When RedPeak Properties first approached her about developing a five-story apartment complex in her district, Susan Shepherd remembers thinking, “Whoa, this is going to be controversial.”
Even so, the then-city councilwoman never expected the mudslinging she would encounter at a community meeting she set up between the developer and her West Highland constituents on November 16, 2011. That evening, more than 200 people packed a room at the Highland Event Center, many of them to voice opposition to the three five-story apartment buildings that RedPeak and the property’s owner, Tom Wootten, planned to build near Highlands Square, at the intersection of West 32nd Avenue and Lowell Boulevard.
No sooner had the public-comment portion of the meeting begun than some of the residents started to yell at Shepherd and Brad Buchanan, the original architect for the project and today the head of the city’s Community Planning and Development Department.
“We were able to drive Walmart away, honey. You are a slam dunk!” one woman shouted at Buchanan, alluding to a previous community effort that had prevented a Walmart from being constructed on West 38th Avenue.
With varying levels of civility, other West Highland residents raised concerns that the proposed apartments would increase area traffic, block views of the mountains, damage the neighborhood’s traditional aesthetic and decrease surrounding property values. This went on for over four hours, until the meeting was abruptly ended and people were asked to leave.
“It was horrible,” remembers Shepherd, who discovered Facebook posts calling for her resignation that same week. “I was exceedingly taken back. I was only a few months into the office, still wet behind the ears. I was very much a rookie.”
But the fight was just starting. In fact, that November 16 meeting kicked off a nearly three-year-long campaign by West Highland residents against the development — a pitched battle that came to include protests, verbal attacks, a lawsuit against the city, and an ugly defeat for Shepherd in her 2015 re-election campaign.
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The opponents insisted that their opposition to the project wasn’t just a NIMBY response to the rapid changes, shifting demographics and construction boom happening all across Denver. They believed the proposed project was a clear zoning violation, and they had ammunition at their disposal to make their case. Even during that first meeting, they defended their position by citing the city’s master land-use and transportation plan, known as Blueprint Denver. And in many respects, the entire conflict came to rest on how Blueprint Denver should be interpreted. Now that very plan is about to come under scrutiny, with Denver launching an eighteen-month update process in late spring to address four city planning documents, including Blueprint Denver. Also being considered are a Denver Parks and Recreation “Game Plan” and two different “Denver Moves” proposals that concern pedestrian passageways and public transportation.
Created in 2002, Blueprint Denver divided the entire city into “areas of change” and “areas of stability.” The notion was that the majority of development would occur inside areas of change, with the added goal of bringing public-transportation options to those areas to accommodate increased density. But no one could have predicted how much, or how rapidly, Denver would change.
Over the past fourteen years, the city has followed Blueprint Denver in approving developments in areas of change such as downtown, Stapleton and Lowry. The plan’s proposal for construction along light-rail lines also occurred at locations like I-25 and Broadway.
But fights such as the ones in West Highland over the 32nd and Lowell apartments and, more recently, the Emmaus Lutheran Church’s proposed medical center have highlighted some concerns about Blueprint Denver and its legacy, particularly involving large developments in parts of Denver that the plan designated as areas of stability. Although the language of Blueprint Denver makes it clear that some development is allowed in areas of stability like West Highland, the degree to which that development should happen has proven to be open to interpretation.
David Gaspers, who works for the city and will be a project leader during the upcoming revision process, says the motivation for updating Blueprint Denver is to accommodate many of the changes that have occurred during the past fourteen years, including rapid population growth and expanded transportation options such as RTD’s Fastracks rail system, which didn’t exist when Blueprint Denver was adopted.
“There are a lot of opportunities to look at what has worked in the original document, and how we can update it so it works for us going forward,” Gaspers says.
Still, some residents are concerned about exactly how Blueprint Denver will be updated — and whether it will be watered down to allow more development in areas of stability. They include some of the original framers of the plan, like former city councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt, who believes that Blueprint Denver is still a progressive document, but that its principles were not always upheld by city leaders in the years since it was adopted.
“When you have wholesale turnover on the council, there’s no memory,” Barnes-Gelt says. “And when you don’t have any historic remembrance, no one around understands the principles. I would argue that Michael Hancock’s administration during this period of strong development pressure has violated every principle of Blueprint Denver.”
The most blatant violations, she adds, have occurred in older neighborhoods that are labeled as areas of stability. And of those, she believes that no neighborhood has suffered more than Highland.
“I think Highland is the poster child for violation,” Barnes-Gelt says. “Every tenet of Blueprint talked about putting density adjacent to transit and in corridors of change, but certainly not in Highland.”
Not that residents haven’t fought back. In the case of the proposed apartment complexes in West Highland, opposition quickly mounted after that initial community meeting. By the end of 2011, a grassroots organization called No High Rises in West Highland was holding rallies and distributing lawn signs with a depiction of black buildings towering ominously over smaller surrounding houses. Just before Christmas, some of the group’s members even organized a campaign to have someone dressed in a Santa Claus suit deliver stockings full of coal to RedPeak’s and Brad Buchanan’s offices, accompanied by a note saying that the recipients could get themselves off the naughty list by “right-sizing their proposed development to fit and enrich the neighborhood.”
But it turned out that the real heart of the issue was zoning. In 2010, Denver updated its zoning code for the entire city, including the three parcels near Highlands Square. All of the properties are located half a block north of West 32nd Avenue. One of them runs along Lowell Boulevard and houses Beth Eden Baptist Church; the other two neighboring parcels are accessed via Mead Street and West Moncrieff Place. When the zoning was redone that year, the three parcels in question were reclassified as “U-MS-5,” which allows for a mixed-use, five-story structure.
This angered neighbors who believed that the rezoning did not follow Blueprint Denver’s intentions for the neighborhood — that under the master plan, the parcels around the church should have been rezoned for single-family homes, despite the fact that the pre-existing R-4 zoning on the properties already allowed for five-story structures.
As a result, West Highland residents shifted their focus from the developer to the city, asking that the properties be rezoned again, this time for single-family homes. And as the city councilwoman for the district, no one came under more pressure than Susan Shepherd.
In a well-publicized incident in January 2012, Shepherd was at home one evening when two women arrived and knocked on her front door, saying they wanted to talk about the project. As soon as they were inside, Shepherd remembers, they barraged her with angry questions and harassing statements like, “We are ready to recall you right now!”
All of this was done in front of Shepherd’s four-year-old son, who was sitting on a couch next to her. Then, after her husband came into the room to see what was going on, Shepherd says, the women yelled at him, too.
After that, Shepherd’s family had police protection for two months. “I was stunned, because I couldn’t believe that neighbors would act like that,” Shepherd says. “I was looking over my shoulder every time I was out and about. I would scrutinize my car before I got into it.”
This despite the fact that she says she could do little to influence the development at 32nd and Lowell: The 2010 rezoning had occurred before she took office. “My fair understanding was that once something is zoned, it is essentially illegal to go back and take that right away from a property owner, because presumably they’ve paid a price that’s based on the development potential of that lot and its zoning,” she says. “So I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. I did my best working with a small group of stakeholders to try to make it more palatable — which it never was, as far as they were concerned.”
Shepherd’s efforts included requesting historical-designation status for the Beth Eden church building and writing letters to RedPeak asking for more parking spaces and a reduction in height on some of the proposed apartment buildings, but she was never able to convince the community that the properties should remain zoned U-MS-5.
Particularly when opponents brought out Blueprint Denver as a defense against the project.
As Bill Menezes, a former member of the No High Rises group, explains, “[The project] got a lot of people questioning: What was the point of the lengthy process, the lengthy community input, and the creativity that went into the creation of Blueprint Denver if, when the occasion arose, a developer with a lot of money and who could benefit from a flawed zoning process is going to come in and do something just because they can?”
When the city rolled out Blueprint Denver in 2002, it did so to great fanfare. Like the revision process that’s set to begin this spring, the lead-up to Blueprint Denver’s unveiling involved an eighteen-month drafting and community-participation process.
Ellen Ittelson, a former staff member at Community Planning and Development who was a co-leader on the project, says the idea of dividing the city into areas of stability and areas of change was groundbreaking at the time. “I would say it was a model for other cities in terms of being one of the first plans to closely integrate land use and transportation,” Ittelson adds. “It really was quite innovative.”
Katherine Cornwell, who was also on the CPD staff, agrees that Blueprint Denver was an exciting step forward for the city, which hadn’t comprehensively addressed its zoning strategy since the mid-1950s.
“Blueprint was the first step toward a new future — this integrated land use and transportation future,” says Cornwell, today the head of planning in Madison, Wisconsin. “Plans like these should be very aspirational documents — forward-thinking and taking care of the young people we don’t even know today. They should be big, they should be bold, they should be ostentatious. They should say, ‘If we could get everything right, what would that look like?’ It has to be balls-out.”
To this day, Ittelson, Cornwell and Barnes-Gelt all believe that Blueprint Denver’s fundamental concepts remain the right direction for the city, that transforming Denver from a car-reliant city to one that focuses on density around public transit is the smartest way for Denver to grow.
But as West Highland residents discovered through a 2013 lawsuit, the plan’s stated goal of preserving traditional neighborhoods does not have much teeth if Denver City Council and a zoning task force have different ideas.
On August 21, 2013, ten neighbors who lived within a block of the 32nd and Lowell properties gathered in courtroom 409 of the Denver City and County Building to make a case against the city.
By that point, it had become clear that city council was not going to rezone the parcels, so the neighbors had decided to sue the city and property owner Tom Wootten in order to force the issue.
Laurie Rust, one of the pro bono attorneys who represented the West Highland plaintiffs, remembers being cautiously optimistic as the trial started. “We were hopeful, but we knew it was a hard standard,” she recalls. “We certainly respect that what we were asking the judge to do was monumental — to override part of the Denver zoning code that was enacted through legislative zoning.”
But Rust, who is also a Highland resident, felt that her neighbors had a solid argument: that the properties in question had received special treatment during the 2010 rezoning that was inconsistent with Blueprint Denver. The evidence included an e-mail turned over by the city following Colorado Open Records Act requests by members of No High Rises in West Highland that showed that Wootten had contacted then-city councilman Rick Garcia to request U-MS-5 zoning for his properties just prior to the 2010 rezoning, a request that the city subsequently granted. On the stand at trial, Wootten admitted as much.
Today, though, Wootten tells Westword: “If someone’s trying to argue we didn’t follow the process, that’s entirely wrong.... The [R-4] zoning that had been in place almost fifty years prior to the 2010 rezoning was basically the same density residential use. The zoning that’s in place now is one that we argued closely matched what was in place before, and was in fact entirely appropriate.”
What would not have been appropriate, Wootten adds, is if the city had downzoned his properties to single-family homes. “Property owners do have rights,” he says, “so the capricious downzoning of property is not something that typically goes over very well in this country.”
Yet the plaintiffs weren’t just trying to persuade the judge that Wootten had received special treatment; the neighbors also used Blueprint Denver to lay out their case. “We argued that the overarching principles of Blueprint are so clear, that there are areas of stability and areas of change, and that you should put people where there’s transportation to move them,” says Rust. “The city not only strayed from Blueprint Denver, but went to the exact opposite side of the spectrum” when rezoning Wootten’s properties.
As the three-day trial unfolded, though, it became apparent that citing Blueprint Denver was far from a knockout punch. Just as the neighbors could use Blueprint Denver for their case, so could the defense. In particular, Rust says, the city cited a section of the plan that promotes infill developments.
The trial ended on August 23, 2013, but the neighbors had to wait for a decision until mid-September, when District Court Judge Robert L. McGahey Jr. ruled against them on every count, stating that he was unconvinced that there had been any underhandedness or political maneuvering by Wootten and that the city was within its rights to rezone the properties as U-MS-5.
Most important, McGahey said that Blueprint Denver was merely an advisory document and not binding. When it came to the development at 32nd and Lowell, he stated, city council was “not acting in an arbitrary or capricious manner by enacting a zoning code that is not explicitly proscribed in the Comprehensive Plan or Blueprint Denver.”
Looking back on the trial, Rust says, “I think the hardest part of it was that Blueprint Denver is this grand idea. It doesn’t mean to set things in stone, with no changes, but it’s the idea that what makes our neighborhoods great is their character. But we’ve seen time and time again that when the city and developers want something that doesn’t fit with the overriding purposes of Blueprint Denver, they find a way to say that it still ‘fits with the spirit’ because there are paragraphs 25 pages in that support infill developments.”
Community Planning and Development’s Gaspers isn’t surprised that Blueprint Denver can be used to buttress both sides of a development debate. “I think it’s always important to acknowledge that Blueprint Denver, like any other citywide plan, is a vision document,” he explains. “So it is difficult to look at the document at a micro scale and not find support for an argument one way or the other.”
At the same time, Andrea Burns, CPD communications director, points out that the city has honored Blueprint Denver by approving far more developments in areas of change than in areas of stability, even though areas of stability make up nearly 80 percent of Denver. A study commissioned by CPD found that in 2014, the ratio of investments in areas of change versus areas of stability was five to one. And that ratio increased to ten to one in 2015, she adds.
Nevertheless, developments in areas of stability definitely tend to be more contentious than those in areas of change.
The most important mission during the upcoming revision will be to make sure all of the city’s zoning maps align with Blueprint Denver so that fights like the one over the apartments at 32nd and Lowell can be avoided, Barnes-Gelt suggests. “You don’t fool around with Blueprint. Blueprint is not what needs to be updated. What needs to be updated is the zoning code and map,” she says. “Blueprint Denver is like the Constitution, and the zoning codes are the amendments.”
However Blueprint Denver is updated, the smoke from previous battles over its language hasn’t cleared in West Highland. Shepherd never quite got over her association with the 32nd and Lowell project, and in a muckraking re-election campaign that involved accusations that her campaign was funded by developers, she lost to Raphael Espinoza.
The insinuations that she was in the pockets of developers were misleading, she says. “It is not unusual for businesspeople to contribute to candidates’ campaigns, especially incumbents,” she points out. “I had lower developer contributions than other candidates did in other districts across the city.”
Now that she is no longer a council rep, Shepherd avoids going into the West Highland neighborhood because she doesn’t want to get into arguments with her former constituents. Instead of stirring things up politically, she is attending culinary school, which she insists is “100 percent more fun.”
Of course, development squabbles are still springing up in her former district, such as the fight over the Emmaus Lutheran Church property. But now that there is a new city council in place that includes representatives such as Espinoza and Wayne New, who both ran campaigns urging smarter development, some decisions are going against new projects in areas of stability. On January 26, city council failed to reach a supermajority that would have rezoned an Emmaus Lutheran Church parcel from single-family homes to a code that would allow for larger buildings. As a result, the medical-complex project there is now on hold.
“There are now clear and undisputed examples of what is needed to fight something like this,” says Jenny Apel, owner of Nostalgic Homes, a realty company in West Highland, who notes that her community learned some important lessons during the battle over the project at 32nd and Lowell. “Don’t necessarily believe that the city has your best interest at heart,” she warns. “Perhaps they do, but do the homework to see for yourself whether you disagree, then start your fight early.”
Half a block north of West 32nd Avenue, construction on two apartment buildings is well under way today, the five-story frame of the building along Lowell Boulevard easily visible above the surrounding roof lines. Even though the lawsuit was decided in the city’s favor, RedPeak Properties decided not to renew its development contract with Wootten, who then sold both the architectural plans and the properties to Phoenix-based developer Alliance Residential Company for $9.7 million in November 2014. By then, architect Brad Buchanan had been made director of Denver Community Planning and Development. The Beth Eden Church still stands on Lowell; it was granted historic designation in May 2014 after some residents and Historic Denver led a preservation campaign.
With the apartments now an undeniable reality, Bill Menezes still feels the sting of defeat as he drives past them, especially when he thinks about neighbors who live right up against the properties and have to put up with construction noises and delays. “I think about them and the crap they’ve had to go through because some developer couldn’t come up with a more rational project for the neighborhood,” he says.
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When the city takes a red pen to its planning documents later this year, Menezes says, he hopes that Blueprint Denver will be given more authority; in the meantime, people living in areas of stability like West Highland should pay close attention to any revisions being made.
For its part, the city promises to keep the process transparent. “We want to make sure everyone has a voice in what the plan does,” Gaspers says. “We want to make sure it’s a very robust public-engagement effort. It will vary from more traditional public workshops and meetings to using technology with social media and websites. Those are all things in the works.”
District 1 councilman Espinoza, who beat Shepherd with 69 percent of the vote last year, says he will do everything he can to make sure Blueprint Denver protects the character of Denver’s neighborhoods. “I understand that there is a deliberate attempt to not make the language in these plans prescriptive, because then they would be legally binding,” Espinoza says. “So everything gets to this point where it’s watered down and advisory, which then leads to what we have going on. We talk about the ideas and goals in all our documents, but then they don’t have any teeth. I will do as much as I can to try to guide this so that Blueprint actually has the mechanisms to do a better job.”
As Katherine Cornwell, one of the document’s original framers, puts it: “Blueprint Denver figured out the cake. Now they need to figure out the icing.”