We all want to live in vibrant neighborhoods. Areas with easy access to grocery stores, schools, neighborhood retail, and transit. We all want to be able to walk to a park and grab a coffee on the way. Denver is fortunate to have a rich network of neighborhoods that provide premier quality of life. This is why people decide to move to Denver and why so many residents want to stay. The good news is that all (current and future residents) can enjoy these opportunities with just a very simple amendment to our zoning code.
In 2010, Denver’s “form-based” zoning code down-zoned vast areas of the city to a “single unit” or SU zoning. That means that no matter how big the structure on the lot, only one family can occupy the house. This is an entirely arbitrary designation and has no relation to how big the structure is or what it looks like and often results in large (5,000–6,000 SF) luxury homes. This land use policy that only allows for single-family home begs the question: Who is Denver for? Do we zone our city so the only people who can live in our neighborhoods are the ones that can afford a 5,000 SF house?
Through the two years of the Denveright outreach process, we have boldly said that we want a Denver that is INCLUSIVE, COMPLETE, and AUTHENTIC. This inspiring vision is in stark contrast with the zoning map that shows predominate Single Unit zoning in our neighborhoods. SU zoning results in neighborhoods that are income-segregated and inaccessible to average working-class people. As a result, Denver workers are forced to live in the suburbs and commute to work contributing to traffic and pollution.
So what can we do about it? As our mothers taught us, we should share. Our neighborhoods can accommodate more residents if we permit the 5,000–6,000 square foot structures that are already allowed in the SU zoning to contain up to four dwelling units. Both “Urban House” and “Suburban House” building forms can accommodate 1–4 units without changing their exterior appearance or size. Weather by renovation of existing homes or development of new ones, we can significantly increase the supply of housing near jobs and services and reduce the need for driving. And because the four units on a lot share the cost of land and are smaller (1,000–1,500 SF), they are inherently more affordable.
Left: Comparison of floor plans showing how four homes can occupy the same space as one large single-unit home. Right: Front elevations showing how a four-home structure can have the same size and appearance as one large single-home structure.
Denver’s vision of inclusivity and affordability can only come true if we allow our neighborhoods to become complete with housing options. The 1–4 unit structures fill the “missing middle” housing gap allowing residents who cannot afford or don’t want to live in a single-family home or a high-rise apartment to live near the urban core. If we make our biggest asset—Denver’s neighborhoods—attainable to people of all income levels we will create the equitable and sustainable city we all hope for.
Gosia Kung is a mom, architect and urbanist, immigrant from Poland, founder of WalkDenver, runner, and an occasional artist.
Minneapolis recently changed their zoning to eliminate single family home designation as its own category. Definitely a step in the right direction! Park Hill is most certainly one of Denver’s worst single family offenders, where 7K s.f. lots are the norm and 20k-30k s.f. lots are not at all uncommon. This article shows what change can look like. Kudos!
Great article. Allowing a minimum for four units throughout Denver’s lowest density residential neighborhoods is desperately needed. But I don’t think that reform alone will produce enough housing or the complete diversity of housing that this city needs. There is more to the missing middle that exists between four-plexes and high-rises. Take a walk around neighborhoods like Cap Hill. They are full of three story walk up apartments which hold a dozen or more apartments on a small lot. I was just in a condo building in Cap Hill the other week which I would have assumed from the outside was a 4 or 6 unit building. It was built in the 1890s, has a large porch on the main level, and includes 2 floors above ground and one “garden level” floor. Come to find out, there are 23 units in this building. This couldn’t be built today in most of Denver not just because of zoning but also due to minimum parking requirements. Or another example is the quaint Tudor style apartment building in Congress Park at 13th and Detroit. It contains 14 units and blends in spectacularly in its residential surroundings and even incomes some parking (probably not enough for today’s code however): https://firstname.lastname@example.org,-104.953549,3a,82.9y,191.78h,104.92t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1surd3TvTCAeqGizYW7N6tuw!2e0!7i16384!8i8192
The discussion about four-plexes needs to be paired with a discussion about the harmful impacts of parking requirements. We also need to look at the full spectrum of missing middle housing opportunities, not just the extremes of SFH-look-alike low density and skyscrapers. There are plenty of development possibilities that lie between those ends of the spectrum and I believe all Denver neighborhoods should include areas which accommodate these “medium density” housing typologies.
Thank you for this very thoughtful comment. You are exactly right – we definitely need more building forms in our zoning code! It’s been on my mind for quite some time. The prevalence of “slot homes” is the evidence that this type of density is much needed but there are no building forms available to the developers to deliver the product that market demands. I think I may consider this my next “art project” – developing “missing middle” building forms. :-). Cheers!
Cheers, Rich! You are dead on. Small apartments should be considered for inclusion and parking should be minimized or eliminated.
For preserving historic neighborhoods, Denver’s on the right path with things like U-TU-C zones, which allow for multi-unit housing but only within a certain restrictions (lots have to be 5,500 sq ft, height restricted to 30′, etc.).
That is a great option, and you are right – it won’t change the feel of the neighborhood. There are many duplexes or quadriplexes that you have to look twice to even notice that they are not single-family homes, and for the residents, it feels like a house, (because it is)!
(Additional comment) I also think Denver would benefit from changing much of the first few lots surrounding City Park from G-MU-3, which limits builds to 3 stories, to G-MU-12 or G-MU 20, which would allow up to 12 or 20 stories, respectively. Major urban parks are typically surrounded by high-rises (sort of like the northern parts of Cheesman are now, or how parts of Sloan Lake now have C-MX-12 zoning), and it blows my mind this opportunity isn’t seized by Denver. Buildings of that height are also great because they can build parking into the first few stories of their buildings. Adding a large stock of condo and apartment inventory in that area would also ease prices elsewhere in the city, and help businesses along Colfax just 2 blocks south. With Rapid Bus Transit going in, it will benefit Colfax to have more density up on 17th where it makes sense. Besides, there are already two towers grandfathered in by old hospital zoning there. It makes sense to create more density.
An issue I see with these 4-unit designs is wasted space for things like hallways. If the four units’ entrances could be moved to the outside, that would add about 200 square feet to each unit. When you’re talking about living in less than 1,500 square feet, every square INCH counts.
Parking and traffic are already a hassle in the urban core. How are we going to accommodate 4X as many cars on the roads? (The floor plans included parking spaces, but those additional cars will be on the roads during rush hour.)
Fundamentally, I think the real issue is that land is just too expensive. Same issue as in places like San Francisco, where living in the urban core is only feasible for the very wealthy. This phenomenon has even filtered out into the suburbs, where “paired homes” and clusters of homes with shared driveways are now being built. And even then, those homes are still over $450,000.
This would be great, but only if accompanied by design review. In my neighborhood there are many examples of historic duplexes that fit really nicely into the neighborhood. Unfortunately, newly built duplexes are often built without sensitivity to their neighbors and the neighborhood. And I’m not just criticizing use of materials or style though I think both are sometimes problematic, often I think the problem is scale.
Who says that nice single-family homes aren’t affordable?
Cute little starter home in neighborhood of much more-expensive homes. 3-BRs, 2-BAs, 1721 sq ft, 2-car garage, on 6721 sq ft lot. Great location close to light rail, bus line, library, grocery store, shopping; drugstore, golf, and large park. Easy commute to downtown, hospitals, universities. Historic upscale shopping nearby. Just $139K asking.
doesn’t our gaziion dollar investment in light rail give people the option to live in places besides denver’s most coveted locations?
with the light rail you can build all the villages fitting your desired economic mix, like out by the airport for example. it’s wide open.
i agree we need better neighborhoods, but the areas by downtown are limited in size. whether you change the zoning or not, there’s only so much space and your solutions will be limited.
the light rail is hopefully for more than just bringing people into work. it should also help accomplish the problem cited with distributing the middle classes into appropriate and functioning neighborhoods all around the metro.