Denver Business Journal
BYLINE: Dennis Huspeni
Two years after the City of Denver overhauled its zoning code, developers and related businesses say the new form-based codes are working well and should encourage future development.
Goals for the new code included making the development process simpler, less contentious and cheaper for developers. Form-based codes provide a “plug and play” template for what property owners and developers can do with their land, according to real estate experts.
Though the shaky economy has slowed development activity, the number of applications for projects sent to the city is picking up this year, said Molly Urbina, interim manager of Denver’s Community Planning and Development department.
That lull may have worked to the city’s favor as kinks in the 700-page zoning code document continue to be ironed out. But those changes seem to be minor, Urbina said.
The new code, which became law June 25, 2010, replaced one on the books for 54 years.
“The umbrella goal was to encourage investment in Denver by way of development and redevelopment,” said Urbina, who took over for former manager Peter Park, who was instrumental in drafting the new zoning code but left Denver last August. “It minimizes risk by making [zones] more clear. It helps overcome doubt and creates clarity and predictability.”
Developers, architects and land-use attorneys agree it seems to be working. And even when pressed for negative feedback about, or unintended consequences from the new zoning code, the experts said they’ve heard almost no complaints.
“The process is pretty fluid, and it’s gone well,” said Paul Books, president of Palisade Partners LLC of Denver.
Palisade went into new multifamily development in the past couple of years. Previously, it focused on refurbishing older apartment buildings. It broke ground in early June on a 73-unit building at 1736 Boulder St., Denver, in LoHi – which fell into the CMX-5 zone, one of seven new zoning areas.
Books said the new code is working well because of the city’s new Development Services office. One point-of-contact representative from that office is assigned to each new development project and all city agencies, such as the building department, work through that office instead of separately.
“It’s been a huge upgrade in clarity and consistency,” said Chris Crosby, executive vice president for Denver’s Nichols Partnership LLC, which is developing a multifamily complex near Denver Union Station, two smaller build-to-suit office buildings in the city and another apartment building at 19th Avenue and Gaylord Street. “The Development Services group has been excellent to deal with.”
Zoning-change requests declining
Under the old zoning code, zone-change requests often led to confrontations between developers, area residents and city officials. But that seems to have subsided.
In 2008, the city approved 52 zoning-change requests. That rose to 55 in 2009. But in 2010 – the first six months after the new code became law included a built-in grace period during which developers could file under the old or new zoning code – there were only 13 zoning-change requests approved and three denied. Last year, 21 requests were approved, according to city records.
Developers said instead of spending money battling neighbors and city hall with zoning-change requests, their resources are better focused on improving project quality.
Work on the new form-based zoning code began in earnest in 2005. It included seeking input from both business and residential interests, remapping the entire city and drafting the plan.
Brad Buchanan, principal of Denver architecture firm RNL Design Inc., was on the city’s zoning code task force.
“It was a terrifying moment when we realized the only way to truly make a zone district the right zone district was to map the entire city,” Buchanan said. “It was like, ‘Holy cow. We’re not just doing a new zoning code but remapping the entire city with one fell swoop.’ It was Herculean, but we knew it was the only way. That probably added more than a year of work, but it was absolutely critical to do.”
The old zone code was based on what’s called a floor-area-ratio (FAR), which dealt with the relationship between the above-ground floor area of a building and the land it stands on. Buchanan said that zoning is what led to different-sized buildings on Colfax Avenue.
“It didn’t support context, which is why you have a big building, then a little building next door,” Buchanan said.
Colfax Avenue was designated with the first “main street” zone that the city now commonly uses. New developments on East Colfax Avenue under the new code include the new Sunflower/Sprouts market, Argonaut Liquors’ remodel and a 7-Eleven convenience store.
“I feel like people are fairly impressed with what’s going on with Colfax,” Books said. “The form-based zones helped there. I’ve only heard positive things, as opposed to negative.”
Old code led to ‘patchwork’ development
Land-use attorney Jim Mulligan, of Snell & Wilmer LLP of Denver, summarized the old code like this: “It included housing in one area, retail in another area and never the twain shall meet,” which made for a patchwork of planned-unit development zones around the city.
“From my perspective, the form and context-based zoning will improve the market going forward,” Mulligan said. “A lot of things are moving from single to mixed use, and it creates more integration.”
Mulligan has represented Forest City Stapleton Inc. and Opus Development Corp., and helped provide industry input to city officials when the new zoning ordinance was created.
“From the clients I’ve worked with, what I’ve heard is a great majority say the new code concepts make good sense,” he said. “It’s flexible and mixed-use, and there are exceptions for certain parts of the city. … The framework of the new code makes all sorts of sense from a business perspective.”
“The goal was always that requests conform to the new code, but have a little flexibility that the old code didn’t provide,” Urbina said.
A handful of cities around the nation, including Aurora, are moving toward form-based zoning.
Urbina said it’s hard to tell if the goals have been fully realized, as “we’re just starting to see development happen again.”
She emphasized it’s still a “living, breathing document” and city officials continue to make minor tweaks along the way.
“There was this fear that once the new code happened, it would never change again,” Urbina said. “But we’ve been addressing things as new developments test it.”
“Transition takes time with anything this comprehensive,” Mulligan said. “But the framework is now in place. With the city’s new permitting system, the combination of the two has made Denver much more business friendly towards economic development and business development.”
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