Growing Pains: Making sure ‘it’s development that we want’

Residents, city officials talk about how development impacts the city

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Archie Bill, who lives near City Park, doesn’t see a downside to business development: Businesses in local neighborhoods benefit those who live there.

The process, he notes, is “a give and take.”

But housing development is another matter. A spike in residential projects and a high demand for living spaces have made living in Denver unaffordable for some of the city’s longtime residents, he says.

“With regular development, you also have residential development,” Bill said. “Somebody seems to lose out. It’s not balanced.”

Development in Denver was a key campaign issue in the mayor and council races that will be decided May 7. The topic has been at the forefront of city discussion and resident concerns for many years now, since the continuing population influx into the state has created a demand for housing and sparked commercial boon.

The problems are well known: Expensive rents and home sales prices that make the city unaffordable for many, pushing them out to the suburbs or even out of state. Roadways that can’t accommodate increasing traffic congestion. A loss of lifestyle and green spaces.

What sometimes gets lost in the excitement to capitalize on growth, residents say, is exactly how development affects their daily lives and the character of their neighborhoods.

Neighborhoods in north Denver have seen displacement of its residents as housing prices increased. City councilmember Albus Brooks, who represents District 9, which includes downtown, Five Points and Elyria Swansea, said the 80205 zip code saw the most displacement of any neighborhood in the city. The zip code covers much of north Denver, from 20th Street over to Colorado Boulevard.

Fighting displacement

In October, the mayor’s office created a new team to combat displacement in the hopes of keeping more long-term residents in their homes. Irene Aguilar, a former state senator in Colorado, took the role of program director of the Neighborhood Equity and Stabilization Team (NEST).

One of Aguilar’s key initial efforts is outreach with neighborhoods.

“Often,” she said, “people don’t even know what type of supports we provide.”

Those supports, which can be as simple as providing funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Development for community projects, can be catered to what individuals or neighborhoods need, she said.

So far, the team’s efforts have focused on neighborhoods such as Park Hill in northeastDenver and Elyria Swansea that have already been impactedby displacement. Every three weeks, her team meets with other city departments that work with local businesses and housing to see where their resources are most needed.

The NEST team has helped local businesses work with the city’s Department of Public Health and Environment office to make sure they stay in compliance. Later this year, Aguilar said NESTwill have the Office of Financial Empowerment provide a list of residents who did not pay property taxes. NEST will use the list to do outreach and see if any of those residents need assistance.

“That may be a good proactive way to provide support to people to stay in the community,” she said.

A construction mess

Brooks and Wayne New, the councilmember representing District 10, which encompasses Cherry Creek, Capitol Hill and Congress Park, also are looking for ways to help ease construction woes and development issues for their residents. Between the two, they represent more than 20 neighborhoods in north central Denver.

How developers have engaged with the community and whether they are hiring local residents for jobs is important to Brooks. He also looks at development projects that bring benefits to neighborhoods such as grocery stores.

“There’s that fine line between looking for services, and folks feeling the burden of what construction is really like,” Brooks said. He tries to make sure “it’s development that we want, not development that’s happening to us.”

In addition to taking up valuable parking space, construction projects often block sidewalks for pedestrians.

New has worked with the city’s Public Works department to create a set of rules for construction projects, such as having a parking plan for construction workers.

“We finally got some teeth in some of it, so we just need to monitor it,” he said of the regulations.

For the past several years, the city of Denver has been working on creating a way to better deal with traffic and growth. Denveright, a plan for growth and development is comprised of four sections: Comprehensive Plan 2040 looks at where the city overall will goin the next 20 years. Blueprint Denver specifically addresses land use and transportation. Both of these plans were approved by city council on April 22. The other two sections tackle park space and how to move people throughout the city through mass transit or trails.

The new Blueprint Denver version is an update to one first adopted by the city in the early 2000s, following a growth period in the 1990s, said David Gaspers, Blueprint Denver’s project manager. The updated plan has a specific strategy of dealing with growth within Denver’s neighborhoods, such as keeping building development near transit centers and focusing on design quality to make sure projects fit the context of certain neighborhoods.

“We wanted to take a fresh look at how we wanted to be directing growth,” he said. “It was the right time to update the plan.”

Luxury overwhelms affordability

More than 12,000 units were completed in Denver in 2018, said Robert Bratley, first vice president of capital markets with the CBRE in Denver, a nationwide real estate services and investment firm. A majority of the development projects sold last year — nearly 90 percent — were bought by out-of-state companies and individuals, Bratley added.

He believes developers will continue to build in Denver because prices are better than what companies are seeing on the coasts.

Building luxury units is how developers make money back on their projects, Bratley said. A high demand for those units means the city will continue to see more of those projects. The demand for affordability, however, also is pushing a new trend of micro-units that could help fill a “desperately needed” inventory of affordable units, he said. (Zumper, a website for rental home and apartment listings, says micro-units are typically about 350 square feet.)

“That’s going to continue in Denver for the foreseeable future,” Bratley said. “The affordability factor is coming back in.”

But rents listed in Apartment List, another website for rental listings, show at least one micro-unit complex isn’t advertising lower prices. The website says the average rent for a studio in Denver is $870 a month and for one-bedroom units $1,063. RiDE, a new micro-apartment development in the River North neighborhood, is charging $1,249 for a 393-square-foot unit.

Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications and public policy for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, doesn’t see relief any time soon.

The federal government calculates area median income, or AMI, based on census data for geographic regions. According to the office of economic opportunity and development in Denver, the AMI for the Denver area is $63,000 for a one-person household and nearly $90,000 for a household of four.

For people making less than the AMI, housing is becoming difficult to find, Alderman said. Often,housing prices are forcing people to move out of the city they work in, Alderman said. For the homeless population, which at one point was growing at the same rate as the rest of Denver’s population, it’s even more difficult, she said.

“They don’t even have a shot at finding a place to live,” Alderman said.

Home sales is another area that has see a spike in prices. There are still some areas in Denver that are affordable, said Tom Snyder, a Realtor with Snyder Realty Team, but they are becoming more scarce.

In places like Capitol Hill, much of the development has focused on building apartments. Areas with higher density areas lend themselves to people who are interested in the apartment lifestyle, Snyder said. It is more difficult to sell single-family homes in those areas.

“The days of single-family homes in Cap Hill are numbered,” he said. “It’s really hard to find buyers for a single-family home surrounded by high density.”

But north Denver is beginning to see a saturation of development. More projects are starting to move south, Snyder said. In the next five years, Snyder hopes to see a shift in the market toward condos. Condos can be a more affordable option for people looking to buy a home, but who can’t afford Denver prices.

“That’s going to have a very, I think, positive effect. I’d love to see a lot more condo stock,” Snyder said. “Part of what makes Denver not affordable is we have very limited single-family homes, we’re not creating more of that and, of course, those prices just keep going up and up and up.”

For her part, Aguilar pushed for people to accept the Denveright plans, even if they thought it wasn’t enough.

In her time in the state Senate from 2011-19, Aguilar said she learned that progress in government doesn’t happen overnight. Denveright, at the least, gives neighborhoods the tools to push for better rules regarding development, she said. She also is hoping that NEST can begin looking more into the policy side of development.

It is, she said, a start in the right direction.

“For an idea to become a reality,” Aguilar said, “it takes a long time.”

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