July 20, 2009
By Mike Krause
Under Denver’s current clunky, antiquated and bureaucrat-friendly zoning code, the construction of accessory dwelling units (ADUs, also know as granny flats or carriage houses) is not allowed in Denver neighborhoods.
But in June, and with remarkably little media attention, city planners introduced the first draft of Denver’s new zoning code that quite smartly allows ADUs again, but only in certain parts of Denver.
One big problem though: As currently written, the new code doesn’t allow ADUs in my part of town, the Berkeley neighborhood in northwest Denver.
This is a big mistake that needs to be remedied.
Under the draft code, Berkeley — along with a significant portion of the rest of northwest Denver — is being re-zoned from R-2 (which, depending on lot size, allows for multi-family construction) to an “Urban Single Unit” neighborhood designation that allows single family detached housing only. In other words, no more duplexes, and more significantly, no granny flats allowed.
But that the new zoning coded denies the option of ADUs to Berkeley residents, as well as other areas of Denver, defies logic and flies in the face of the sustainable and contextual development that the new zoning code is supposed to be encouraging.
For example, my wife and I could only afford to live in Berkeley by buying an 800 square foot “fixer-upper” with no garage and no closet space (in other words, a house that has outlived its useful life) that happens to sit on a large (double) lot. We love it here. According to data collected by Redfin, my little Berkeley shack has a “walk score” of 92 (probably a bit inflated, but still great), making it a “walkers’ paradise.” There are numerous other properties like ours scattered throughout Berkeley. Since we can’t (yet) afford to tear down our house and build something that better suits our tastes and lifestyle, being able to build an accessory dwelling unit that could be used as a home office or extra living space, or a garage with a studio on top, would be an excellent and economical way to add both square footage and value to our property.
John Norquist, president of the Congress for the New Urbanism (www.cnu.org), which promotes “walkable, neighborhood-based development as an alternative to sprawl,” was surprised to learn that the draft Denver code denies ADUs in Berkeley and in other Denver neighborhoods. By allowing ADUs, “Denver can grow gracefully, as an American you should be able to put a small house on your lot so a relative or caretaker can live there,” said Norquist.
Doesn’t make sense
Moreover, denying ADUs in Berkeley is at odds with the ongoing development of the Tennyson Street Corridor (Tennyson Street between 38th and 46th avenues) as Berkeley’s “pedestrian friendly” business district. Among other things, “pedestrian friendly” development requires that people who live within walking distance of Tennyson Street (for the sake of argument, lets say five or six blocks on either side) will actually be among the pedestrians who support the Tennyson Street businesses. Yet the re-zoning of Berkeley puts up artificial barriers that ensure the density of the neighborhood never really increases, despite market demands for housing choices. Meaning that as Tennyson Street seeks to continue its development, the number of neighbors within walking distance available to support that development will remain roughly the same.
Walkable communities require market-driven density to flourish, and accessory dwelling units can help achieve just that. Or as Norquist put it, ADUs allow the neighborhood to “have more people without actually feeling like a denser neighborhood.”
Through a combination of changing demographics, entrepreneurial efforts and free-market dynamics, the Berkeley neighborhood has been developing into an ever-more vibrant, walkable and desirable area. But by first down-zoning Berkeley to single family only, then denying ADUs to the area, Denver’s new zoning code seeks to slam the door on housing choice in Berkeley, thus diminishing the future prospects for sustainable development in the neighborhood.
The Web site 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.
Don’t let city planners and politicians deny you the ability and freedom to develop your property in a way that suits your own tastes and lifestyle choices, while adding value to both your own property and the neighborhood at large. The new code should empower property owners at least as much as it empowers city bureaucrats.
This article originally appeared in the Denver Daily News, July 15th, 2009.