Two recently approved zoning overlays will guide development and usage in the Berkeley neighborhood, and likely beyond. The Active Centers and Corridors design overlay and the Bungalow conservation overlay both passed city council unanimously earlier this month. Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval (District 1 – North Denver) sponsored both overlays; council approved their creation and application to specific areas in the same night. Now that the overlays are created, they can be applied to other communities as well.
Zoning overlays do not directly change the zoning of an area in that they don’t change an overall usage (residential, commercial, etc), but can best be explained as adding additional requirements: changing how a building’s uses can be configured, requiring or banning specific design elements, creating specific setbacks, or otherwise putting more specific requirements on new development. Overlays do not force owners to change existing buildings from their current configuration but can impact changes during renovations and redevelopments.
Active Centers and Corridors
“This has been a long time coming,” said former councilman Rafael Espinoza during the public hearing. Espinoza represented District 1 from 2015 – 2019 and explained he worked on the resident-initiated concept during his tenure on council. Councilwoman Sandoval served as an aide to Espinoza for part of his term, took and expanded the project, and is seeing it through to completion. “When working for Councilman Espinoza, the community came together with a lot of concerns… while we desperately need new housing, we also need places to work, shop…” explained Sandoval.
The overlay, as the name implies, strives to activate streets and commercial centers by reducing the amount of street level residential uses and increasing the amount of street level commercial uses. It’s first application includes several commercial areas in the Berkeley neighborhood, including Tennyson St between 38th and 46th Avenues.
The overlay prohibits most street to sky apartment buildings that have no commercial elements. While an all residential use is possible, they have to meet additional requirements more often found in townhomes or single family homes, such as porches and setbacks. More likely uses under the overlay will be ground floor commercial, especially retail, with apartments or condos on the floors above.
Proponents argued that the overlay will both increase walkability and the appeal of these areas while creating additional commercial spaces, driving down commercial rent in highly desirable areas and creating more opportunities for small businesses. Critics of the plan noted Denver’s relatively high vacant commercial space rates and questioned whether it will drive up development and therefore rental costs because of the additional requirements. One person trying to sell their property on Tennyson St was hoping they could be excluded because of a sale in the works.
Several councilmembers expressed interest in using the overlay in other areas of the city.
For more information on how the new overlay will work, including specific examples and commentary from city officials, check out “Proposed Design Overlay Aims to Create ‘Active Centers and Corridors’” in the January 2021 issue of The Denver North Star available online.
The Harkness Heights community in the Berkeley neighborhood is known for it’s classic North Denver bungalow homes. While part of the Berkeley neighborhood, Harkness Heights has their own registered neighborhood organization, has seen fewer scrapes than the rest of the neighborhood, and generally has their own style. A new conservation overlay will restrict how far new development can stray from that style.
The new Bungalow Conservation Overlay, like the active streets one above, was also formalized and applied at the same time. While it can be used elsewhere, it’s currently only applied to the Harkness Heights neighborhood. The overlay affects approximately 73 acres of land containing 353 properties East of Lowell, West of Federal from 41st to 44th Avenues.
The overlay contains several design elements: front porches of at least 120 square feet, homes cannot be at ground level but instead have a raised entrance 12 to 36 inches, and a maximum size dependent on the size of the property (starting at 3000 square feet). The overlay also sets a new maximum height and bans taller roof decks above the 2nd story. Rooftop decks have become a common element of new homes built in North Denver, especially with the new modern home styles frequently built when an older home is removed. The proposal originally banned any deck above the first level but was revised.
Public comment skewed heavily in favor of the proposal; the city received 25 letters of support and 4 opposed. Proponents arguments can be summed up in this line from a Julian Street resident who sent a letter: “I do not want to see Harkness Heights become another neighborhood in northwest Denver with 3‐story rectangular houses or other styles that do not fit in with architectural history of our existing homes.”
Other letters and statements of support echoed concerns about scrapes and the character of the neighborhood, often including notes of how long people have lived in the area: 20, 30, or more years.
Concerns and opposition to the overlay came from several angles. One letter in opposition from a resident of the neighborhood referred to it as “a gross overreach of government control,” and described his own 1906 Sears catalogue kit home as “Hardly the architectural gem that these types of overlays seek to preserve.” He also noted that scrapes are rare in the neighborhood because home prices are higher than other areas and existing zoning is sufficient.
One speaker argued the overlay promotes an expensive style of home while restricting others. That argument highlighted an issue that comes up frequently: whether or not an overlay of this type impacts displacement and affordability. Harkness Heights has fewer renters and lower income families, a more educated population, and higher home prices than other areas in North Denver. The fact that the neighborhood’s relatively high cost makes it less accessible to renters and lower income buyers also makes it rate lower on vulnerability to displacement in the city’s analysis. A spokesperson for the office of Community Planning and Development told The Denver North Star that making scrapes less appealing could benefit affordability by preserving the lower priced homes in the area.
Questions regarding one design element most of the population may not consider were raised by Councilman Chris Hinds (District 10 – Central Denver). Hinds, who uses a wheelchair, noted that the raised porch and entryway requirements can make accessing a home extremely difficult. “We struggle with this one a little bit,” acknowledged Brad Johnson, Senior City Planner.
Former Councilman Espinoza, who also worked on this resident-initiated concept during his time and spoke during the meeting, replied that private homes built with private dollars do not need to meet ADA requirements and the homes are accessible from the rear.
City staff and Councilwoman Sandoval both noted that ramps can be built on the front entrance in many cases and that residents seeking accommodations for accessibility can petition the board of adjustment.
Hinds commented that he prefers design concepts that allow everyone to use the same entrance and Espinoza admitted that homes are “not without obstacles when entered from the rear.” Hinds said he appreciated the conversation; the final vote was unanimous in favor of creating the overlay and implementing it.
Both overlays go into effect immediately.