Victory Against Fugly Denver Slot Homes "Doesn't Guarantee Beautiful Buildings"

A so-called slot home on West 19th Avenue.
A so-called slot home on West 19th Avenue. Photo by Christine Franck courtesy of
Last night, the Denver City Council voted unanimously to approve a zoning-code update that will prevent the new construction of slot homes, a variation on the garden-court form in which entrances don't typically face the street.

True, projects previously approved under the old rules mean a number of new slot home projects will pop up over the next year or so in the city. Overall, though, the move represents good news for slot-home haters, who have long decried such buildings as having all the charm of 1950s prison complexes.

But while Brad Buchanan, executive director of Denver Community Planning and Development, celebrates the move as "a bold change," he acknowledges that the rules won't be able to prevent every fugly project dreamed up by developers.

"The zoning code doesn't guarantee beautiful buildings," he acknowledges. "It's a foundational document that sets a platform for maco-building forms and significant building elements like pedestrian entries, front doors, where vehicular access happens on a site." However, he adds, "we share the frustration and concern around design quality citywide and are pushing hard on defining ways to both incent and enforce higher design quality."

The code changes apply to districts where such buildings have popped up. They require that units face the street, mandate elements such as porches in many cases, reduce buildings' allowable height, limit rooftop decks and offer new adjustments for setbacks, courtyards and driveways — all recommendations approved by a slot homes task force prior to the matter reaching the council.

click to enlarge An example of the so-called garden-court form that will no longer be allowed under the new slot-homes code. - DENVERGOV.ORG
An example of the so-called garden-court form that will no longer be allowed under the new slot-homes code.
In Buchanan's view, such sweeping changes were long overdue.

"Over the last number of years, we've seen lots of interpretations in the marketplace in regard to this building form," he notes. "The front doors of these slot homes tended to either face the side property lines, or they were facing inward into a small courtyard space. But in either case, putting them on a block where all the other homes are facing the street, with porches and front doors, made them into pretty dull and interruptive pieces of architecture in what was otherwise a connected neighborhood."

The just-approved forms are intended "to insure that we have walkable neighborhoods and a more positive pedestrian experience," Buchanan continues — and he credits members of the public for making the issue stick. In his words, "I think we've seen more momentum than ever before around requiring better design quality in the architecture in every context in Denver, from single family neighborhoods to multi-family neighborhoods to downtown. And that's a fantastic thing."

This kind of buy-in gives Buchanan hope that other code changes could be made down the line — and while he doesn't offer any specifics, he is under no illusions that further tweaks would be easy to accomplish.

click to enlarge An illustration showing the type of garden-court form slot home that has now been approved. - DENVERGOV.ORG
An illustration showing the type of garden-court form slot home that has now been approved.
"In terms of aesthetics, there are a variety of tools that are available to us — a whole continuum that ranges from design overlays to design reviews to landmark districts, which are the most extensive design controls we have in the city. But the marketplace will need to partner with us on that. We hear about significant support and significant resistance to additional design tools."

To counter such reluctance, residents who care what their neighborhoods look like need to speak out — and Buchanan encourages them to do so.

"These kinds of changes won't happen without community support, and I'm thrilled that we're seeing such clear opinions being communicated by the community," he says. "I believe the development community is hearing it — and the development community will follow what the market is demanding."

He adds, "I think the process worked really well in this case. It takes longer than folks would like it to take, and I understand that frustration. But we got further this go-round than we ever have in the past."

For the most part, changes in the code go into effect immediately. Visit Community Planning and Development's slot-home page to get more details.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts