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Not So Fast

East Area Plan Hits Roadblocks: Concerns Raised Over Proposed Density and Traffic; Rapid Transit Funding Stalls On Colfax

By Cara DeGette, Editor, GPHN

From left, Lisa Weber Hewitt, Tracey MacDermott, Caroline Carolan, Jeanne Lee and Blair Taylor. The women organized the group Denver East Neighborhoods First in response to the city’s proposed East Area Plan. Photo by Cara DeGette

A plan to dramatically increase the density of residential areas close to Colfax from Colorado Boulevard east to Yosemite has drawn fierce opposition from many residents who fear their modest neighborhoods are at risk of the same type of intense development that has altered other areas of Denver.

The public outcry coincides with the early August announcement that a $125 million funding shortfall for the city’s planned Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) along Colfax could delay the project for a decade or more.

A July 25 meeting drew dozens of residents from Park Hill and surrounding neighborhoods who would be impacted by what officials call the East Area Plan.

City planners, along with a committee of volunteers appointed by members of the city council, have been working on the plan for two years. However, many residents had no idea of its far-reaching impact on their properties and neighborhoods. Most reported they had just learned about the plan when planners rolled out their recommendations this spring.

Triple the density

The complex plan calls for a tripling of the density in some areas in long established neighborhoods. The area includes many modest single-family homes, as well as low-rise apartment buildings and multiplexes directly to the north and south of Colfax, which has been identified as a high traffic corridor and is slated for a number of improvements. 

The group Denver East Neighborhoods First is distributing this flyer to residents in neighborhoods that would be affected by the proposed East Area Plan. The map shows areas where high-density development is being proposed in established residential neighborhoods. The plan would impact more than 31,000 current residents in South Park Hill, Montclair, Mayfair, Hale and East Colfax.

The overall plan includes residential neighborhoods from 8th Avenue north to 23rd Avenue. The highest density is being proposed between 13th and 17th avenues. Neighborhoods that are impacted include South Park Hill, Mayfair, Montclair, Hale and East Colfax.

Among the recommendations: zoning changes that would allow property owners to divide existing houses and add second dwellings. The plan would also allow third residential units (ADUs) to be added onto properties.

Owners would be encouraged to keep the façades of their current homes. However, there are no design requirements, and critics have said there would be nothing stopping developers from buying up modest homes, scraping them, and replacing them with high-dollar duplexes (plus adding third residential units to the lots). The plan also calls for an eight-story building at the site of the Mayfair Town Center on Krameria and 13th. Other eight-story buildings are proposed at Colfax at Quebec and at Colorado and Yosemite. Additional density is proposed for several other intersections at Colfax near stops along the proposed Bus Rapid Transit.

The extensive plan can be reviewed at tinyurl.com/GPHNDenverEast

‘It’s ominous’

Emerging details about the plan were roundly criticized during the July 25 meeting, which was held at the Art Gym on 14th and Kearney and drew an overflow crowd.

This rendering depicts Colfax Avenue at Krameria Street with the addition of Bus Rapid Transit running up the middle lanes. The BRT system would reduce car traffic to one lane in each direction of Colfax, and reduce left turn capabilities along the busy thoroughfare. Critics say car traffic would increase on other east-west streets through neighborhoods, including 13th and 14th avenues, 17th Avenue, Montview Boulevard and 23rd Avenue. (The mature tree canopy along Colfax in the illustration does not currently exist.) Image credit: City of Denver

“These are residential areas, and eight stories would cast so much shadow onto the nearby homes it would be overwhelming – it’s ominous,” said Marcia Johnson, a former member of the Denver City Council. Johnson’s comments were met with applause.

Many expressed alarm that the plan would force current residents to unfairly bear the brunt of the high-density development, and anxiety about how the plan would transform their neighborhoods. Audience members raised a number of other issues of concern:

• Traffic: One major assumption behind the East Area Plan is that people will no longer drive their cars. Or at least they will drive less, since they will be closer to the transit corridor of Colfax. The plan calls for Colfax to be reduced to one traffic lane in each direction, with the Rapid Bus Transit taking up what are now the two middle lanes of the thoroughfare. Critics note that car traffic will spill out to the surrounding streets.

• Parking: The new development will not come with requirements to accommodate parking for everyone. Planners expect residents will choose public transit over cars, particularly if the transit is more convenient. Critics contend that people move to Colorado with cars, and they need to be able to park them somewhere – even if they opt to use public transit much of the time.

• The existing infrastructure would not support a tripling of human density in the concentrated areas.

• The proposed density is an undue burden on residents of established neighborhoods, many of whom are middle and working class. Other neighborhoods, including wealthier areas of Park Hill and Montclair, Hilltop, Congress Park and Crestmoor, are not being asked for similar “upzoning” for increased density.

• The character of the neighborhoods could be ruined. Without any design requirements, new development would look similar to the high-density projects that have replaced established neighborhoods in other parts of Denver, including in North Denver, Five Points and Sloan’s Lake.

• High-rise buildings would block views and sun from existing one- and two-story homes.

• Property values would be negatively impacted.

• There is no guarantee that the development would include needed affordable housing in Denver.

• Allowing developers to build out the footprints of existing lots would result in the loss of permeable land. Many of the areas identified for increased density are already in flood zones, and this would exacerbate the problem.

• Development would not result in a meaningful increase in parks or green space, unless developers are willing to include them, or receive financial incentives to do so.

One of 78 plans

The plan has been coordinated by city planners Curt Upton and Liz Weigle. A steering committee includes 11 residents, many of whom do not live in the impacted areas of the plan. They were appointed by city Councilman Chris Herndon and former Councilwoman Mary Beth Susman.

Upton noted that the East Area Plan is one of 78 neighborhood plans that are being developed or will be developed throughout Denver within the next seven to 10 years and are the result of the Blueprint Denver master plan adopted by council earlier this year. The city, he noted, is growing rapidly.

Herndon, who represents Park Hill and the East Colfax neighborhood, as well as Stapleton and portions of Montbello, has indicated support for the plan. Newly elected Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer, who defeated incumbent Susman in June and now represents the neighborhoods to the south of Colfax, announced at the July meeting she would not support the current plan, noting concern over the increased density and height proposals.

Most of the steering committee members are supportive of the plan, including Hilarie Portell, who is also the director of the Colfax Mayfair Business Improvement District. Among other aspects, Portell said, the plan will help enhance and promote the character of Colfax for small, independently owned businesses and provide an important transit route. During public meetings, residents have expressed skepticism over density, but they support improvements along Colfax – parts of which are run down and have been magnets for criminal activity.

Flyers and yard signs

After the July meeting, a group of five women organized with the intention of alerting as many of the more than 31,000 residents who live in the impacted area as possible. Two of them, Tracey MacDermott and Blair Taylor, are on the board of GPHC (MacDermott is currently the board chair. She is also on the East Area Plan steering committee, and has been the lone voice of dissent).

Others in the group – called Denver East Neighborhoods First – include Jeanne Lee, who lives in Mayfair, Caroline Carolan, who lives in South Park Hill, and Lisa Weber Hewitt, who lives in Mayfair. The women have spent their own money, creating and distributing thousands of flyers highlighting the most controversial aspects of the plan. The group’s yards signs have sprouted on lawns across the five affected neighborhoods. 

They question the unfair burden of higher density on homeowners with less economic means than those living in wealthier areas. And, they wonder why the desire to maintain modest single-family homes in long-established neighborhoods has become the equivalent of a dirty word.

“We are fighting this plan because currently it is not thoughtful, sustainable or inclusive,” Taylor said. 

In anecdote after anecdote, they described encountering property owners and renters who have never heard of the plan – a similar scenario to the overflow room of neighbors at the July meeting who reported being unaware. They are doing, they maintain, what the city should have long ago done.

“Why hasn’t the city sent notifications or meaningfully communicated to everyone who is affected, that they will be impacted and their property potentially rezoned?” asked Carolan. “We’re doing this because the city hasn’t.”

The rabbit hole of social media

The controversy has also inspired long threads on social media, including on NextDoor and on neighborhood Facebook pages, drawing hundreds of comments.

Numerous commenters, many of whom do not live in the impacted areas, have expressed support for aspects of the plan, including density along transit routes and the need to welcome people moving into the area. Nam Henderson, who is on the board of GPHC, has weighed in, saying he is encouraged at the prospect of the possibilities of affordable housing.

Another GPHC board member, Justin Petaccio, noted there is currently no guarantee for affordability in the plan, “but doing nothing only guarantees increasing unaffordability.”

“The reality is that people don’t like it because they would prefer not to live in density, which is totally fine, however without any sacrifice we will not do any better,” Petaccio wrote.

Kate Swan, who lives in the proposed high density zone, responded, echoing what others have expressed: “I am utterly unconvinced that adding density will increase affordability or diversity.”

Many commenters wrote they fully support improvements and higher-density development along Colfax itself. Colfax itself is already zoned to allow buildings between 3-5 stories.

For the most part, the social media dialogue has been respectful, if at times lively. However, Andy Sense, who was appointed to serve on the city’s steering committee by Councilman Herndon, has been less tactful. He’s accused opponents of spreading misinformation, being unwilling to be inclusive, and has called those who don’t share his viewpoints “privileged,” “dishonest,” and even “stupid.”

“I’ve gotten to the point where I believe I share no values with my neighbors and I basically now assume they are all a bunch of classist I’ve-got-mine-ists who are also willfully stupid,” Sense wrote on one thread, which was subsequently shared on another of his threads.

Sense’s public comments are noteworthy as he is one of the 11 citizens appointed to the steering committee, representing the city and the neighborhood on this issue.

Funding shortfall sidelines BRT

At the July meeting, Upton told the overflow crowd that at least two more public meetings would be held, with a final draft plan expected in September. The plan, Upton said, would then go back to the steering committee in the fall, and on to the planning board. The Denver City Council would ultimately vote on the plan, possibly this winter.

However, a week after the July 25 meeting, a curveball appeared.

As reported by the Denver Post, the bulk of the funding to build the Bus Rapid Transit – considered a driving factor for the East Area Plan – has not materialized.

The Bus Rapid Transit, which has recently also generated intense controversy, is a plan designed to improve the transit corridor along Colfax from Broadway to Yosemite, which is the eastern edge where Denver meets Aurora.

Under the current plan, Colfax – which currently runs two traffic lanes in each direction – would be reconfigured to reduce car traffic to one lane going east and one lane going west. The buses would run down the middle of Colfax, stopping at the identified high-density stops every quarter-mile.

Critics say the extra traffic will undoubtedly spill over to other already-stressed east-west roads – including 23rd, Montview, 17th, 13th and 14th, as well as onto residential streets running north and south. 

However, planners have maintained that car traffic would decrease with the addition of faster bus service. Colfax currently has the highest bus ridership of any corridor in the region – more than 22,000 every weekday. RTD projects that number to increase to more than 50,000 by 2035.

In 2017, Denver voters approved $55 million for the BRT, with another $20 million approved for improvements for sidewalks, streetscaping, traffic calming and other safety measures along Colfax.

As reported by the Denver Post in early August, preliminary city estimates now put the total cost of the BRT project at more than $200 million, though the final budget hasn’t been determined. The city has not secured additional funding, meaning the project – which the city projected would begin construction as soon as 2022, could likely be delayed until the late 2020s.

“I need to know where that money is, where that project stands, and what comes next,” Councilwoman Sawyer was quoted saying. “We can’t be planning an entire (East Denver) area plan around something that’s not going to happen. We need to have some specifics.”

Following the reports of the budget shortfalls to the BRT, city planners cancelled an Aug. 22 public meeting for the East Area Plan. As of press time no new dates for public meetings have been announced.


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