Gary Martyn has called South Park Hill home for nearly his whole life, and for good reason. He has lifelong friends just blocks away, and there’s history built into the bricks of the century-old houses. Kids play on the lawns and ride their bikes down the streets, families say hello to each other. It’s quiet, stable, and convenient.
But when Martyn came home to a flyer on his door one day in the summer of 2019, he started to think that might change.
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The flyer warned him that something called the East Area Plan, a policy document that had been in progress since the summer of 2017, proposed “upzoning,” or code changes that would allow for taller buildings. The flyer was the work of a small but growing group called Denver East Neighborhoods First (DENF), created by five women, who, like Martyn, had long lived between 13th and 17th avenues, east of Colorado Boulevard. Their yard signs now abound in East Denver: “NEIGHBORHOODS FIRST UNITE for Sustainable, Thoughtful, Inclusive Planning.”
DENF has fanned the flames of a debate that’s surrounded the East Area Plan for the nearly-three years it’s been in progress. While squabbles over things like the details of the zoning code and the nuances of flood mitigation may make some eyes glaze over, these issues have both provoked neighbors to animosity that at times seems almost as polarized as national politics and caused City Council meetings to drag deep into the night. The planning process brought one sensitive question to the forefront: What’s in my backyard? And what (or who) can or should be there in the future?
The East Area Plan is one of the first to be created as part of the city’s Neighborhood Planning Initiative. If all goes according to Denver Community Planning and Development’s current plan, every neighborhood in the city will go through a similar process in the next decade.
According to CPD senior planner Curt Upton, the plans are intended to create a vision for the future of each neighborhood based on community-sourced desires and feedback. The East Area Plan (which covers the statistical neighborhoods South Park Hill, East Colfax, Hale, and Montclair) is tentatively entering its final stages, with a draft plan available for public comment until July 1. It was prioritized because the city wanted to get a headstart on thinking about infrastructure for the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system it wants to implement on East Colfax Avenue. The similarly named East Central Area Plan (which covers North Capitol Hill (otherwise known as Uptown), Capitol Hill, Cheesman Park, City Park West, City Park, and Congress Park), was also tied to the BRT, and is in the final stages of review.
Neither the East nor East Central Area plan has been finalized, but a few key points are more or less enshrined. The city anticipates these neighborhoods to accommodate a certain amount of population growth (they’ve suggested 4,200 to 4,800 new housing units in the East Area, and 7,500 in East Central). They want to consolidate that growth in “corridors” and “centers,” or mixed-use areas largely along Colfax Avenue. The plan recommends allowing developers to build taller (and thus more profitable) housing in such areas if they agree to provide “community benefits,” including some amount of affordable, income-restricted housing. The plans also propose other incentive programs to encourage more housing while preserving some of what’s there.
Upton says the plans have brought neighbors together to think civically. The controversy, he says, is merely a “a mix of opinion” on just a few issues. But coalitions like DENF and Congress Park United (which focuses on the East Central Area Plan) see the plans themselves as a looming threat.
These groups fear that new development will be squeezed into certain areas, resulting in big, boxy buildings, out of character with the single-family homes that characterize East Denver. They argue that these neighborhoods should remain composed primarily of single-family homes. DENF’s deep-seated opposition to increased density has led critics to label them “NIMBYs,” standing for “Not in My Backyard.”
Hardly anyone dubs themselves a NIMBY—the term is almost always pejorative. According to their critics, the prototypical NIMBY opposes change and development for selfish reasons; for example, arguing that taller buildings will block their sunlight, increase traffic on their street, or bring riff-raff to their area.
While the DENF members are, in literal sense, saying “no”to proposed development in their backyards, they disagree vehemently with that characterization. Jeanne Lee, a founding member of DENF, says her stance would be better described as “We Want to Get It Right In Our Backyard.” According to Lee, DENF isn’t opposed to affordable housing or transit-oriented development. But she feels her neighborhood is being forced to shoulder a burden, without support from the people who live there.
The self-proclaimed “Yes In My Backyard” movement begs to differ. The advocacy group YIMBY Denver was formally created in 2016. Their motto: “Denver is not full.”
In the past year especially, the movement has gained traction, says board president Adam Estroff. YIMBYs are showing up to planning meetings and getting spots on the boards of their registered neighborhood organizations. They argue that restrictive zoning and powerful neighborhood groups have blocked housing growth from keeping pace with job growth, contributing to an affordability crunch and forcing suburban sprawl, which in turn creates more transportation issues across the metro area.
Estroff explains that YIMBYs push for policies and structural changes that would increase density by encouraging all kinds of new development. He acknowledges that “density” can be a scary word—especially in light of the novel coronavirus—but argues that the benefits are numerous: Compact cities are more walkable and bikeable, and more amenable to public transportation, reducing reliance on individual automobiles and thus greenhouse gas emissions (if you need an example, just look at Vancouver). A larger tax base in the urban core also means more funding for public infrastructure and public services.
YIMBYs by and large support the East and East Central Area Plans’ encouragement of new transit-oriented development—they just want it to go further. According to Estroff, YIMBYs don’t generally see any value in single-family or single-use zoning, which they say effectively segregates cities by income and often race.
The single-family-home-occupying members of DENF don’t see it that way. A single-family home is a “natural evolution of life,” says Caroline Carolan, a founding member of DENF. She goes so far to say that the East Area plan could result in a future where, “if you choose to have a family, children, and a dog, there’s no longer a place for you in Denver.”
Estroff maintains that the process for zoning and planning has always given disproportionate power to wealthy, white homeowners who have the time and political capital to show up to public meetings and speak in opposition to rezonings and proposed changes, ensuring the protection and construction of single-family homes at the expense of other housing. “The system is biased to produce these anti-growth results,” he says.
Meanwhile, DENF members accuse YIMBYs of trusting blindly in private developers to match the housing need. After all, most of the measures included in the East and East Central plans don’t guarantee affordable housing, only incentivize private developers to build it.
Other activists have indicated fears that the plans could jumpstart a cycle of gentrification, especially because one of the neighborhoods clumped into the East Area Plan is starkly different from the others.
According to the most recent Census data, South Park Hill is one of the whitest and wealthiest neighborhoods in Denver, with an average household income of over $104,000. Montclair falls shortly behind, and while the Hale neighborhood’s income level is more modest, it’s also almost 80 percent white. Meanwhile, East Colfax is a majority-minority area, home to many immigrant communities. According to the East Colfax Neighborhood Association, about 30 percent of East Colfax residents live at or below the poverty line, with 60 percent designated by the city as “vulnerable to involuntary displacement.”
According to demographic feedback from community engagement efforts, 48 percent of people who were engaged in the East Area planning process were from South Park Hill, and over 80 percent were white. “It feels like the planning process has really failed our communities,” says East Colfax resident Brendan Greene, who formed the East Colfax Community Collective, or EC3, a network of diverse business owners, community leaders, and residents who are concerned about being displaced.
Rising property values are a sign that a neighborhood is gentrifying, and between 2017 and 2019, they spiked dramatically in lower-income neighborhoods like East Colfax, rising more than 25 percent (in South Park Hill, Montclair, and Hale, they rose 16 to 18 percent). According to Tim Roberts, president of the East Colfax Neighborhood Association, the consequent spike in property taxes is squeezing homeowners, renters, and business owners.
The East Area Plan, in Roberts’ view, should make explicit provisions to protect these people from displacement. Building income-restricted affordable housing will be crucial, Roberts says, but it wouldn’t solve the problem, since affordable units are open to anyone, not just the people already in the neighborhood. The East Colfax Neighborhood Association board has vowed not to sign off on any plan that doesn’t prioritize protection against displacement.
Former Colorado Senator Irene Aguilar, who leads the city’s Neighborhoods Equity and Stabilization Team (NEST), says that Denver needs more housing to combat displacement. But, she says, current policies have encouraged the development of market-rate and luxury housing—units that don’t serve the most vulnerable. “More expensive housing runs the risk for taking up what could be more attainable housing,” Aguilar says. “I think certainly we need more affordable housing stock, deeply affordable stock.”
So while people like Greene and Roberts share DENF’s distrust of private development, they don’t think the group’s campaign against higher buildings will help ease the burden for low-income folks. “If we’re going to address the needs of this community, then let’s bring [development] in,” Roberts explains.
Greene adds: “What shouldn’t happen is a plan be shoved down the throats of both East Colfax and Park Hill when both neighborhoods are saying it’s not what they need.”
Amid what can feel like a battle of NIMBY/YIMBY ideologies, Roberts isn’t the only one who urges YIMBYism with a caveat. Matthew Bossler is an urban designer and landscape architect who has been involved in both the East Central and East Area Plan. Bossler says he shares many overarching YIMBY views. But he doesn’t think the private market alone will solve the affordability crisis. And, he says, YIMBYs don’t give credit to those concerned with preserving the history and character of their neighborhoods. “When you build a high rise in the middle of a neighborhood that has just cottages, it creates psychological shock. That concern is legitimate,” he says.
Bossler thinks that both sides of this debate are missing a point: It’s not a choice between skyscrapers and single-family homes. There are a lot more ways to achieve greater density than tall, boxy market-rate apartment complexes. Bossler started his own initiative, called QUIMBY Eastside, for “Quality Urbanism in My Backyard.” Bossler advocates for housing solutions that accomodate more people at a lower cost, while still maintaining the character of the current built environment. For example, he’s pushing for something he calls the “Grand House Building Form,” which can already be found all over neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, in which historic mansions have been transformed into duplexes, triplexes, and multi-family units.
These “compromise” ideas aren’t a panacea for the NIMBY/YIMBY divide, though. DENF has not jumped on board to compromise, insead calling for the city to delay the rollout of the East Area Plan, since stakeholders and residents can’t gather as usual to discuss it due to the coronavirus.
Even if City Council approves the plans, which it will consider after they are finalized (expected later this summer), a long road lies ahead. While the East Area and East Central Area Plans have generated years-long controversy, they’re only first steps. The plans don’t guarantee any of the policy changes they recommend—City Council will still have to approve individual zoning changes and new projects using the plans as guidelines.
And while the current economic downturn could upend some of the assumptions that the plan makes regarding the general landscape of development, the rest of Denver will soon have to face the same questions about how their neighborhoods will change and grow. The West Area Plan (encompassing West Colfax, Villa Park, Sun Valley, Barnum, and Valverde) is already underway.
Upton says that based on lessons from the East and East Central Area Plans, planners working on the West Area Plan are making a more proactive effort to engage people earlier, including outreach in Spanish and Vietnamese, and better demographic tracking of who’s participating in the planning effort. After all, part of the reason Martyn ended up joining DENF, he explains, is that he hadn’t known about the East Area Plan until it seemed too late to add meaningful input. “Unless you’re dialed into it, you’re not gonna know about it,” he says. “You don’t search for ‘East Area Plan’ if you’re bored.”
Of course, no amount of community meetings (or online surveys and Zoom presentations) will make “neighborhood defenders” and YIMBYs agree on everything. Bossler thinks the process should go beyond merely asking for peoples’ opinions, and do more to educate neighbors and stakeholders about the larger forces behind the housing crisis and ideas about the future of urban cities. If people can come to a common understanding about the difficult balance between respecting historical character and creating space for more people, “the [NIMBY/ YIMBY] divisions don’t appear right away,” he says. “It extends the period of time in which people are willing to talk to each other as neighbors instead of immediately polarizing.”
Editor’s note, 5/21/20: This article has been updated to reflect that the public comment period on the East Area Plan has been extended.