City Council Rejects Drive-Thru Rezoning for 4850 Federal Blvd.
By Kathryn White
Timing could’ve been everything for the former Village Inn site at 4850 Federal Blvd.
City Council voted Jan. 8 to reject a rezoning request that would have allowed a drive-thru restaurant on the property. A city plan explicitly discouraging new drive-thrus on this stretch of Federal is up for final approval Jan. 22.
Paul Engler grew up in a house on the east side of Eliot Street that faced a vacant lot separating the 4800 block from the sights and sounds of Federal Boulevard.
In the 1970s, a Village Inn replaced the vacant lot. But the Colorado-born chain of diners known for its pie selection fell into financial trouble in 2019. By early 2020, it had filed for bankruptcy and closed over 30 stores.
Since then, the lot has been vacant again.
Today, Engler lives in the house on Eliot with his wife, Joanie. The Englers, along with some neighbors and the Chaffee Park Neighborhood Association, raised heck over the prospect of a Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers drive-thru as the property’s next occupant. They feared the national chain’s late-night hours, double drive-thru lanes and an average daily volume of over 300 cars would have negatively impacted neighbors to the east and exacerbate the Federal side of the block’s existing preponderance of car traffic and fast food options. Church’s Texas Chicken, Wendy’s, Good Times and Little Caesars Pizza sit less than a block away.
“We understand the property is going to get rezoned at some point for mixed commercial use,” Paul Engler said. “What we’re hoping for, even if it’s a three-story, with condos up above and businesses down below, is local businesses. Anything that would make the neighborhood better. Something that wouldn’t be unhealthy for the surrounding area.”
“Our bedroom is at least at the back of the house,” Engler continued. “Smaller homes that don’t have air conditioning have to leave their windows open. Two of the eight homes [along Eliot] have young families that, you know, this is going to be horrible,” he said prior to the vote.
In October, a bill to rezone 4850 N. Federal Blvd. (from B-3 and P-1 to E-CC-3x) was filed with City Council, paving the way for Raising Cane’s to use the back part of the property for two drive-thru lanes.
But as the rezoning proposal moved through reviews by the Denver Planning Board and City Council’s Land Use, Transportation & Infrastructure Committee (LUTI), it became clear the double-lane drive-thru was at odds with more than just a few neighbors.
The Near Northwest Area Plan is on City Council’s calendar for approval later this month. And one of the key opportunities the plan identified for the stretch of Federal between I-70 and W. 52nd Avenue was to “limit auto-oriented building forms and uses, such as drive-thrus and fueling stations along Federal, and improve the streetscape through additional landscaping and tree plantings.”
Work on the plan, which encompasses Chaffee Park, Sunnyside, Highland and Jefferson Park, began in 2021. The western boundary of the four neighborhoods is Federal Boulevard from W. 52nd Avenue south to W. 19th Avenue.
Community input was gathered throughout 2022, and drafts were circulated and reviewed into 2023. A 21-member steering committee met monthly to assist the city in forming and finalizing the plan.
The final Near Northwest Area Plan up for approval Jan. 22 asks the city to: support wealth building and access to housing, nurture great places, grow businesses and jobs, improve multimodal options and safety, and support health and well-being.
The city’s Neighborhood Planning Initiative leans on extensive community input — surveys, focus groups, steering committees of residents — to create plans guiding the city’s approach to services and resources (e.g., zoning, parks, recreation centers, transportation, business and economic development). Finalized area plans are added to the city’s Comprehensive Plan 2040.
In addition to the Near Northwest Area Plan, Denver and CDOT are planning Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) for Federal, a type of bus service that has been compared to rail because it is more reliable, convenient and faster than traditional bus service. According to CDOT, “BRT increases the number of people that can travel on a road while using fewer vehicles, ultimately easing congestion and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
At a Dec. 4 public hearing on the rezoning proposal, City Council heard from the Englers and others, and learned that the parties had just begun mediation on a Good Neighbor Agreement (GNA). Council, wanting to give the parties more time to negotiate, postponed a final decision to Jan. 8.
GNA negotiations included topics like fencing, noise management, hours of operation, number of drive-thru lanes, trash removal, security and more.
As of Jan. 8, agreements had been reached on some points, but an impasse remained on the number of drive-thru lanes and hours of operation. Raising Cane’s wanted to stay open until 1 a.m. on weekends and midnight on weekdays. Neighbors, some of whom live 60 feet from the proposed drive-thru, asked the restaurant to close at midnight on weekends and 10 p.m. during the week. Since other drive-thrus in the area have one lane, neighbors thought that should be fine for Raising Cane’s.
In the end, neighbors offered to compromise with an 11 p.m. weekday closing time if Raising Cane’s would drop the second drive-thru lane. Raising Cane’s didn’t budge.
Jan. 8, after a long evening dominated by another topic – whether to pause encampment “sweeps” when temperatures fall below 32 degrees – City Council kept its discussion of the rezoning short.
Council President Pro Tem Amanda Sandoval, who represents the area, said she received mixed input on the rezoning. The updates Raising Cane’s intended to make along Federal were a plus, and some constituents were tired of the rundown Village Inn building. Others, like the Englers, hoping for something better.
“This one has been challenging for me,” Sandoval said. “I’m just going to have to follow my heart as we all vote.”
To pass, the rezoning required a majority vote of seven council members.
It received six and failed.
In favor were Council Members Kevin Flynn, Stacie Gilmore, Paul Kashmann, Diana Romero Campbell, Jamie Torres and Darrell Watson.
Opposed were Flor Alvidrez, Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, Shontel Lewis, Sarah Parady, Sandoval and Amanda Sawyer.
Council Member Chris Hinds, who had stepped into the hallway to visit with a proclamation honoree, missed the vote. It is customary for a council sponsor to leave chambers briefly in order to deliver a signed proclamation to its recipient.