A couple weeks back, while perusing new concept development plans, I noticed a Jack in the Box drive-thru restaurant proposed for 1801 E Colfax, the northeast corner of Williams and Colfax. That lot has sat vacant for years after a previous re-development effort fell through. 

I do not have a car, I do not eat meat, and I do not have any interest in visiting Jack in the Box. Yet it didn’t shock me to see a proposal for one on Colfax. I tweeted out the concept plan and heard anger, frustration, and surprise from many people, some who thought that City Council had changed the zoning on Colfax so you couldn’t do drive-thrus anymore. I believe people took that impression away after reading a Denverite article this July. I recommend reading it closely before diving in with me, as it gets local politicians on the record about their intentions.

Why do drive-thrus exist on Colfax right now? And why would anyone go about trying to stop that? These are the questions I wanted to spend some time with before tackling the proposed rezoning by Councilman Hinds and Councilwoman Sawyer (which does more than banning drive-thrus). Then, I’ll end with policy recommendations I believe might be better in pushing new development away from car-brain and towards more sustainable, person-first modes.

Trafficking in Denver’s Main Street urbanism

Before we had cars, we had legs. Shortly after developing legs, people developed the streetcar, or so I understand. As this blog has previously explored, Denver’s historic streetcar network informed the vibrant urban fabric many of us enjoy in our neighborhoods. Human-powered movement and transit work well together! So much of our city was built up around the streetcar, in fact, that some streetcar streets became our main streets. We later ascribed definitions to what makes a “main street” in our city plans and zoning code. But after the streetcar came the bus, and though on many of our main streets we’ll soon have a better bus, Denver planners, urbanists, and history buffs continue to pine for streetcar-like urbanism.

Where did that go? A century has passed between Denver’s peak streetcar ridership and today. It’s not like we lost the technology behind this mode of travel. Instead, we lost a culture of transit ridership and the market for private operators of profitable transit service. How did we lose it? To put it simply, government policy supported the ease of driving to and through the city to the exclusion of everything else: the construction of highways, implementation of parking requirements, literal zoning, “urban renewal” in historic blocks of the city, the constant widening of city streets. This policy regime worked in tandem with the private sector to bring auto-centric uses to Denver’s main streets. Think about the many gas stations, auto shops, street parking and private lots, towing services, car dealerships, motor hotels, and drive-through services (including fast food restaurants) operating on Colfax, Federal, Santa Fe Drive, and Colorado Boulevard. These businesses in turn suppress transit ridership, cycling, and walking along our main streets. Who takes the bus to a gas station? Who bikes to an auto-body shop? Businesses that cater to drivers will continue to make money on Denver’s main streets as long as there is demand for their services and a policy regime predicated on the convenience of drivers.

In this framework, drive-thru restaurants are just one edifice to centering life around access to a private vehicle. Convenient, fast food for drivers comes at the expense of people using sidewalks and transit to get to their destination. Picture the situation. You’re trying to walk to the bus stop, or roll down the street. There might be inclement weather, or it could be dark out. Perhaps the restaurant you’re passing doesn’t have inside dining, or locks their dining room doors after 9pm. A driver waiting to receive their food from the window is idling their large vehicle, their bright lights at a strange angle, almost blinding you. Meanwhile, another driver is waiting for their moment to pull left across oncoming traffic to get into line at the drive-thru; the sidewalk has a curb cut to accommodate this turning movement, and when the driver gets their gap in oncoming traffic, are they looking for you walking down the block? Is the driver at the window looking for you when they pull out of the restaurant and back into traffic? Even with the best weather conditions and the most considerate drivers imaginable, most people wouldn’t like walking down this street. Main street drive-thrus put pedestrians second to the satisfaction of drivers; continuing to plan for automotive businesses and convenience for drivers requires off-putting encounters for everyone else.

Urbanist dissatisfaction with the drive-thru is not limited to Denver. Other cities have already banned new drive-thrus, mainly by targeting the drive-thru windows. If anything, Denver is late to this question, though not for lack of considering it. When the city put together our new zoning code back in 2010, planners actually considered “restrictions” that would have prevented the development of big-box stores and drive-thrus, citywide. In lieu of banning the building form, the city started to tinker with the standards to which they might be built to make them more comfortable for people not in cars, more “urban.” The tool they came up with was the Main Street (MS) zone district. Across the city’s urban contexts, the purpose of MS zoning was to design for pedestrian access first, ensure a pleasant ground-floor retail experience, and to stop new developments from putting a parking lot in between their structure and the given main street. Drive-Thru building forms are currently permitted in the MS zone, but as less egregious forms of drive-thrus, their dining rooms or services mandated close to the street, with entrances for pedestrians off Colfax, and no new curb cuts across the Colfax sidewalk that threaten pedestrians. That’s definitely better than it was! But to my knowledge, no development using the Drive-Thru Restaurant building form has been constructed on Colfax since Denver adopted the new code in 2010. Nothing, unless this Jack in the Box goes forward.

The status quo remains, with a new drive-thru proposed and the old ones making ample profit. But there is actually a big change coming to Denver’s main streets, one which is making the City operate differently. City money combined with state and federal interests will implement center-running, bus rapid transit down Colfax Avenue, with other city streets like Federal and Colorado Boulevards to follow. Money like this doesn’t come often enough to take for granted; the precedent we set up with the Colfax BRT, including land-use adjacent to the corridor, will seem the blueprint for future BRT corridors.

Several city plans strategize how to make the most of this transit investment, through land use changes, micro-mobility policies, and physical infrastructure that supports walking, cycling, and taking transit to these Colfax BRT stations. Supporting the adopted plans’ land use recommendations, CM Hinds and CW Sawyer have proposed rezoning around 600 acres of prime Colfax real estate to apply a design overlay (DO-8) developed by Councilwoman Sandoval several years ago. “The gist of the overlay is to prioritize people over stuff,” says CM Hinds in the Denverite article. That priority would only apply to zone lots that are zoned MS, larger than a certain size, and within (roughly) two blocks of the planned BRT stations. (No zoning overlay is proposed for the northeast corner of Williams and Colfax, a green light to Jack in the Box.) The map of the parcels they’re proposing to rezone below.

How Would the DO-8 Overlay Change Colfax?

Let’s just over-explain Denver’s form-and-context-based zoning code for a second here. Denver’s zoning code does more than determine the height and use of a given lot in the city. It also determines which building forms can be built in a given zone, and assigns specific requirements to those building forms based on 6 urban contexts. For instance, when building in an MS zone like Colfax, you have to conform to one of four building forms: Shopfront, Townhouse, Drive-thru services, and Drive-thru restaurant. Each of those building forms has different build-to and transparency requirements, different allowed uses for the building form, and sometimes further restrictions on size than the height of the zone district prescribes. Even if you’ve got a great idea for a project that would house tons of new residents and activate the public realm, if it doesn’t conform to one of those four building forms, you can’t build it in the Main Street zone. 

Additionally, the DZC provides for design standards, overlays, design review boards, and administrative review procedures. DO-8 is the eighth design overlay of Denver’s modern zoning code, recently developed by a sitting Councilwoman, Amanda Sandoval, who was looking to stop a particular problem along Tennyson Street north of West 38th Avenue. The problem was that commercial storefronts were being re-developed into more profitable, residential-only projects that didn’t contribute to an active street life. The issue with those projects, referred to as slot homes, involved how their front doors faced away from the public realm, the homes built atop ground-level garages visible from Tennyson Street. DO-8 was a clever tool to make redevelopment produce a vibrant street with small storefronts. Though the problem of slot homes is not a problem on Colfax, and the problem of drive-thrus and self-storage was not the issue on Tennyson, the DO-8 purports to implement better standards on both corridors.

Whether on Tennyson or Colfax, Main Street and Mixed Use zoning don’t require a commercial property to re-develop as commercial. MS and MX zoning allow for mixed-use buildings, but don’t require them. In contrast, the DO-8 overlay uniquely requires “non-residential active use,” on the ground-floor of new development using the Shopfront building form. This is not equivalent with ground-floor retail, per se. In the overlay, any space that isn’t a dwelling or reserved for the residents of the development is “non-residential”; any use that isn’t auto services, wholesale trade, or light/self storage is “active”. A new development could comply by having some of the ground floor as a office, a medical laboratory, a school, a place of worship, or small retail. 

This overlay prescribes a new standard in Colfax redevelopment, especially as the overlay has its origins in a much more fine-grained urban street. As Denverite already reports, yes, it disallows the Drive-Thru Services and Drive-Thru Restaurant building forms, and of the two remaining building forms in the MS zone, it requires buildings with long primary street frontage to escalate their non-residential active uses and set back new residential entries to allow for residential stoops and privacy. On a street with small frontages like Tennyson, you’d still have the option either to build the Townhouse or Shopfront building form. On an east-west street as a long as Colfax, the DO-8 makes the Townhouse building form infeasible in favor of the Shopfront building form, which will require long stretches of non-residential active use within the re-developed parcels close to BRT stops. 

So… Drive-Thrus?

This overlay sounds great! Auto-services, residential amenities, and light storage are not particularly inviting to pedestrians. The DO-8 will make every new development near BRT stops visitable, regardless of whether you live there. But it won’t be applied to the entire length of East Colfax, and even if the overlay were applied to every lot along Colfax, the DO-8 does not actually stop new drive-thrus from being built on this particular main street. The Starbucks at Colfax and Ivy, the Chick-fil-a at Colfax and Jackson, and the McDonalds at Colfax and Perry were all constructed using the Shopfront building form, which remains allowed after the rezoning. To my reading, those examples largely conform with the new requirements from the DO-8, as they provide “non-residential active use” as defined in the overlay. So this overlay isn’t the final blow to auto-centric uses on Colfax, like drive-thrus, as casual observers might have understood it.

Even still, I support the rezoning, and applaud CM Hinds and CW Sawyer on their proactive work to prepare Colfax for the coming transit investments. I think the DO-8 will ensure higher-quality redevelopment by new BRT stops, and takes the public realm more seriously than the current entitlement. But better than Colfax and other wide commercial streets, I’d recommend that, going forward, City Council restrain the DO-8 to the tightly woven urban main streets that are most vulnerable to change and exploitation, retail corridors and centers like South Pearl Street, E Evans Ave, Fairfax Street, South Gaylord Street, West 32nd Avenue, downtown Barnum, etc.

Policy Suggestions

If you want (even more) housing, ground-floor retail, and a vibrant, safe pedestrian experience along Colfax and other main streets in Denver, there are several policy reforms that could improve the future of the streetscape and public realm, prioritizing people over private vehicles, and making the most of upcoming transit investments.

Expanding Housing Affordability

First we have a policy literally ready to go! Denver now has inclusionary zoning for developments of 10 homes or more. There are ways to pay your way out of it, and there are incentives to cooperate with the new policy. When passing EHA, the city proposed incentivizing developers to exceed affordability requirements in exchange for removing parking requirements for all new developments near high-capacity transit corridors and fixed-rail stops. Building parking for a new building is expensive, and often takes up room in the structure that could be sold or rented for a higher price per square foot. But several Councilmembers opposed waiving parking requirements on planned corridors, arguing there weren’t reliable services along those corridors at the moment, and new development would leave residents with no way to get around without a car. Council compromised on waiving the parking requirement for affordable housing near rail stops, but only committed to extending that incentive to transit corridors once there was money allocated for construction. So this waived minimum parking requirement will eventually extend to sites near Colfax BRT. Doesn’t this effort to preemptively apply the DO-8 show that it’s better to push development towards transit-supportive use in advance of that transit’s implementation? 

Again, this enhanced incentive for developers is already applicable within a quarter mile of fixed rail stops. Let’s deploy this incentive along all major corridors in Denver with BRT planned, as originally intended, corridors like Colorado Boulevard, Federal Boulevard, 38th Avenue, Speer Boulevard, and Colfax. Housing takes a long time to propose, plan, and build in this town. We ought to provide the runway for affordable housing developers to plan the right projects for these BRT corridors.

Then again, Council could always go further and eliminate all parking requirements in the city? Or maybe the statehouse will make that decision for us.

Modify the underlying zone districts to remove auto services

It seems more work than necessary, going to every corridor and rezoning to add the DO-8. The two Councilmembers sponsoring this rezoning also stressed that in a market analysis of Colfax, requiring ground-floor retail along the whole corridor couldn’t be supported by the commercial market. Those market conditions are real, and restricted the scope of the rezoning to within 2 blocks of the BRT stops. But facially, if we don’t want more auto-centric land use on our transit corridors, if we want “people over stuff,” we have the ability to write those permissible uses out of certain zone districts, or condition them as being further than half a mile, say, from frequent transit service. Those reforms would just require a simple text amendment of the DZC, which seems a quicker and more effective clean-up to me than going through every corridor and finding what percentage we can require to be ground-floor commercial without sinking the CRE market in Denver.

Target the worst vehicle infrastructure

If you want to ban drive-thrus, you can just ban new drive-thru windows, as was done in Milwaukee. It’s that straightforward. But if you want to make them infeasible without outright banning them, perhaps it’d be better to set a cap on the square-footage of impervious surface at the ground plane in any new commercial development? You could restrict that impervious surface to a certain percentage of the lot, or introduce a flat cap like some cities are doing to decorative turf. Even of the more “urban” drive-thrus built recently, their parking and drive-thru lanes dedicate over half an acre of urban land to concrete and tires.

A policy to reduce new impervious surface in the city would help to make new developments greener, neighborhoods more resistant to flooding, and to reduce the urban heat island effect, which will only grow more urgent as it will get hotter and hotter in Denver due to global climate change.


To be clear, the sponsors of this rezoning never said their premise was to end drive-thrus on Colfax. They want to make Colfax more vibrant and walkable. This proposal will contribute to the vibrancy and walkability of Colfax, no doubt. So write to your city councilmember and urge them to vote “Yes,” on the proposed DO-8 overlay when it comes up at Council on December 11th. But once this overlay has passed, let’s think a little bigger and build a broader, louder constituency that opposes new car-centric land use on transit corridors and historic main streets. Sure, Big Car Wash and fast-food franchise owners will say that this infringes on their ability to expand their business in Denver. But really, are we going to let Golden beat us to the punch on this?