By Chad Reischl
When St. Anthony’s Hospital moved out of the West Colfax neighborhood to a new facility in Lakewood, it left the community with an opportunity for a large redevelopment project. The property was purchased by EnviroFinance Group, a horizontal developer, which is currently in the process of demolishing the hospital and setting plans in place for individual parcels to be sold to vertical developers. The General Development Plan (GDP) planning process has been going on for nearly a year and a half and is scheduled to go before the Denver Planning Board for final review in mid-November. Recently, a small group of local citizens who has concerns over the size, scale and layout of the project, has latched on to a discrepancy in the interpretation of the city’s zoning code and is rallying together to fight the project on this ground.
The discrepancy centers on the interpretation of the Open Space requirement proposed in the City’s GDP process. Before getting into the issue, however, here’s Denver’s definition of a GDP for those who may not know what it entails.
126.96.36.199 A. A General Development Plan (GDP) establishes a framework for future land use and development and resulting public infrastructure. The GDP provides an opportunity to identify issues and the development’s relationship with significant public infrastructure improvements such as major multi-modal facilities and connections thereto, major utility facilities, and publicly accessible parks and open spaces. An approved GDP provides a master plan for coordinating development, infrastructure improvements, and regulatory decisions as development proceeds within the subject area. An approved GDP also constitutes a master plan that is a prerequisite to zoning within the Master Plan neighborhood
Under this clause in the city’s zoning code, there is a sub-clause regarding open space provision in the GDP. It reads:
188.8.131.52 A minimum of 10% of the total GDP area (including the Primary Area plus any Secondary Areas) shall be included in the GDP as open space.
The statement above seems quite simple and straight forward, but as we shall see, the lack of any subsequent detail allows it to get quite cloudy very quickly. The problems are twofold: how do you define the GDP area and what concessions does the developer get for having to deed back land to the city in the form of streets.
The developer, in this case, wants to not only develop their parcel, but also improve the streetscape on the surrounding streets. Since the streets around the project contain a mixed bag of sidewalk infrastructure (some attached to the curb, some detached, some missing or in poor shape) and at least one street lacks parking on the development side, EFG wants to have control over their half of the street Right-of-Way (ROW) on the surrounding streets for these improvements. Additionally, they are proposing to create bulb-outs at the street corners for an improved pedestrian environment at the entrances to their development. In order to make these changes however, EFG needed to expand their GDP area to include these ROWs. Since this is not developable land and not land they purchased, EFG suggested that it should not be included in the “Total GDP area” that is used to define the amount of open space they need to provide.
The second issue is internal to the site. When the developer bought the St Anthony’s site, part of what they purchased was a super-block within Denver’s existing street grid (they also purchased one stand-alone block). The West Colfax Plan (created after the announcement that St. A’s was moving) insisted that the street grid be reintroduced to this super block. In other words, EFG needs to divide the super-block into six blocks and give a significant portion of their land back to the city as a re-created street grid. By my calculation, this eliminates approximately 15% of the property they purchased. The developer is arguing that the city’s open space requirement should not apply to land that they are giving back to the city in the form of the streets, tree lawns, sidewalks and sidewalk amenity zones that they are creating for the citizens of Denver.
Essentially, the developer is arguing that the total required open space on the property be limited to 10% of the “Net” GDP area (or in other words the land they can physically develop). Consequently, the GDP shows a fraction more than 10% of the “net” project area dedicated to open space. The city planners (at the moment) are in agreement that this is a reasonable application of the standard and the GDP is about to go to the planning board for final hearing on November 20, 2013.
A group of local citizens has recently decided to protest this application on the grounds that the city has an insufficient amount of open space and that the developer should not be allowed to create 10% “net” open space but rather be mandated to dedicate 10% of the total “gross” area to open space. They believe that we, as a city, do not have many chances to increase the amount of publicly accessible open space and that this is one of our best opportunities to get this needed land (essentially for free) from the developer. Therefore, we must do everything we can to ensure that they provide us with the maximum amount of open space dictated by the zoning code.
Another local group is siding with the developer, saying that we have plenty of open space in the neighborhood (the development is right across the street from one of Denver’s largest parks) and not enough quality “urban space” (i.e. walkable streets and plazas for gatherings, which are included in the plan). They feel that using the “net GDP area” to determine open space is being fair to the developer who has been asked to create a lot of streets and pedestrian amenities in the development. They also argue that creating too much open space within the development will not serve to create the kind of dense, pedestrian friendly, urban development they’d like to see in the neighborhood, and create additional spaces that could host the kind of criminal activities (i.e. prostitution and drugs) that currently happen within the neighborhood.
What do you think?
Chad Reischl is an aspiring urban planner with a background in architecture and landscape design. He has a Master’s in Urban and Regional Planning from UC-Denver with an emphasis in urban place making and economic development. Chad is currently a resident of the West Colfax Neighborhood of Denver and is co-president of the West Colfax Association of Neighbors (WeCAN). He is dedicated to creating sustainable, healthy, and well connected urban communities for future generations to enjoy.