By Caroline Schomp
Ash Street Apartments, a 112-unit affordable housing project, broke ground June 30, 2016, at the redevelopment site of the former University of Colorado …
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Ash Street Apartments, a 112-unit affordable housing project, broke ground June 30, 2016, at the redevelopment site of the former University of Colorado Health Sciences Center (UCHSC). The project at 11th Avenue and Ash Street will include one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments in a five-story building. It is expected to open in May 2017.
“I’m excited to have this kind of project in my neighborhood,” said Councilwoman Mary Beth Susman, who cited the need for more affordable housing for families. “I’m happy to have people who work in the city live in the city.”
Denver has added many more luxury apartments in the last few years than developments for working-class families. Meanwhile, average wage increases have lagged considerably behind both home prices and rents.
The Ash Street Apartments meet the legal definition of “affordable housing,” which is for a household earning up to 60 percent of the area median income (up to $43,260 for a family of three).
“We all know the extent to which affordable housing is lacking. The demand in Denver far outstrips the supply,” said Chris White of the Colorado Housing Finance Authority (CHFA).
Photo by Sara Hertwig
Mayor Hancock speaks to a group assembled to celebrate the groundbreaking of the Ash Street Apartments, a 112-unit affordable housing project on June 30, 2016. Photo by Sara Hertwig.
White pointed out that affordable housing can make money for developers, something that interested the Ash Street Apartments developer, Koelbel & Company.
According to Koelbel & Company President, Walter A. “Buz” Koelbel, Jr., his company has developed six senior or workforce housing projects with more than 400 units in the last five years.
“Affordable housing is an issue in Denver and housing is the foundation of stable families,” Koelbel says.
He said he’d been watching the site for several years as it cycled through two earlier developers before being purchased by Continuum Partners two years ago. The site has been vacant since 2007 when UCHSC moved to Aurora. Continuum Partners chose Koelbel to build Ash Street Apartments as part of the overall redevelopment project.
In addition to Continuum and Koelbel, the Denver Office of Economic Development (OED), CHFA and the Denver Urban Renewal Authority all worked to make Ash Street Apartments possible.
OED says it is currently funding 13 affordable developments that will bring 1,308 affordable rental units on line. Among them are Westwood Crossing (98 units) in West Denver, which broke ground in early March, and Ashley Union Station (75 units) in LoDo, which broke ground in mid-December 2015.
In July, the city announced a new plan to raise $155 million over 10 years to assist construction of 6,000 added units of affordable housing. The proposal includes a half-mill property tax increase in the first year to build the fund and developers’ fees ranging between 40 cents and $1.70 per square foot, assessed at the time building permits are issued.
The fees would be based on the type of property being built: single family, multi-family, commercial or industrial. That effort would dovetail with the administration’s current commitment to building at least 5,000 units of affordable workforce housing by next year.
While there’s a technical definition of “affordable housing,” informal definitions and those used in marketing vary.
For example, two so-called “micro-unit” projects in Curtis Park and Uptown, each with two buildings, would provide tiny apartments for less than $1,000 per month, which for a single person with a good job could be considered affordable.
These units are typically smaller than 400 square feet, so on a per-square-foot basis micro-units may actually cost more than standard size apartments. The city zoning code permits buildings on small lots of 6,250 square feet or less to be built without any off-street parking. In dense neighborhoods, this can exacerbate already tight street parking.
There are more than 4,200 such small lots in the city, according to the Department of Community Planning and Development.
Neighborhood activists have been working with Councilman Albus Brooks to get Council to approve a six-to-nine-month moratorium on small-lot developments to enable examination of the parking exemption.
Brooks, who has been on medical leave, told Life on Capitol Hill that his proposed bill likely would establish a panel composed of neighborhood groups, city planners and developers to make a recommendation for inclusion in an omnibus zoning amendment bill that will go before City Council in January.
With Brooks on leave, Councilman Paul Kashmann is spearheading the effort. He expects the moratorium proposal to come before Council sometime in the next few weeks.
The zoning code passed in 2010 resulted in “unintended and unexpected consequences,” Kashmann said. “If we don’t like what’s in the zoning code … what would we rather see in its place? Both neighborhood groups and the developer community deserve some clarity on how we move forward.”
Architect Robert Hickman, one of the activists promoting the moratorium, said, “I think at some point you have to have an overall perspective of what’s going on with parking in Denver to come up with a good balance of efforts and incentives.
“Perhaps one of the goals is to move to a society where people are less dependent on automobiles, but that’s a long process … you have to come up with deliberate steps.”
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