Watch What Develops

East Village isn't the only turf war on downtown's northeastern edge. The largest empty parcel of land in the neighborhood sits at the corner of 22nd and Washington streets, directly behind the Safeway and right across the street from East Village. Uptown Partnership, a nonprofit developer that's been rehabbing abandoned properties in the area for years, wants to build a mixed-income project on the site, with about ten units set aside for affordable housing. But to be economically feasible, the developer says, the project would have to include roughly fifty units. That means 75 parking spaces and a five-story building that's 59 feet high.

And 59 feet, neighbors complain, is just too tall. Especially when the payoff for the out-of-scale building is just ten units of affordable housing.

"A lot of the people in the neighborhood feel a five-story building is not appropriate in that location," says Jim Wiseman, who lives a few blocks from the proposed project. "The main problem that most of the people have is the height and mass. The second issue is density. If the height issues were addressed, they may find that a lot of the objections toward the density might diminish."

Density is just one factor that's making it tough to build affordable housing in Denver. "It's become incredibly difficult to create and maintain affordable housing in Denver for a couple of reasons," says John Parvensky, executive director of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. For one, the cost of acquiring property has increased, but governmental grants and subsidies have not kept pace. Construction costs, too, are at an all-time high.

Developers have a lot of interest in building affordable housing, according to Mindy Klowden, executive director of the Colorado Affordable Housing Partnership, but there's "really just not a lot of grant money."

Affordable housing is usually defined as housing that is within the budgetary limits of those earning 80 percent or less of an area's median household income. Denver's median income last year for households of all sizes was $41,948. According to Mayor Wellington Webb's Affordable Housing Task Force, only 26 percent of the homes sold last year were affordable to those earning below the median income.

Land values in Denver have risen dramatically in recent years, driven by a booming economy and competition among developers for properties in once neglected but now desirableinner-city neighborhoods. Here, as in the suburbs, costs are passed on to home buyers and renters alike. According to a recent report by the housing division of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, rental and home prices have far outpaced wage increases. Between 1989 and 1999, the average wage in Colorado increased 56 percent, while the average apartment rent increased 88 percent and the average price of a home 101 percent.

At a meeting two weeks ago of the San Rafael Neighborhood Association -- a group that represents residents of the tiny neighborhood of beautiful old homes sandwiched between Safeway and Children's Hospital -- neighbors listened to Uptown Partnership's pitch. The developer doesn't yet have a final design for the project, but it's hoping to rezone part of the parcel and is seeking neighborhood support. And while Uptown's presentation seemed to maintain that fifty units was non-negotiable (much to the consternation of neighbors), Sharon Nunnally, vice-president of Uptown's board, implies that there could be a tiny bit of wiggle room. "All projects start with some number," she says. "As of the moment, that's the number that works the best for the project and the funding dollars." The number of affordable units is still in flux, too. "The more money we can bring into the project," she adds, "the more we can buy those units down."

Despite residents' concerns about the impact of a five-story building on their neighborhood, there are larger buildings nearby. A block up Washington stands the Denver Housing Authority's Bean Towers, which is thirteen stories high. On the other side of Safeway is the nine-story Barney Ford high-rise (the neighborhood group held its meeting there, in fact). And on the southern edge of San Rafael sits the five-stories-and-up Children's Hospital complex.

But Barney Ford and Bean Tower were built in the days when the whole neighborhood was a "slum area," Wiseman points out. "They obviously would have had no opposition to anyone coming in and building those structures." Today's neighbors would have fought those buildings, he adds -- and they're further from San Rafael's single-family homes than is the proposed Uptown project.

The East Village redevelopment discussions have included talk of placing most of the project's density along Park Avenue West, at the southern edge of the site, which would make East Village less dense where it meets homes on the north side. Allowing a tall building at 22nd and Washington would throw off the scale.

"If we let them get away with putting in a five-story structure on Washington," Wiseman asks, "what kind of a precedent does that set for the development of East Village?"

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T.R. Witcher