In a time long past and a land far, far away, a troubadour once penned the famous line, “the times they are a’changing.” Several decades later, that same gent looked around at the state of the union and offered up a revised tome, “times have changed.”
It is sometimes difficult to tell the chicken from the egg, because as I survey the landscape in 2020, I find us in both places at once - times have certainly changed, but the times, they are a’changing once again.
If you’ve called Denver home for more than a few years, you have seen clearly the shifts that have taken place. They began slowly in the 1980s and 1990s, but as the 21st Century dawned, the faint winds of change turned into a raging storm. Tens of thousands of new neighbors streamed into our neighborhoods and took root in single-family homes and multi-unit buildings of style and mass, unlike what have historically populated the Denver skyline.
While the rush of people and businesses into Denver created an economic boom that was the envy of many “less-fortunate” cities around the country, the influx simultaneously spawned a raft of less-desirable changes, including dangerously overwhelmed roadways, inflated housing costs that have made living in Denver increasingly the privilege of none but the well-to-do and architectural shifts that have muddled the historic character of many inner-city neighborhoods.
Denver is engaged in a number of initiatives designed to make some sense of what has taken place and to better shape our path forward.
For decades, our Planning Department created only one small area (neighborhood) plan per year — at best. These critical documents serve as a guide for local implementation of Denver’s Comprehensive Plan and Blueprint Denver, our primary land use and transportation document. With 78 statistical neighborhoods, it would take nearly a century to plan the entire city, which makes no sense as most plans have dubious value after 20 years. No more than 20% of our city has had current small-area plans at any given time. In 2017, our Department of Community Planning and Development (CPD) created the Neighborhood Planning Initiative (NPI), reconfiguring our 78 neighborhoods into 14 sub-groups to facilitate planning the entire city in 10-14 years, with updates of those plans being made on a regular basis thereafter. While the initial group of NPI efforts have taken longer than anticipated, the pace of planning still far exceeds past attempts. The Near Southeast Area Plan, including the eastern-most reaches of District 6, will kick off in early 2021. For information on NPI, visit denvergov.org/neighborhoodplanning.
Simultaneously, CPD is spearheading a trio of housing-related studies that will inform the NPI process. The Group Living Advisory Committee has proposed increasing the number of unrelated individuals that may reside in single-family homes as well as expanding locations where community corrections’ half-way houses and larger homeless shelters may be sited. (Visit denvergov.org/groupliving). The Affordable Housing Incentives study is looking at ways to stimulate the construction of affordable housing for a broad spectrum of income levels (visit denvergov.org/affordabilityincentive) and the Residential Infill Project will kick off after the first of the year looking at whether to incorporate options such as duplexes, triplexes and the like into neighborhoods that have traditionally welcomed only single-family homes. In addition, discussions continue city-wide on what role Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) can play in expanding housing opportunity in Denver.
For those communities concerned that fast-paced changes will blot out the historic character of their neighborhoods, Conservation Overlay Districts hold promise. Considered “preservation-lite,” conservation overlays allow communities to determine what elements are critical to preserving the feel and curb appeal of their streetscape, while allowing for renovation and expansion of existing properties without the restrictions of historic designation. The Krisana Park area of Virginia Village took advantage of this tool in 2016 for a group of some 175 mid-century homes, preserving the characteristic long-slung roof lines and pushing expansion toward the back of the property.
For many years, cries for city traffic engineers to slow increasing traffic were often met with “we need to keep traffic moving.” There is clear evidence that as traffic deaths rise on city streets, in spite of the efforts of Denver’s Vision Zero initiative, the attitude is changing. We’ve begun experimenting with traffic control tools like roundabouts that other cities have used successfully for decades, and speed tables and raised crosswalks are finally on the drawing board. I was able to get $200,000 into the 2020 budget for a study to look at speed limits on city streets, with an initial focus on possible reduction of neighborhood street limits from 25 mph to 20 mph. The Department of Transportation and Infrastructure is moving forward with plans to complete construction of 125 miles of bike lanes across our city in the next few years and we are moving forward - albeit far too slowly - with efforts to create a pedestrian infrastructure that moves people safely through our neighborhoods.
Perhaps the most disheartening change to our city is the increase in residents experiencing homelessness that have been driven to our sidewalks, our parks and along our rivers and creeks to find shelter. Much of this problem has to do with the dismantling of our national mental health system decades ago, a lack of substance abuse treatment beds and a growing gap between rich and poor that has 500,000 people living on our streets nationwide. Over time, funds from the Caring For Denver sales tax passed by voters in 2017 will help rebuild our local mental health and addiction treatment resources. That said, we simply have not been aggressive enough in building both transitional housing for those needing a leg up to get back to an independent lifestyle and permanent supportive housing for those in need of more long-term services. We need to pick up the pace of that effort. In the short term we are restructuring our overnight shelter system to be open 24 hours a day, as well as increasing options for underserved populations — LGBTQ individuals, couples and families, pet owners, etc. We continue the difficult task of trying to site small-scale tiny home villages and managed campsites to provide dignified alternatives to the pop-up camps that do not serve our community well.
Change is difficult, but stagnation is deadly. Please let your voice be heard on what you want your city to look like, be like and stand for in the coming years.
Paul Kashmann represents District 6 on Denver City Council. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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