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Downzoning Northwest Denver is Contrary to Sustainable Development Goals

Opinion Editorial
August 4, 2009

By  Mike Krause

City planners are seeking to slam the brakes on duplex development in the Berkeley neighborhood of northwest Denver by simply downzoning the whole area. But the fact is that duplexes play an important role in both the ongoing demographic shift from the suburbs back into the city, and in the organic development of Berkeley into an ever more dynamic, walkable and desirable neighborhood.

In June, the first draft of Denver’s new zoning code was introduced to the tax-paying public. Under the draft code, Berkeley–along with a significant portion of the rest of northwest Denver–is to be re-zoned from R-2 (which depending on lot size, allows for multi-family construction) to an “Urban” district neighborhood with a “Single Unit” designation.

“In the future, only single-unit structures will be allowed in any Single-Unit zone district after the new code is adopted,” wrote Denver City Councilman Rick Garcia, commenting on the draft code in the North Denver News.

But it’s not as though the entire Berkeley neighborhood is in danger of being bulldozed for duplex development. The ability to build and sell duplexes profitably is constrained already by lot size requirements and land prices.

Many of the houses that have been torn down to make way for duplex construction have either been uninhabitable, or simply outlived their useful life. The new, large and often quite nice duplexes built in their place simply satisfy the lifestyle choices of fairly affluent contemporary home buyers who want to live in a Denver urban core neighborhood, but demand the square footage and amenities (master suite, home office, etc.) that before were mostly available only in suburban neighborhoods.

Some complaints about duplexes are valid; that they’re too big, and block out the potential solar access of adjacent houses. Fair enough, but those same complaints are also often made about new single family construction. Such issues can be mitigated with some basic design standards. City planners claim to already be working on such standards for single family building, so why not simply include some design standards for duplexes?

More importantly, duplex development has helped pave the way for developers to test the waters of new single family construction in Berkeley. For instance, developer Bruce Prior has recently been building (and selling) highly attractive Craftsman style single family homes on large lots in Berkeley. If this movement proves to make economic sense, we should see a market-driven–rather than a government mandated–move away from duplexes and towards new single family construction.

The proposed blanket downzoning of Berkeley is an arbitrary ban on housing choice that is at odds with the vision for the Tennyson Street Corridor (Tennyson Street between 38th and 46th avenues) as Berkeley’s “pedestrian friendly” business district.

Among other things, “pedestrian friendly” development assumes that people who live within walking distance of Tennyson will help support that development. But downzoning puts up artificial barriers to sustainable growth, meaning that as Tennyson Street seeks to continue its development, the number of neighbors within walking distance will remain roughly the same.

“The proposed zoning moves in the direction of freeze-drying our neighborhoods, as if they are already the best that they can be.” says Denver architect Michael Knorr. “This only stifles new ideas and discourages monetary investment. It will limit the number and diversity of people attracted to our redeveloping neighborhoods,” continues Knorr.

Put another way, simply downzoning Berkeley and most of the rest of northwest Denver flies in the face of the sustainable and contextual development that the designers of the new zoning code claim to want to encourage. The new code should empower property owners at least as much as it empowers planners, regulators and politicians. We aren’t there yet.

The website for the new zoning code is www.newcodedenver.org. It is interactive, and public comment is being taken for the next draft of the code.

Mike Krause is a senior fellow at the Independence Institute and a home owner in the Berkeley neighborhood of Denver.