Almost every new resident of Denver adds another automobile to the city’s already crowded roads and highways, and those cars and trucks need a place to park when their owners are home or elsewhere.
How to come up with those spaces was the source of a somewhat tense exchange on Denver City Council and led to a policy delay.
The advent of “micro” housing units, also known as tiny houses, in established Denver neighborhoods led to concerns over the city’s pre-existing small lot parking exemption in the city zoning code, especially if two such lots were developed side by side, said City Council President Albus Brooks.
The exemption was created in 2006 for properties with Main Street zoning to promote reuse of existing buildings and redevelopment on small lots. It was expanded to all mixed use commercial zone districts in a 2010 zoning code update for the same reasons.
Small lots are defined as no more than 6,250 square feet, typically 50 feet wide and 150 feet deep, in areas zoned mixed use commercial. The current exemption has been in place since 2006 and was expanded in a 2010 zoning code update. Currently, no minimum parking is required for small zone lots.
The exemption applies to 1.7 percent of all lots in the city, which has identified 3,371 small zone parcels city-wide, representing less than 0.5 percent of the city’s land area. A total of 2,153 of the parcels are in “high frequency transit” corridors.
Senior city planner Jeff Hirt said that in reality, “it’s very, very hard to provide any parking on these lots” and still see projects that make sense for the city and the developer.
“And it’s not just micro housing we’ve seen on these lots,” Hirt added. “It’s also mixed use, office and retail.”
Since City Council imposed a 7-month moratorium on new small lot development last summer, a 13-member stakeholders group met five times between September and December to try to develop a compromise, Brooks said.
The group included representatives from several of the city’s Registered Neighborhood Organizations, Historic Denver, affordable housing organizations, the development community, architects and city public works staff.
They produced what Brooks described as a compromise amendment, but two fellow councilmen have publicly voiced concerns about the amendment and Brooks placed a 60-day hold on it to continue to try to find a workable compromise.
Brooks noted that “not one (small) lot that’s been developed is causing issues today.”
“It’s the fear of potential issues,” he said. “I have two of the largest developments (in his Council District 9) and the (private) market has fixed both.”
Espinoza, Clark criticize process, direction
At a recent Land Use, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee meeting, Councilmen Rafael Espinoza and Jolon Clark criticized the process that led to Brooks’ amendment and the amendment itself. Both planned to introduce a total of up to six other amendments.
Espinoza noted that a third of the city’s identified small lots are in his Council District 1, but questioned whether Brooks had let he and other Council members know about the stakeholders group’s process.
“You and everyone else knew exactly when we started the task force meetings,” Brooks said to Espinoza, and noted he sent several emails to all Council members as the process progressed.
Espinoza said he could only recall the minutes to the fifth and final stakeholders meeting. He also said Brooks’ amendment “doesn’t do anything to mitigate or minimize the negative off site parking issue.”
Brooks’ amendment would have granted existing buildings a full exemption; given the first three stories of any proposed building an exemption if the small lot was located within a half-mile of a rail transit station or a quarter-mile from a high frequency transit corridor; the first two stories of any building would receive an exemption for properties outside of the defined transit area; and the remaining floors would have been required to provide parking.
The amendment would have also required a “zoning permit with informational notice” for reductions greater than 25 percent. Current parking exceptions (such as for car share or affordable housing) could mean up to a 100 percent reduction.
Clark said he wanted to see a Denver that “wasn’t just built for cars. I want mobility options, and with as many as 40 new people moving here each day, we are choking on single-occupancy vehicles.”
“We need an infrastructure and a process that doesn’t lead to 40 new cars a day,” Clark added. “It’s apparent to me that what we’re doing is allowing developers to cannibalize and use up some of the most valuable real estate Denver has, the 12 to 15 feet between the curbs and lanes of travel. We’re just giving that away unless we have a way to show parking reduction actually matters as a way to reduce car ownership.”
He said 89 percent of Denver homes have a car or access to a car.
Clark said he would likely introduce four amendments, including one to change the number of stories that would require parking from three to two on lots close to high frequency corridors, and from two stories to one on lots outside those corridors. Clark added his amendment would require developers to notify the neighborhood around their project of their building plans.
Espinoza said he planned to sponsor two other amendments.
“What we need to encourage is maximum building with zero parking and set one model,” he stated. “Without parking, the developers are not required to meet (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements” for handicapped parking.