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Denver Council to vote on design rules for East Colfax ahead of BRT project

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Denver city leaders on Monday will vote on new rules that could dictate the look and function of East Colfax Avenue for decades. But whether those rules, already in place on other busy streets, are inappropriate for the lane remains a point of debate.

If approved by the City Council, the package of proposed zoning change will manage future development for hundreds of properties between Sherman and Yosemite streets with the goal of ensuring adequate shopfronts and more space for sidewalk users along Colfax.

The proposal 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. Construction crews are expected to begin construction on the first phase 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, new zoning rules will change the face of buildings around bus stops.

The rules — technically known as a design overlay — do not affect 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 include an active, commercial use. That could be anything from a pizza parlor to an office.

New buildings would also have to be set back at least two feet from the street if the overlay is adopted, expanding sidewalk space, according to city planning documents. Property owners can leave more space between the fronts of their buildings and the property line, creating space for patios that can attract pedestrians.

The proposed standards would not run for the entire 5-plus-mile length of the corridor, with gaps provided in some areas where larger residential projects could appear. The affected properties are all clustered within two blocks of the planned bus rapid transit stop.

“The very purpose of the design standards is to promote walkability and small business,” said Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer, one of the measure’s co-sponsors. His east Denver District 5 is one of four council districts that would see properties rezoned if the bill passes. “We’re trying to find the right balance. We want businesses in places where everyone can walk and ride and we want housing, particularly affordable housing.”

There are some uses that would not meet the criteria for active non-residential uses facing Colfax, essentially banning them near future BRT stops. Those include storage facilities, car washes, auto shops and drive-thrus that will have entrances and exits on Colfax itself, according to city documents.

“It’s long past time Colfax put people before things,” said Councilman Chris Hinds, the bill’s other co-sponsor who represents the city’s central District 10.

Long-term plans developed over the past two to three years for east of the city and east central neighborhood both call for design standards that emphasize active uses such as storefronts in busy street corridors while discouraging car-oriented development.

Hinds sees the design overlay, already in place on parts of Tennyson Street and Santa Fe Drive, as Denver lives up to its Colfax values.

The overlay plan went through the council’s Land Use, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in October. But there was a little heartburn among the members of Denver Planning Board when they reviewed it this fall.

The construction site for a 7-story apartment building at 1110 E. Colfax Ave. that will bring 334 apartments to East Colfax in Denver is pictured Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

The design overlay was created by District 1 Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval’s office to address concerns about the wave of redevelopment sweeping Tennyson Street between 38th and 46th streets. Sandoval and others worry about blocks of new apartment and condo buildings popping up, crowding sidewalks and choking the small-business feel of the corridor, a historic node in the city’s long-gone streetcar network.

The overlay has since been adopted for a portion of Santa Fe Drive, another Denver corridor that is booming as developers seek to cash in on one of the nation’s most expensive housing and rental markets.

The Planning Board voted 5-2 to recommend the City Council apply an overlay on East Colfax but not before discussing whether it would be a good fit for the paved road. Unlike Tennyson and Santa Fe, north-south streets where properties are typically deeper and back alleys that allow for delivery and other services, Colfax is an east- west avenue and the lots are shallower and have no alleys. That means new standards that increase setbacks from the street can make designing a functional building difficult.

A sign on Colfax Ave.  seen in front of the Fillmore Auditorium on East Colfax Ave.  in Denver on Tuesday, December 5, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
A Colfax Avenue sign is seen in front of the Fillmore Auditorium on East Colfax Avenue in Denver on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

“I think Colfax is different enough from 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 to approve the rezonings. “The problem is that we are expanding the right of way. We’re pushing the buildings away.”

Andy Baldyga spoke at that Planning Board meeting. An architect and former board member, Baldyga is now the vice president of Colfax Ave Business Improvement Districtcovering Colfax from roughly Sherman to Josephine streets.

Baldyga lives within a block of Coflax and is excited about the prospect of improving transit services along a road that carries one of the Regional Transportation District’s highest ridership bus lines. But he also has concerns about how an east-west avenue would fare under the design standards created for north-south streets.

“Colfax can bring neighborhoods together and be a unifying element. There are strong neighborhoods to the north and south; good density, good housing stock, people want to live there,” said Baldyga. “I think what the city needs to do is look at all the east-west corridors and develop new standards that provide -incentivize new development in a way that works for east-west streets.”

A passenger waits for a bus on Colfax Ave.  and Steele St.  in Denver on Tuesday, December 5, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
A passenger waits for a bus at Colfax Avenue and Steele Street in Denver on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

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