zoning request will start before 6 p.m.
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