Planning Board Reluctantly Approves City Council’s Attack on Walkability

These homes at Osage and Central were built under the small lot exemption. Image: Google Maps
These homes at Osage and Central were built under the small lot exemption. Image: Google Maps

The Denver Planning Board voted for an amendment to the zoning code Wednesday that would raise housing costs and feed the city’s car addiction by forcing home developers to build parking where it was not required before. The board was in a difficult position, since a vote against the amendment would also extend a moratorium on car-free development imposed by the council last year to drag on even longer.

Other cities, meanwhile, are moving in the opposite direction on parking policy. Buffalo, for instance, no longer requires developers to build any private car storage. In 2015, Minneapolis eliminated parking minimums for housing along good transit corridors.

These cities are getting rid of parking requirements for good reasons. Off-street parking takes up a lot of space, reducing the square footage that can be used for housing. It also costs a lot to construct — $18,000 to $26,000 per stall in Denver — driving up the costs of renting or buying a home. Studies have shown that off-street parking increases traffic. It causes development to be spread farther apart and interrupts sidewalks with curb cuts, making city neighborhoods less walkable.

But last year Denver’s elected officials buckled under pressure from a small group of residents tormented by the idea of new people moving in and using “their” car storage spots on publicly owned streets. After some people objected to the construction of new homes without parking on small lots (6,250 square feet or less) in walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, City Council imposed a moratorium on what had been a completely legal practice.

City Council Member Albus Brooks formed a task force to reach a compromise on new standards, holding up new housing projects for the time being. The task force came up with a complicated set of rules that require parking for small-lot buildings taller than three stories within walking distance of transit stops. On lots farther away from transit, the parking requirements apply above two stories.

Wednesday’s Planning Board vote cleared the way for City Council approval in March. But the proposed changes have angered Denverites who want the city to get serious about tackling its housing shortage.

“This board, which is supposed to be about planning, looking to the future, not trying to look to the past — or even the present — should do your job by creating a situation which makes Denver better,” said Baker resident Adrian Brown. “I rise in opposition to the proposed language because I believe, that if asked, we would’ve said ‘Do the reverse. Ban parking for all of these lots.'”

Meanwhile, the factions who want to force the construction of more parking remain dissatisfied as always.

“There’s nothing being asked of the developer for these projects,” said Bob Hickman of the Humboldt Street Neighborhood Association. “It’s almost as if the language is written as an entitlement.”

The entire fight, however, revolves around Hickman’s entitlement to store his private property on public streets for free.

The Planning Board voted for the amendment, but did so reluctantly, asking City Council not to increase parking requirements any further on small lots.

“For those places where transit works best, in central, well connected locations, this compromise is a step back by requiring more parking,” said Planning Board member Joel Noble. “It’s doing what very few cities… are doing — adding more parking requirements. They’re rolling them back.”