The words “car-free living” in green letters figure prominently on a brochure advertising a micro-apartment complex planned for the Five Points neighborhood.
Under Denver’s current zoning code, the developer may not need to provide parking for any of the complex’s 56 units. So will the parking-hungry area just have to absorb more vehicles, or are Denver residents ready to go car-free and rely on alternative transportation?
“I really foresee Denver is heading that way,” says Doug Gaddis, president of Gaddis Property Management Inc., which wants to replace the now-closed Espino’s Tires at 31st Avenue and Stout Street with micro-apartments.
The units would be in two buildings across the alley from each other — one facing Stout before it curves into 31st, and the other on Downing Street. Both lots are under 6,250 square feet and would qualify for a small-lot parking exemption under Denver’s zoning code.
The project would be an “upcycle” build, according to Gaddis, using shipping containers — or “superstructures,” as he refers to them — for the base, with additional materials on the exterior approved by the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission, since the complex will be in the Curtis Park Historic District. The development is slated to go through the commission’s design-review process on March 15, then through the city’s permit process; Gaddis is hoping to complete the project in late 2017.
The apartments would be just 320 square feet, more like studios, and run $850 to $900 a month. The tenant would enter through a kitchen that shares a wall with the bathroom; this area would take up about a third of the apartment. The rest of the space would consist of a living room and bedroom separated by a couch.
In February 2015, when then-councilwoman Jeanne Robb was studying the small-lot parking exemption, Denver’s Community Planning and Development Department held a focus group on the subject with stakeholders, but the group did not suggest further action.
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CPD estimates that there are about 4,260 parcels that are 6,250 square feet or smaller in the city. Between the exemption’s passage in 2010 and 2015, there were 1,604 building permits issued for the small lots — and only six were for new commercial or multi-unit projects.
A developer from Portland, Oregon, who’s built several micro-apartment complexes was part of the February 2015 focus group; he said that only 10 percent of millennials between 18 and 34 years old living in high-transit urban areas have cars. Gaddis, who sat in on that meeting, is counting on this stat for his complex; he plans to provide tenants with educational resources on how to get around Denver without vehicles.
He is also working with the neighborhood on solutions for those tenants who might still have cars, including talking with nearby lot owners about available spaces.
“We believe that, especially based off of Portland and different markets, you can have a building and you can have a lot of people without cars, and they can use our city in a different way than maybe the past did,” says Gaddis, who rides his bike to work daily.
But residents such as Mick Barnhardt and Paul Davidson, who live across Stout from the proposed project, aren’t convinced — and worry that they may have trouble finding parking themselves after another fifty-plus people are added to the neighborhood.
“To my understanding, it was never the intent for this exception,” Barnhardt says of the parking-free apartment complex. “They didn’t even imagine something like this; they were picturing small retail where they wouldn’t have to give up half their lots for parking. It wouldn’t have as big an impact as 56 units do.”
Barnhardt and Davidson are among many neighbors who don’t have garages or alley access — and because they live in a historic district, it’s not easy to add a garage. Barnhardt did his own survey of the area and found about 55 houses close to the proposed micro-apartment complex that rely solely on street parking. “We’re super-limited in our parking options,” says Davidson, who adds that he’s surprised by the zoning code’s “blanket exemption” for small lots.
Last month, Gaddis and forty-plus residents of the neighborhood around his project met to discuss possible parking solutions. “I think this is a negative situation right now because there’s so much angst between both sides, but we’re looking for a win-win for the community,” says Councilman Albus Brooks, who was not at the meeting but represents the area.
“So the intent was good, but you see that there are some people who take advantage of it as well,” Brooks says of the small-lot exemption. “We just have to strike that right balance. Some of our neighborhoods aren’t quite ready for no parking.”
Brooks says that he sees Denver heading in a direction that is “more multi-modal in an urban environment,” and points out that the D-line light-rail stop is right across the street at 30th and Downing.
Both the developer and Five Points residents speculate that some of the weekday parking crunch in the area comes from people leaving their cars on the street in order to use light rail or just walk downtown to work. There’s also a lot of commercial activity by Welton Street and in the growing River North Art District to the west that contribute to the lack of available parking, Brooks suggests. But residents are definitely concerned about an increase in traffic caused by the complex’s tenants, and at the February meeting, some of them requested that the development have a loading and unloading zone to deter double parking. Others said they worried about the alley between the two buildings becoming a thoroughfare for delivery people and temporary parking for the tenants — which would limit access by neighbors.
Still, while Gaddis says he understands the residents’ concerns, he thinks the issue is bigger than his project, since other developers are using the parking-lot loophole as well.
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This spring, the Department of Public Works’ Transportation and Parking Operations Division will start working on a Parking Area Management Plan for Five Points, says Nancy Kuhn, director of communications for Public Works. It’s a part of the comprehensive, citywide Strategic Parking Plan that will look at parking issues in Denver and consider tools to better utilize parking space, in turn helping implement goals of other city plans such as Blueprint Denver (see our cover story on the Blueprint Denver reboot). West Highland, South Pearl Street, Capitol Hill and River North may also get Parking AMPs in the near future. (The strategic vision, neighborhood-specific parking information and other details are at parksmartdenver.com.)
“We’re excited about the possibility of introducing more Parking AMPs throughout the city of Denver — especially in high-demand areas,” says Kuhn, who warns that it’s rare for parking spots to be added to an area. Instead, studies suggest ways that existing spaces can be used to cater to a neighborhood’s needs, usually with signs and/or meters installed to manage how people park. The city’s first Parking AMP was implemented in the Baker/Broadway/West Washington Park neighborhoods last fall; as a result, 150 meters were installed and 500 new signs added for permit parking and time restrictions, along with “management times that better match the activity on the Broadway corridor,” Kuhn says.
Before the Five Points AMP begins, Brooks says, he’s considering Davidson’s request that the city resurrect Robb’s small-lot exemption study. Either way, Davidson is still planning to fight the parking-lot exemption for Gaddis’s project; if he’s not successful across the street, he says, he’ll take the battle citywide.
Revising the code is the only way to fix the problem permanently for his neighborhood and others, Davidson insists. “At the end of the day,” he says, “56 units with no parking in an area that’s already experiencing parking issues — something needs to be done.”