Denver’s Housing Shortage Is Getting Worse Thanks to City Council’s Parking Obsession

There could be homes behind this storefront at 2850 Welton Street — if the Denver City Council let them get built. Image: Google Maps
There could be homes behind this storefront at 2850 Welton Street — if the Denver City Council let them get built. Image: Google Maps

There’s a reason the Obama administration recommended eliminating parking minimums. They drive up housing costs and dilute walkability. But that concept seems lost on Denver City Council, which on Monday night voted to extend its ban on building housing without parking on small lots.

City Councilman Rafael Espinoza played down the move. “A measured, 60-day moratorium is nothing,” he said.

Except it’s not nothing. Homes that would be getting built are not getting built — and given the current uncertainty they may never get built. For a city facing a housing shortage, this is bad news.

Nathan Beal is trying to build a three-story duplex on Welton Street. He had the homes designed without parking spaces, in accordance with the law at the time, but now his project, a short way from the 29th and Welton RTD station, sits in limbo.

Because parking.

“You’re only talking about a lot that’s 25 feet wide, so the max number of spaces you can put on it is two, but then you couldn’t put a building on it, too,” Beal told Streetsblog. “So the only way it works is for you not to put parking back there.”

This is exactly why parking wasn’t required on these lots — to encourage infill development on small parcels where parking requirements would otherwise make construction difficult or impossible.

The homes Beal wants to build would rise behind an existing storefront. “I saw this as a neat way to kind of preserve some of the history of Welton Street while still adding density to the neighborhood,” he said.

New parking mandates would force Beal to start over, he said, and cost him $50,000 in architecture fees.

The small lot development moratorium was enacted last August and originally seven months long. Electeds purportedly needed time to forge a “compromise” between different plans that would both mandate parking where none was required before — though one is much more terrible than the other.

Seven months later, the moratorium’s not over. It will be extended another two months after Monday’s unanimous Council vote. (Council members Debbie Ortega and Kevin Flynn were absent.)

City Councilman Jolon Clark
City Councilman Jolon Clark

With each delay, the Council is making it harder for builders like Beal to construct housing.

Councilman Jolon Clark, who introduced the zoning amendment that would raise parking requirements the most, insists that what he really wants is a “transportation demand management” program that uses incentives to discourage driving. For some reason, Clark says Denver has to raise parking minimums before it can implement a TDM initiative.

But Clark’s argument makes so sense. There’s no reason parking requirements have to be increased to make way for TDM. Denver can have both a zoning code that doesn’t require parking and incentives for people to bike and ride transit. In fact, those policies complement each other.

Clark and the rest of the City Council could at least be straight about their motivations: Denverites who store cars on the street and view new car-free development as a threat to their free parking perk. The City Council has decided that a walkable, affordable city is worth sacrificing in order to appease these people.

  • TakeFive

    Using “affordability” to argue over small lot parking seems crazy. Couple of points:

    There are many sites with no or minimal parking requirements which are developed with tons of parking. Developments with 300-400 units are waay more impactful than a 3-story duplex – which I am surprised would be impacted by proposed solutions. Maybe a duplex needs its own exemption.

    Secondly, if you are truly interested in affordability then call your congressperson.

    At the same time, Congress will be considering a bipartisan bill to increase another federal housing program. Senators Maria Cantwell and Orrin Hatch introduced a bill last week to double the size of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program and streamline some pieces of it.

    LIHTC is a popular funding mechanism that plays a role in the vast majority of affordable housing development.

    http://www.marketwatch.com/story/trumps-deep-cut-to-huds-budget-would-hurt-the-poor-and-elderly-and-destroy-jobs-2017-03-16

    • war_on_hugs

      Subsidizing affordable housing is fine to a degree, but the only sustainable solution is to let supply grow to meet demand. A 3-story duplex isn’t much on its own, but all of those smaller units add up over time. Plus, smaller developments are almost always cheaper to build (even accounting for economies of scale) and thus more affordable.

      • TakeFive

        I wouldn’t disagree.

        The small-lot exemption when originally passed was intended to preserve and enhance existing/historical structures PLUS allow for development of new duplexes. For example, an existing structure could be converted to office or multi-tenant uses IIRC with NO parking requirements. Something smells about the contention of needed parking for duplexes but I’m not familiar with the specific language of the proposals so I can’t say. Requiring parking for duplexes is uterly stupid.

        • MT

          It seems like the problem with a duplex project like this is this moratorium. It was allowed before, and will be allowed after they figure out their new plan. But for now all building on these lots has to wait until city council to figures out what they want to do.
          The moratorium was a stupid idea, it’s preventing things that no one has any problem with from going ahead.

        • David Sachs

          The problem is (1) the moratorium and (2) Clark’s amendment, which would require .75 spaces per unit — 2 spaces for the development. It’s two units, but Clark’s amendment is based on floors. It’s a 3-floor duplex, urban center mixed use on a small lot.

          • TakeFive

            Well that’s just crazy and even goes beyond the original intent. I can’t see DCC going along with that.

            The moratorium doesn’t bother me but I appreciate the frustration for those put on hold.

  • JZ71

    If you want affordable housing, parking is but one small part of the equation. The Construction Defects Law (which effectively outlaws entry-level condos) and massive increases in population (because, duh, supply [low] and demand [high]) are much, much bigger parts, and something the next recession / depression / serious drought will “fix”!

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