Denver city leaders on Monday will vote on new rules that could dictate how East Colfax Avenue looks and functions for decades. But whether those rules, already in place on other busy streets, are a poor fit for the thoroughfare remains a point of debate.
If approved by the City Council, the package of proposed zoning changes will govern future development for hundreds of properties between Sherman and Yosemite streets with an eye toward ensuring ample shopfronts and more space for sidewalk users along Colfax.
The measure comes before the council as the city’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure marches toward a final design for the long-anticipated East Colfax Avenue Bus Rapid Transit network. Crews are expected to begin construction on the first segment of that project — which will install dedicated lanes and more than two dozen loading platforms to accommodate a network of high-frequency, fast-loading buses — next year.
While BRT will change the face of transportation along Colfax, the new zoning rule would change the face of buildings around the bus stops.
The rules — technically known as a design overlay — would not impact the base zoning or building heights allowed on any properties. The most important thing it will do is dictate that at least a portion of the ground floor of new buildings includes active, commercial uses. That could be anything from a pizza parlor to an office space.
New buildings would also have to be set back at least two feet farther from the street if the overlay is adopted, expanding sidewalk space, according to city planning documents. Property owners could leave more space between the fronts of their buildings and the property line, creating space for patios that might entice pedestrians.
The proposed standards won’t run for the entire 5-plus-mile length of the corridor, with gaps provided in some places where bigger residential projects could spring up. The impacted properties are all clustered within two blocks of planned bus rapid transit stops.
“The purpose of the design standards themselves is to promote walkability and small business,” said Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer, one of the measure’s co-sponsors. Her east Denver District 5 is one of four council districts that will see properties rezoned should the bill pass. “We’re trying to find the right balance. We want businesses in places everyone walks to and rides to and we want housing, particularly affordable housing.”
There are a few uses that would not meet the criteria for nonresidential active uses facing Colfax, essentially banning them near future BRT stops. Those include storage facilities, car washes, auto shops and drive-thrus that would have entrances and exits on Colfax itself, according to city documents.
“It’s past time that Colfax prioritized people over stuff,” said Councilman Chris Hinds, the bill’s other co-sponsor who represents the city’s central District 10.
Long-term plans drafted over the last two to three years for the city’s east and east central neighborhoods both call for design standards that emphasize active uses like storefronts on busy street corridors while discouraging car-oriented development.
Hinds sees the design overlay, already in place on portions of Tennyson Street and Santa Fe Drive, as Denver living its values on Colfax.
The overlay plan cruised through the council’s Land Use, Transportation & Infrastructure Committee in October. But there was some heartburn among members of the Denver Planning Board when they reviewed it this fall.
The design overlay was created by District 1 Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval’s office to address concerns about the wave of redevelopment sweeping over Tennyson Street between 38th and 46th avenues. Sandoval and others were concerned about blocks of new apartment and condo buildings popping up, crowding the sidewalk and choking out the small business feel of the corridor, a historic node on the city’s long-gone streetcar network.
The overlay has since been adopted for a portion of Santa Fe Drive, another corridor of Denver that is rapidly densifying as developers seek to cash in on one of the priciest housing and rental markets in the country.
The Planning Board voted 5-2 to recommend the City Council apply an overlay to East Colfax but not before discussing whether it was the right fit for the storied avenue. Unlike Tennyson and Santa Fe, north-south streets where properties are generally deeper and backed by alleys that allow for deliveries and other services, Colfax is an east-west avenue and lots are much shallower and without alleys. That means new standards that increase setbacks from the street could make it harder to design a workable building.
“I think Colfax is unique enough with the BRT to deserve a little more attention than just implementing something that was started elsewhere. I think the conditions are very different here,” said Gosia Kung, one of the two members who voted against recommending the council approve the rezonings. “It’s a problem that we are expanding the right of way. We’re pushing buildings away.”
Andy Baldyga spoke at that Planning Board meeting. An architect and former member of the board, Baldyga is now the vice president of the Colfax Ave Business Improvement District, which covers Colfax from roughly Sherman to Josephine streets.
Baldyga lives within a block of Coflax and is excited by the prospect of improving transit services along a road that carries one of the Regional Transportation District’s highest ridership bus lines already. But he, too, has concerns about how an east-west avenue will fare under design standards created for north-south streets.
“Colfax can stitch neighborhoods together and become a uniting element. There are strong neighborhoods on the north and south; great density, great housing stock, people want to live there,” Baldyga said. “I think what the city needs to do is look at all the east-west corridors and develop new standards that incentivize new development in a way that works for east-west streets.”
Hinds, Sawyer and their partners in the planning department did consider tweaks as a nod to these differences. Skinny properties, those under 37.5 feet in width, are exempted from the commercial use requirement, Sawyer said.
Exemptions for shallow properties along Colfax, those that are less than 70 feet deep, were also considered, but the group determined those properties would also struggle to fit new projects into the existing zoning code. Instead, the overlay was extended at least 100 feet to the north and south of Colfax to make sure that developers who assemble multiple properties for a new project would also be subject to the new rules.
BRT itself will completely reshape East Colfax. The high-frequency transit service will be made possible by converting two general-purpose lanes between Broadway and Yosemite Street into dedicated, center-running bus lanes, said Jonathan Stewart, the project’s director within the city’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, or DOTI.
It is worth noting that Aurora is the city’s partner in the project and once the BRT lanes cross into that city’s territory east of Yosemite the buses will share lanes with traffic, Stewart said. The eastern terminus of the BRT line will be near the R Line rail station just before Colfax meets Interstate 225.
Design work is well underway for the project ahead of an anticipated fall 2024 groundbreaking on the first segment between Broadway and Williams Street. City transportation officials have pinned 2027 as the projected start of revenue-generating operations on the new mass transit service.
DOTI was not directly involved in the design standards discussions, Stewart said, but the department is soliciting feedback from business improvement districts along the avenue about what the streetscape should look like between the curbs and the front doors of shops, restaurants, and other businesses.
“It’s part of the larger effort of the city, trying to plan more holistically,” he said of working alongside the planning department. “We’re both wanting to enact the people’s will transforming this into more of a Main Street-type corridor.”