Let’s cut to the chase: We continue to oppose the so-called group-living amendment to Denver’s zoning code, and we urge the Denver City Council to vote down the proposal when it comes up for consideration Feb. 8.
We appreciate recent efforts by city planners to fine-tune the pending plan and to open up the process to broader public input. However, the overall project is still driven by confused and overlapping agendas that ultimately can undermine cohesive neighborhoods and their quality of life — while offering the community no discernible benefits.
Bottom line: A case has yet to be made for such an ambitious rewrite of zoning rules — especially when there never was community demand for it in the first place. It appears to be an abstract daydream of urban visionaries that could backfire on residents in very real and troubling ways.
The plan has been through various iterations, making it an ever-changing vision that has at times defied the community’s comprehension. The original premise — that it somehow would create more affordable housing — never seemed credible. A more plausible, but troubling, motive became apparent in the version that started gaining the public’s attention last spring.
It allows up to 10 unrelated people — and any number of their relatives — to live in single-family homes 2,600 square feet or larger in most Denver neighborhoods. Smaller homes could accommodate up to five unrelated people. That change to current law — now, only two unrelated people are allowed per household — along with other provisions of the plan, would permit homeless shelters and halfway houses, among other residential care facilities, to proliferate pretty much citywide. Next to your home, your house of worship, your kids’ school.
Once word of that started to spread, it raised an outcry across the city. The council took notice and by September, some members began to air doubts about the project. As the city stepped up community outreach, it made some changes again. For example, halfway houses would be excluded from neighborhoods with single- or double-unit homes. “Type 2” residential care facilities in such neighborhoods would be limited to 11-20 guests at a time and restricted to existing structures built for civic, public or institutional use rather than houses. Yet, those and other tweaks by now seem like too little, too late in context of the group-living agenda’s overall thrust.
Since the project’s inception over two years ago, there have been signs all along it was poorly thought through; that it needlessly would disrupt neighborhoods, and that it seemed to represent a cause in search of a quest.
Even the mantra-like repetition of last year’s favorite buzzword, “equity,” by the group-living amendment’s supporters on council and at City Hall came across as a fumbling attempt to obscure the lack of an actual mandate for the changes. No one could explain how it would help anyone, including the residents of halfway houses or homeless shelters, to open those facilities among single-family dwellings. So, the plan’s advocates retreated behind vague calls for equity while a lot of Denverites must have been thinking, yeah, right. What is it you really want?
The group-living proposal also seemed to have been spawned in the dark, behind closed doors. An upstart citizens watchdog group, Safe and Sound Denver, wound up having to go to court just to get City Hall to release public documents about the formation of the committee that had drafted the proposal. Could the public be blamed for assuming the worst motives — or for feeling a lack of buy-in after being shut out?
It’s no way to enlist community support for any initiative, much less one so sweeping in scale and broad in scope. The process has been tainted irreparably and anything that arises from it inevitably will be encumbered by deep public misgivings.
There is some good news on that front, though: Denver District Judge Michael Vallejos on Tuesday sided with Safe and Sound Denver and ordered the release of 45 out of the 49 pages of documents improperly withheld by the mayor's office.
But there’s a bigger issue here than just a poorly executed planning process.
Does it ever really make sense to impose a citywide rewrite of a zoning code — which so intimately affects so many people’s quality of life — all at once on a city as big and diverse as Denver? A one-size-fits-all schematic in that context inevitably will wind up fitting almost nobody.
Are there in fact essential community services that are hindered by current zoning rules? If so, let’s hear from the stakeholders. Let them spell out the problem and propose a focused, well-defined solution.
In other words, start small and approach the public openly, at the grassroots level. It might surprise some at City Hall just how supportive the community can be.