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RedPeak: City council's Susan Shepherd won't fight controversial West Highland development

Denver City Councilwoman Susan Shepherd will not take any action to stop a proposed development just north of 32nd Avenue and Lowell Boulevard that has neighbors fighting mad.

Although she had hinted that she might try to change the zoning on the property, she released a letter late last week stating that she will not attempt to stop or delay RedPeak Properties, which plans to build a trio of five-story apartment buildings.

Many neighbors and groups, including the West Highland Neighborhood Association (WHNA) and No High Rises in West Highland, have urged Shepherd to try to rezone the parcels, which could limit the height of the buildings to better match the one- and two-story homes in the neighborhood, or place a moratorium on construction.

"After numerous meetings with WHNA members and concerned neighbors, Council colleagues, city attorneys, and officials from Community Planning and Development and Public Works, I have determined an effort at down-zoning or a moratorium is not a constructive path towards rectifying this challenging situation," wrote Shepherd in her letter. "Not only would they be futile efforts but could place at risk many of the development concessions my office and local efforts have secured from RedPeak the past few months."

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Shepherd is referring to concessions she believes RedPeak has made after months of meetings with a design advisory group comprised of representatives from RedPeak, Shepherd's office, No High Rises, WHNA and local business owners. She notes that RedPeak has lowered the height of the proposed buildings, which could have been as high as seventy feet, by ten to twenty feet. Shepherd also wrote that RedPeak has reduced the density of the project from 160 units between the three buildings to 147 units in order to alleviate some parking and traffic issues.

She did note, however, that she believes the current zoning, which allows buildings up to five stories and mixed commercial and residential buildings, is inappropriate for the land.

Bill Menezes, a member of the No High Rises group (as well as a former journalist and onetime head of Colorado Media Matters), is less impressed by RedPeak and believes it's wrong of Shepherd to laud its building plans as concessions. "My main objection is that it's factually inaccurate," he says. "For an elected official to basically echo the developer's talking points, which are themselves inaccurate, is a problem. It's okay to support this project for whatever reason, but to state things which are factually untrue in support of the project is extremely troublesome."

Menezes believes RedPeak has not met many of the requests the design advisory group has asked for and says what Shepherd calls concessions are simply RedPeak's building plans. Rather than viewing RedPeak's decision to limit the Moncrieff building to four stories as a concession, he sees it as a tactic allowing the developer to charge premium rates for the top-floor apartments in the Lowell building across the street. Residents of those units will be able to see the downtown skyline without a fifth floor on the Moncrieff building to block the view.

In addition, Menezes thinks RedPeak never planned to build the structures seventy feet high because it would cost too much -- so it should not be credited with compromising. Meeting minutes from a December 7 design advisory committee meeting show that RedPeak representatives stated: "It is not advantageous for RedPeak to push the development up vertically because buildings are more expensive the higher they get."

Those meeting minutes also show that RedPeak had planned between 140 and 160 units total at that time.

Click to continue reading about the latest RedPeak developments. RedPeak released the following statement in response to Shepherd's letter: "RedPeak would like to commend Councilwoman Susan Shepherd for her decision that she will not support a down zoning of the properties included in RedPeak's planned multi-family development in West Highland. Councilwoman Shepherd has been successful in facilitating a productive dialogue between RedPeak and the neighborhood through the Design Advisory Committee which has resulted in compromises that improve the design of the project and respond to neighborhood concerns, but also respects the vested property rights under the MS-5 zoning. This decision helps solidify the strength and predictability of Denver's zoning code and will help attract future capital investment in the City of Denver."

RedPeak was not alone in complimenting Shepherd's work on this issue. Mayor Michael Hancock also released a statement saying, "Robust public engagement is critical to move Denver forward and no one has worked harder than Councilwoman Shepherd to represent all parties involved in this issue.... By working collaboratively, we are able to maintain the integrity of the Denver's development process and zoning code while respecting the residents' concerns and the rights of the developers."

The neighborhood groups still believe Shepherd needs to pursue a re-zoning, however, and at a February 7 WHNA meeting, the association passed a motion urging her to do that, says Kevin Neimond, WHNA President.

Shepherd's letter indicates that even if she were to pursue a re-zoning, those who oppose the development would not get what they want in the end.

"I know and understand many concerned neighborhood interests will not be satisfied by my chosen course of action," wrote Shepherd. "Due to the extremely unlikely possibility of affirmative legislative action to re-zone the three parcels or enact a moratorium, I believe prudent leadership means focusing energy on the things we can change: mitigating development impacts and advocating for design elements that respect the character of our neighborhood. We have already made significant gains but there is much more work to be done. I will continue to with all sides to address issues and settle differences as we work through this difficult process together."

Menezes is not concerned with Shepherd's opinion about the possible success of a re-zoning. "Whether or not the thing passed or failed is almost irrelevant," he says. "I think most people were willing to let the chips fall where they may. But refusing to even submit a proposal to address something that Council Woman Shepherd herself has said is based on incorrect zoning, is astonishing.

"Her job is the elected representative of this district, a huge amount of which is comprised as West Highland," Menezes continues. "Her job is not to tell the neighborhood what should be done in the face of overwhelming neighborhood consensus about what is believed as necessary."

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