East Colfax Avenue

A portion of East Colfax Avenue in Denver that the city has targeted for redevelopment.

Ideas are swirling around ways to weave holistic, equitable solutions into Denver’s neighborhood planning process, and city planners are outlining several measures they think might work – if they can get residents and the City Council on board.

Guiding planners’ efforts is the Neighborhood Planning Initiative, launched in 2017, which is intended to offer neighborhood stakeholders the opportunity to come together and shape the future of an area. The city is inching toward completion of its first three priority plans, including the East Area Plan, which organized a meeting on Saturday that drew nearly 500 people and plenty of debate.

The East Area Plan is one of 19 plans that Denver aims to complete over a period of 10 to 14 years while upholding three core values: intentionality, equitability and measurability.

But not everyone views the plans unveiling that way.

“A plan doesn’t mean that we’re doing equity,” Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca said during a council committee hearing earlier this month, when representatives from City Planning and Development presented ideas they think may improve the area planning process. “A plan means we’re directing growth, and it’s usually toward the most marginalized communities with the least capital,” she said.

But CPD’s Caryn Champine and Courtland Hyser said that ideas such as drafting plans earlier to lengthen the time community members have to provide input and amend area plans, increasing public awareness to reach as wide a range of voices as possible, and adding a planning board member to each steering committee could help ensure an equitable process.

Council members questioned at length some of those strategies and also suggested a few of their own.

Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer, whose district is partly covered by the East Area Plan, asked for better data collection to gauge community sentiment. She voiced concerns that advocacy groups can skew the data, resulting in their interests being over-represented.

One of CPD’s goals is to improve the demographic data collected, but Hyser said the process is complicated.

“It’s really hard to deliver [statistical survey data] on issues where people don’t already have an opinion,” he said. “You have to educate people on that because they don’t already know.”

Councilwoman Jamie Torres suggested young people be more involved in the planning process because “they’re going to be ones who will actually see the results of this work.”

CdeBaca asked about a feedback loop to inform future decisions, to which the planning agency said it collects public opinion largely through community meetings and online surveys.

In a separate committee meeting focused on anti-displacement policies, Policy Committee Chairwoman Stacie Gilmore said that the conversations coming up in the new year will focus on “how we approach rezonings, planning boards, CPD staff, developers” and how to ensure an equity lens applies to each bucket.

Many council members on the policy committee, including Councilmen Paul Kashmann and Kevin Flynn, expressed the need to create a formal criteria that aligns with Blueprint Denver – which the Neighborhood Planning Initiative aligns with – to help ensure future city developers are meeting the city’s goals when rolling out new construction projects. The criteria also would help inform council’s decisions when it comes to approving those plans.

“We approve because we don’t have the ability – the criteria – that says, ‘If you can’t consider [these city goals], the landowner has no project,’ ” Flynn said. “Right now, they just want to rezone; they just want to increase the value of their dirt, which is having a detrimental effect.”

Blueprint Denver, first created in 2002 and revised in 2019, is a citywide land use and transportation plan to help grow an “inclusive and authentic” city. The plan includes improving access to opportunity, reducing vulnerability to displacement, and expanding housing and jobs diversity.

The Neighborhood Planning Initiative, which is currently behind schedule, was created to take those citywide visions and apply them to local neighborhoods.

Still, Torres said, “I feel like every new thing that happens in those neighborhoods is directly affecting displacement tomorrow.”

Denver undoubtedly has its hands full as it wrestles with the demand created from the more than 100,000 residents it’s gained since 2010.

In an effort to smooth out the planning process, council members said they plan to organize a working session between them, CPD staffers and a member from the planning board in early 2020.

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