Denver Development

Park Hill Neighborhood Divided by Battles Over Historic District, Subdividing Lots

Conflicts over growth and development issues in Denver have become so pervasive that even some of the city's most entrenched, sleepiest neighborhoods — places that 2002's Blueprint Denver designated as "areas of stability" rather than "areas of change" — are starting to feel the heat.

Even in stately, don't-mess-with-success Park Hill, increasing anxiety over scrape-offs, pop-ups and new construction has led to a hotly debated proposal to set up a historic district encompassing more than 700 homes. Along with that donnybrook, locals are also paying an unusual degree of attention to one resident's effort to subdivide one of the large, spacious lots along Montview Boulevard in order to build a spec house behind a million-dollar, three-story manse. Although that dispute is primarily between two neighbors, it's being viewed as a test of how much development-friendly "flexibility" might exist in the city's zoning code, which was overhauled in 2010.

Christopher and Momoko Morton Wong bought their five-bedroom, 3,390-square-foot house at the corner of Montview and Glencoe Street last year for $1.05 million, prevailing over ten other bidders. Built in 1915, the brick house had been in the same family for 75 years and was in desperate need of repairs, from a crumbling roof to a collapsed garage wall. The couple say they had no immediate plans to subdivide the nearly half-acre lot when they bought the place, but soon became convinced that the yard was too much to handle; by building and then selling another house on a fifty-foot-wide strip at the north end of the lot, they could recover some of what they'd invested in the property.

"The landscaping we just did, the water bill for that is running $300 a month," Chris Wong says. "It's a piece of land we don't need, and at the same time, we can recoup some of our costs of renovating this, which went way over budget. Everybody wants equity in their house, and we do, too."

But the 2010 zoning code classifies the Montview corridor as an "urban single unit" (U-SU-H) district, with minimum lot sizes of 10,000 square feet; under the current arrangement, the Wongs would need to have a 20,000-square-foot lot in order to split it up, but their total lot size is 18,750 square feet. So the couple has applied for a zoning change that would essentially take the 50 x 125 strip behind the house out of the U-SU-H district and allow it to be developed as a Glencoe (rather than Montview) address — since, on the side street, the minimum lot size is only 5,500 square feet. 

Blair Taylor and Luke Hardy, who live immediately to the north of the property, have opposed the application. The couple purchased their home six years ago — with the express understanding, Taylor says, that the Montview property couldn't be divided. "We were told that even if someone scraped the house, we would always have a twenty-foot north setback to protect our sunlight," Taylor says. She adds that materials submitted by the Wongs indicate they might build a two-story house as large as 6,000 square feet (including a basement), with only a five-foot setback from the property line. A study Taylor and Hardy commissioned indicates that they could lose 75 percent of their sunlight.

Chris Wong says he doesn't have any detailed plans yet for construction and has never indicated the size of the house that would be built. "We haven't designed anything," he says. "There's no sense in us spending a lot of money on design until we're approved. The maximum home that could be built there would probably be 6,000 square feet, but we've never said we want to build the maximum. We both love historic homes. We're not going to put something silly there."

The opposing sides have met in mediation but remain far apart. "We tried to compromise with having a house that would have a footprint similar to ours," Taylor says. "It would still be the largest house on our block of Glencoe. They were not interested. It did not fit their profit goals, whatever they are." 

Both sides have claimed support from other neighbors. Taylor notes that the neighborhood association, Greater Park Hill Community, voted 13-0 in opposition to the proposed zoning change, with two members abstaining. But it's Denver Community Planning and Development, and then the city council, that must approve or reject the application.  One of the consultants the Wongs have hired to assist them in maneuvering through the city's planning process is Marcus Pachner, who boasts on his LinkedIn profile that he "worked for Denver City Council for many years and has extensive connections to elected officials, appointees and staff at all levels of local government." 

Chris Wong says changing the zoning to allow lot-splitting in this instance won't set up any stampede of backyard houses along Montview.  The current house's setback from Montview is slightly less than that of most homes, he notes, making the backyard strip more expendable. "This is a unique situation because of the bad shape the house was in and the setback being closer to Montview," he says. "There's really not another lot on Montview that meets that criteria." 

Taylor disagrees. "There are more than twenty properties on Montview that are 15,000 square feet or larger," she says. "If the CPD and the council approve something like this, those other lots could be subdivided, too." 

Uncertainties about the adequacy of the zoning code also seem to be driving the campaign to designate a hunk of Park Hill — from Montview to 26th, and from Colorado Boulevard to Dahlia — as a historic district. The advocates' website declares that such designation is "the best way to ensure responsible and incremental change and to protect historic homes from demolition. This is particularly important in Park Hill, where the homes most at risk are the smaller homes."

But opponents of the plan — and some blocks of the area seem strongly divided on the issue, judging from the lawn signs — say that the rigidity of historic-district rules would keep those small-home owners on a budget from undertaking modest improvements, add red tape, and so on. 

City Park neighborhood activist Nancy Francis suggests the divisive argument is indicative of a larger failure in city policy.  "Nobody's talking about what the underlying problem is, which is zoning," she says. "This has turned into neighbor against neighbor instead of the city doing the right thing, which is to enforce the code. It's like we're giving up on zoning as a tool to solve this." 

The path to any historic-district designation in Park Hill is an involved one. An application would have to be considered first by the Landmark Preservation Commission — and if approved, then reviewed by city council, with ample public comment along the way. In the meantime, both sides are pushing lawn signs and petitions. 
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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast