More Room to House People, Not Cars, Around 38th and Blake RTD Station

Outside 38th and Blake Station. Image: Google Maps
Outside 38th and Blake Station. Image: Google Maps

For decades, Denver development policy has skewed growth in the city toward expensive, exclusive housing, all while encouraging more driving and traffic. A vote in the City Council last night is a welcome signal that Denver is ready to do things differently.

In Denver’s default development paradigm, homeowners block the construction of compact, walkable apartment buildings near transit, while the city’s zoning code mandates the construction of car storage in new buildings. It’s exactly the opposite of what cities should be doing to make neighborhoods affordable and prevent growth from suffocating the city with traffic.

Yesterday, the City Council endorsed a better type of development at the 38th and Blake RTD station in the River North section of Five Points. In an 11 to 1 vote, the council allowed for walkable housing development mixed with offices and retail, all while scrapping parking requirements within a half-mile of the train stop.

The new development rules will enable buildings as tall as 16 stories, coupled with incentives for developers to build below-market-rate apartments and condos in exchange for taller building heights.

Residential neighborhoods, commercial strips on Larimer Street and Brighton Boulevard, the Platte River Trail, and rec and health centers sit a stone’s throw from 38th and Blake. Yet the area around the station has been zoned for industrial use and is currently surrounded by vacant dirt parcels, warehouses, and parking lots that limit the A Line’s usefulness.

“My son actually said this: ‘Dad, it’s like someone needs to come with Legos and finish all of these plots of land,'” said Council President Albus Brooks, who sponsored the bill. “It’s just a ton of missing pieces. It’s broken networks. Nothing is connected.”

Within a few years, the zoning overhaul should produce more housing and jobs around the transit station, as well as a more human-scaled environment with ground-floor retail, Brooks said.

Brooks referred to two projects in the pipeline that can now get built thanks to the zoning change: A 16-story building with 30 units reserved for households of four making about $67,000 or less, and a five-story project where all the apartments are set aside for households making between 30 and 60 percent of the area median income, or between about $25,000 and $50,000 a year for a family of four.

Residents who supported the policies noted the importance of anchoring growth near good transit.

“Changing city policy to allow people, services, and work places to intensely concentrate around transit stations is essential if you want to achieve this goal,” said Ryan Keeney, a University Park resident who spoke at Monday’s public hearing. He said the change facilitates more walking, biking, and transit use, which is “good for our health and essential in fighting climate change.”

Opponents of the measures cited displacement from increasing rents occurring in pockets all over the Denver region where local governments didn’t plan ahead for rising property values near rail stations.

If Denver doesn’t allow more housing near transit stations, however, the displacement around areas with good transit access will only accelerate.

The zoning changes that passed yesterday won’t solve the whole housing crisis, but they are meant to be a tool to mitigate displacement, said Brad Buchanan, executive director of the Denver Department of Community Planning.

“This is another arrow in the quiver and we need 900 of them,” he said.

The incentive bill is “the most significant thing” that happened Monday, said Buchanan, because it gives Denver the ability to create more walkable places around other transit stations in the city that are currently engulfed in sprawl.

  • TakeFive

    To be fair, 38th and Blake is nothing like West Highlands, the area around Old South Gaylord St… eh, I could quickly name a dozen neighborhoods with 70 to 100-year old homes for which 38th and Blake is nothing at all alike. In fact I doubt there will be any small lots to develop at 38th and Blake. As for Southmoor Park that’s the one upscale neighborhood that was developed during your beloved car-centric era in SE Denver so their anal antics are hardly a surprise. Still, it’s all walnuts to oranges.

    With respect to the affordable housing projects those have been in the pipeline for many years and the land was bought back when prices were still dirt cheap. Zoning changes were anticipated; the unknown was the details.

    I do applaud the changes; it will be interesting to see how things play out and Council President Albus Brooks is still my favorite. An outdated industrial area is the lowest of hanging fruit to redevelop so hopefully they hit a home run here.

  • deadindenver

    I’m all for buildings for people not cars. But let’s do this right, ground level off street taxi stand for Lyft, Ubers and Taxis. Short term off street area for delivery vehicles (UPS, Fed Ex, Amazon, grocery delivery) Delivery lockers. Additionally secure and preferably covered parking for bicycles. I would allow automobiles a few parking spots, ADA and for Go Car and other car share services.

    • TakeFive

      Not the same neighborhood and they’re condos in DUS but according to Keesy9:

      When I met with The Coloradan, most of the prices were closer to $650/sf. 1,000 SF 1/1 around $625,000, 550 SF studio around $300,000. There was a premium for units facing Union Station and most of those units came with balconies while the side facing Whole Foods does not have balconies. The units did not come with parking spaces and you have to rent them for $200/month.

      • Zeb Clay

        Do these structural and surface parking cost estimates reflect the opportunity cost of devoting space to parking as opposed to more residential units or commercial space? Of course this opportunity cost would vary based on neighborhood, but assuming a part of town where there is ample demand for parking-free units, this cost would be very substantial.

        • TakeFive

          Interesting and good question. The costs I gave are per EngiNerd so feedback from a local engineer on construction costs.

          Opportunity costs would be a part of any feasibility/investment analysis. While you’d lose the costs of providing parking you have the higher costs of building rental units. Of course you’d have the rental income return whatever that is projected to be. That margin plus the extra units you could build would be your total projected return as an alternative to including parking.

    • David Sachs