Denver Development

Neighbors Take on Micro-Apartments at 16th and Humboldt

In the 32 years he’s lived on Humboldt Street, David Engelken has seen many changes in his neighborhood. He remembers the early ’90s, when prostitutes and drug dealers occupied the brownstones across the street from his house. A decade later, he helped secure the area’s historic designation.

Now Engelken, the vice president of the Humboldt Street Neighborhood Association, and some of his neighbors are taking up a new fight — Engelken’s hardest in the name of the neighborhood yet, he says.

In August, Denver City Council approved a seven-month moratorium on the city’s small-lot parking exemption. The exemption allowed development projects on lots smaller than 6,250 square feet in mixed-use zoning districts to forgo parking in their design. Enacted in 2006, the exemption applied exclusively to the East Colfax Avenue business corridor, to encourage redevelopment on “challenging small lots” in the area, says Andrea Burns, spokeswoman for the city’s Community Planning and Development Department.

The exemption extended to all mixed-use commercial districts when the city was rezoned six years ago.

Grandfathered into the council-approved moratorium are eleven development projects on small lots already in the works — including one near 16th and Humboldt streets that the neighborhood association is trying to appeal. Real-estate developer Pando Holdings partnered with Denver businessman and philanthropist Barry Hirschfeld to develop the two lots.

“Community Planning and Development has permitted this project in error,” Engelken says. “They are expecting the neighborhood to bear twice the parking burden allowed.”

Engelken says Pando and Hirschfeld met with the neighborhood earlier in the year, but only once (both declined to be interviewed for this story).

If the neighborhood association’s appeal fails — it goes before the zoning board on October 11 — 1570 and 1578 Humboldt Street will be the site of two five-story micro-apartment buildings with 108 units between them and a restaurant on the ground floor of 1578 Humboldt. As they stand, the projects don’t offer parking, which would leave residents with cars to fight for street parking in the already congested neighborhood.

Shops and restaurants are within walking distance, but the closest light-rail and B-cycle stations are more than a mile away.

But, as with most micro-apartments, rent will reportedly be low (by Denver standards) at the Humboldt units.

As cities become more dense and rent prices rise, micro-apartments can be a cost-effective solution for some people who want to be in the city but don’t need a lot of living space, says Jon Buerge, principle at Urban Villages, a real-estate and property-management company in Denver. Urban Villages has partnered with Larimer Associates’ Jeff Hermanson to co-develop a micro-apartment building on a triangular lot at 14th Street, Colfax Avenue and Court Place.

Buerge says it's hard to define a micro-apartment; some of Urban Villages' studio apartments could be classified as micro-units, as many are no bigger than 350 to 400 square feet. But, he notes, a micro-apartment is not defined by space so much as it is by utility: “We really think of a micro-apartment as having some separation of spaces, having a lot of built-in components, and everything being very, very compact.” Urban Villages and Larimer spent a lot of time researching sailboats when learning how to best utilize space.

“I absolutely think it’s a growing trend,” says Buerge about micro-apartments. “I think it’s the result of density.”

Buerge anticipates that most of the tenants in the 14th and Court building won’t have cars. (Because of where the building is in the city, it doesn’t have to offer parking, as certain districts near downtown don’t carry the requirement, says planning spokeswoman Burns, though developers often incorporate parking into their projects anyway.) One of Urban Villages' buildings in the Washington Park neighborhood has 74 units and only 22 parking spaces — and three or four are usually empty.

“Basically, our position on this is that there’s a huge segment of the population that lives in the urban core that [does] not have cars,” Buerge says. “With Car2go, Uber, the bicycle infrastructure and mass transit, there’s so many other ways to get around when you do live and work in the city.”

Turntable Studios, at 1975 Mile High Stadium Circle, boasts that it’s Colorado’s first micro-apartment building.

Melissa Rummel, a project manager for developer Nichols Partnership who worked on the Turntable project, says it’s on about one-and-a-half acres and is therefore too big to fall under the 6,250-square-foot-lot category. “But it does bring up: Do micro-apartment users use cars or not? And I think the answer to that is different for each project, and it really depends on the location,” Rummel says.

Nichols recently purchased a lot smaller than 6,250 square feet a few blocks from Union Station that will eventually host a micro-apartment building. The developer anticipates that some of its tenants won’t have cars because of the building's proximity to Union Station, the area’s high walkability and the shorter-term leases, which are targeted at business executives.

“And we’re hoping that’s true, because being able to live downtown without a car is a sign of a successful city,” continues Rummel.

Rummel understands why low-density neighborhoods like Humboldt aren’t happy when high-density developments move in and don’t provide their residents with parking. With the development comes additional congestion — especially without alternative transportation in close proximity, she adds.

“Micro-apartment projects should not be driven by a pro forma unit count only," Rummel says. "They need to really fit into the context of the neighborhood. Micros make sense in very urban and connected neighborhoods. It does not make sense to bring them to outlying neighborhoods when parking is not provided.”

Denver City Council president Albus Brooks’s district includes the Humboldt neighborhood. Brooks says he’s focusing his attention on changing zoning code, not any particular project.

“I’m disappointed in the [Humboldt] neighborhood that they went after the developer, only because we had an understanding that 'Let’s attack that issue that’s in the zoning code' instead of going after these individual developments,” says Brooks.

Most of the eleven projects grandfathered into the moratorium provide some parking or are near public transportation. Halting progress on those projects, including 16th and Humboldt, would have meant “changing the rules on folks mid-stream,” Brooks says.

During the moratorium, a committee of residents, city personnel and developers will be tasked with looking at how future developments on 6,250-square-foot lots can have a more positive impact in their neighborhoods.

Brooks hopes the committee finds creative alternatives that both encourage development and appease neighborhoods. For example, he wants to see more two-story apartment buildings go into neighborhoods, since they won’t have as many tenants or parking needs. If a building has more than two floors, he thinks the developer should offer a certain amount of parking or spaces specifically for Car2go loaners.

If the appeal of the 16th and Humboldt project fails and 108 units do end up getting built with no parking, Brooks says, “I’m a firm believer that if they’re in a congested neighborhood, [residents] are going to choose not to have cars; they’re going to choose alternative forms of transportation.” At the same time, Brooks refers to Denver as a “tweener” city, meaning that while it’s not always easy — or eco-friendly — to depend solely on a car here, neither is it wholly conducive (yet) to only using alternative modes of transportation.

Engelken and the Humboldt Street Neighborhood Association are garnering citywide support for their appeal before the October 11 hearing. The board of Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation, which represents more than 100 neighborhood organizations, voted in favor of the Humboldt Street Neighborhood Association’s appeal. Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods Inc. also voted in favor of it. Both groups are sending letters of support to the zoning board.

And there is strength in numbers. In March, the Humboldt Street Neighborhood Association teamed up with the Curtis Park Neighborhood Association, which had been fighting a parking-free micro-unit project at 31st and Stout streets. Seventy-one micro-units on four floors were scheduled to go into two lots, both under 6,250 square feet. Since then, the neighborhood and developer have negotiated the number of units down to 29 , the floors down to two.
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