Conservation Overlay District One Possible Solution
By Jeff Pearson, Will Baker, Judy Wolfe, Calvin Lee, Erik Stark, Shane Sutherland, Rebecca Rogers, Mark Davidson
Park Hill Conservation Overlay Committee
On the evening of Sept. 25, the Park Hill Conservation Overlay Committee sponsored a meeting at Park Hill Congregational Church to introduce the community to the idea of a conservation overlay district in Park Hill. About 30 people attended. The meeting included several presentations, questions from the audience and discussion.
The Park Hill Conservation Overlay Committee is a subcommittee of Greater Park Hill Community, Inc. It grew out of the acrimonious conflict in Park Hill in 2016 over efforts to designate part of the neighborhood as a historic district. As the conflict wore on, a mediator employed by the city invited representatives of those favoring and those opposing historic designation to meet.
Meetings of the two sides did not change minds about historic designation, but in discussions the representatives of the two groups recognized a shared concern about the impact on Park Hill of total home demolitions, or scrapes, followed by rebuilds vastly larger and more expensive than their predecessors. Neighborhood diversity is in part a function of diversity in the size and price of housing stock. If scrapes allow larger, more expensive homes incrementally to squeeze out more modest ones, Park Hill will become less diverse.
The city mediator introduced the pro- and anti-historic designation representatives to a rarely used measure in the Denver zoning code called a conservation overlay. He suggested that it might permit relatively modest changes to underlying zoning in Park Hill that would limit the degree to which total scrapes could be replaced by much larger new homes, while still allowing other forms of home modification and expansion, and not bringing a new set of rules and regulations into play, that could would occur with historic designation. Eventually, after the proponents of historic designation took that concept to the table, the two sides agreed to pursue the conservation overlay option together.
Historic Denver, Inc., allowed $6,200 remaining in a historic designation “action fund” that it had made available to the pro side to be repurposed so that the group could hire two urban development professionals with expertise in conservation overlay districts. This action fund money consisted of Historic Denver donations, not SCFD funding. The group itself raised another $700 toward hiring the experts.
At the Sept. 25 meeting, a member of the Conservation Overlay Committee introduced the conservation overlay concept and described how the committee came about. The two experts hired by the committee, Richard Farley and Ellen Ittelson, summarized their analysis of the physical characteristics of houses in six sample study blocks of a potential conservation overlay zone (roughly identical to the area that had been targeted for historic designation). These included lot size and coverage; building height, building form, building mass and setbacks. In various charts, the consultants illustrated home expansion or modification outcomes, including total scrapes followed by larger rebuilds, as allowed under existing zoning; and how these outcomes might be altered under a conservation overlay plan.
Kristofer Johnson of Denver Community Planning and Development made a presentation on city code provisions governing Conservation Overly Districts.
In a nutshell, an overlay plan may make as many or as few changes to existing zoning in a neighborhood as the neighborhood desires; the changes may be more or less restrictive than the status quo. An overlay proposal must ultimately be submitted to city council along with maps and drawings depicting exactly what changes in existing zoning are proposed.
There currently are five Denver neighborhoods that have adopted conservation overlays, and Mr. Johnson stated that, in the case of each of them, ordinances for the overlays were introduced to and approved by city council only after the neighborhoods demonstrated strong community support for the proposed changes.
At the end of the Sept. 25 meeting, those in attendance were asked to take a simple poll, ranking a few neighborhood priorities.
The Park Hill Conservation Overlay Committee is developing a website to enable the larger community to evaluate the conservation overlay concept and the research performed by the committee consultants. The committee will hold future public meetings.
Apart from the conservation overlay, the committee is also considering the idea of a citywide deconstruction recycling ordinance. As adopted in other cities, such an ordinance requires that the demolition waste from total scrapes, estimated at over 40 tons for a 1,400 square-foot home, be recycled rather than dumped in a landfill. However, this idea and the conservation overlay will be pursued separately. The former requires a citywide legal change, the latter a neighborhood one.