Denver’s elected leaders faced one of the last controversial developments of their current term on Monday night.
Zocalo Community Development won permission to build 320 apartments and condos at the southeast corner of Sloan’s Lake.
Known as 17th & Newton, it would include one of the tallest buildings in the fast-developing West Colfax neighborhood — and a rare cluster of affordable homes in central Denver.
“If it’s not going to be allowed to happen here, where will the affordable housing go?” said David Zucker, president of Zocalo, in an interview.
The Denver City Council approved a rezoning for the project in a 10-1 vote, with Councilman Wayne New dissenting on concerns of “over-densification.”
RELATED: “No park in Denver is safe” if Park Hill Golf Club sale is allowed, former mayor says
“It’s a high-opportunity community that folks would love to be part of, right next to a regional park,” Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore said.
Details of the project
Zocalo’s plan is split into two buildings.
A four-floor building would include 160 apartments, all designated affordable for the next 30 years. The maximum income limit would be 60 percent of the area median income, about $56,000 for a family of four. Some units would be for lower income tiers, including formerly homeless families.
The project also includes about 160 condominiums in a 16-floor tower. Most of those would be sold at market rates, but 10 would be affordable. The sale of high-density, market-price units is the only way to fund so many affordable units, Zucker said.
“Sixteen stories is the financial engine that allows for (the affordability),” Zucker said. Taller condos sell for more money, but the design also allows for shorter buildings near the edge of the property, he added.
The project won’t receive a city subsidy, but Zocalo is seeking state tax credits. Construction on the apartment building could begin within 18 months, with the taller condo tower to break ground two years later.
The project would boost the city’s annual affordable output, which has capped out around 1,200 units in recent years.
A map of proposed height limits for the 17th and Newton rezoning. There are no immediate plans for redevelopment of the medical building along Lowell Boulevard.
Councilman Paul López sponsored the rezoning due to legal complications with the site. He abstained from the vote, but his support annoyed some residents.
“The story here is a process that excludes the community from a true seat at the table. It’s also the story of an elected official using his political influence despite his constituents’ opposition. And it’s a story of exploiting our city’s need for affordable housing to justify rezoning, unparalleled density and luxury development,” said Schuyler Cayton, who lives nearby.
Zocalo says it’s changed its plans to satisfy residents, including:
Moving the tower to the center of the block
Adding a 5,000-square-foot “urban plaza” to be used as community space
Adding a bike and pedestrian path
The plan includes 0.75 parking spots per apartment and 1.25 units per condo, plus business parking that will be available at night, for a total of 450.
The proposal drew intense interest, with 43 people signing up for public comment.
“Density is not a dirty word. And density is appropriate at a transit-rich infill site such as this,” said Daniel Gonzales, a supporter who was drawn to the area by its redevelopment. Others argued that dense living is more sustainable.
Critics of the project said they loved affordable housing but thought the project was flawed.
“This development as proposed is not progressive enough. We need to respond, not react, to the affordable housing need,” said West Colfax resident Karen Sear, arguing that the project “warehouses people” and needs more open space.
The most common argument was simpler: It’s too big.
Anne Stanwick said she wanted to see something “a little more creative than just high-rises,” and that the area’s still reeling from the St. Anthony’s redevelopment.
Others mentioned the city’s automobile problem. Michelle Michael said that the unprotected bike lane on 17th Avenue is getting scary with increased traffic.
Adam Estroff, a YIMBY supporter, countered that the real cause of traffic is auto-dependent suburban development. Councilwoman Kendra Black agreed.
Megan Yonke, a supporter and affordable-housing professional for the city, said she’d heard “cognitive dissonance” as opponents said they supported housing but called for “infeasible” density restrictions.
“We have to come to terms with the fact that sometimes there are trade-offs,” she said
City staff received 30 letters in opposition to the rezoning and 18 in favor. Two neighborhood groups — Sloan’s Lake Neighborhood Association and West Colfax Association of Neighbors — came out in opposition.
The area was designated for more intense development in the recent Denveright planning process. The project faced a protest petition from its neighbors, requiring a super-majority approval of 10 out of 13 council members. Councilman Albus Brooks was absent.
The existing zoning would have allowed two 10-story medical buildings, Zucker said. Zocalo’s also working on the First Avenue Hotel project on Broadway.