Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Mastering new zoning is no day at the beach

For many of the 200 or so homeowners who crowded into Driscoll Ballroom on Wednesday, June 17, to get their first look at the city’s new zoning map, the evening might have felt like the first day of French class. Or algebra.

Mastering the map, it turns out, means learning new vocabulary, translating labels that read like mathematical formulas and thumbing through the five-inch-thick draft zoning code.

Some residents of the quiet neighborhood of Platt Park, for example, walked in the door well aware that R-2 zoning is a simple, residential category. But when they squinted at one of the dozen or so species of maps on display Wednesday, they found that R-2 is now U-SU-B or U-TU-A or U-MS-3.

It took a city cheat sheet to figure out U means Urban Neighborhood Context, one of six such contexts in the new code, that SU means Single Unit and that B means a 4,500-square-foot lot. Or that TU stands for Two Unit and MS means Main Street zoning with a three-story maximum.

“There are 34,000 properties in Denver that are non-conforming under the existing code,” Peter Park reminded the crowd. Non-conforming means properties that don’t square with the law but are tolerated until they can be made to conform.

“We don’t want that kind of aggressive stand anymore,” Park told the crowd. “We want a ‘form-based’ code that uses graphics, not words, and is easier to use and easier to navigate. The new code says non-conforming uses can stay.”

Park is the head of Community Development and Planning (CPD), the Denver city agency charged with rewriting the five-decades-old zoning code. He’s also the person teaching people to use it, making certain it actually works and encouraging City Council members it’s the right thing for Denver when it comes up for adoption near the end of the year.

It’s a Herculean task that has taken Park’s staff and a blue-ribbon task force of volunteer code reformers nearly four years to figure out. Meeting attendees appreciated that fact, but were mainly focused on their own properties and their own neighborhoods. So, they rolled up their sleeves and huddled with a small army of CPD staffers who were on hand to clarify, teach, ease anxiety, accept criticism and thumb through the 721-page draft code to answer questions as best they could.

CPD staffers are looking for shortcomings in the plan, eager to make all the nips and tucks they can find.

“We have people going through this to see if it’s actually feasible to build what we say you can build,” says senior planner Barbara Frommell.

Some citizens bristled that the new rules were taking away construction opportunities. Others were puzzled that the code gave homeowners on one side of a street freedoms that residents on the other side didn’t have.

Some people insisted the new code didn’t adequately address density while others said it did. Some argued there were inadequate opportunities to create sustainable, walkable mixed-use neighborhoods; or the new rules didn’t take into account economic realities builders face or the problems of the next generation of home buyers.

More than a few fretted that the zoning changes would make property values sink like a stone.

“People are doing an impressive job of downloading a lot of information in a hurry,” said Jim Lindberg, a member of the Zoning Code Task Force. “But I think they’re probably a little bit overwhelmed.”

The tone of the evening was loud and pointed, but smart and polite. City staffers eagerly welcomed the huge number of comments the evening offered up, which they will massage into the second draft code being released in August.

Discussion, in fact, continued so far beyond the three hours allowed that university officials finally had to dim the lights to get people to go home.

“We’re not perfectly dialed in yet,” Park allowed in wrapping up.

Citizens like Susan Pearce, a Realtor with Preferred Properties, agreed.

“In general, they’ve done a really good job and it’s going to fix a lot of problems and present a lot of opportunities,” she said. “But we need to review it carefully for unintended consequences. Like the size of homes on certain lots—are they actually a livable size house people will enjoy living in? We just don’t know yet.”

City Councilman Chris Nevitt, whose office co-sponsored Wednesday’s meeting with CPD, was pleased at the outcome.

“Given how complex this problem is, given how diverse the opinions are, given how conflicting the signals we get from zoning are — what’s on the ground vs. what’s in the plan — I think we’re doing a great job of reaching consensus.”

To view text and zoning maps and to see a schedule of future meetings, go to

Comments are closed.