New buildings in and near the burgeoning River North Art District northeast of downtown Denver soon could rise 16 stories in places under a long-in-the-works height incentives proposal that’s up for approval Monday by the City Council.

That’s the carrot, and here’s the stick: For the first time in the city’s history, Denver would offer increased height above normal zoning in exchange for a higher contribution by developers to affordable housing than is required anywhere else in the city. Depending on the development type, they would build income-restricted units or chip in higher impact fees.

It’s a proposal that’s targeted to increase density — as well as the availability of housing that’s affordable to a broader range of people — within four to eight blocks of the 38th and Blake commuter rail station on the University of Colorado A-Line. A larger area would face a new set of exterior design rules in the form of a zoning design overlay, which is a more typical zoning tool.

Already, council members are looking at the potential of applying height incentives elsewhere, especially near transit stations. Councilman Rafael Espinoza has said the 41st and Fox station on the upcoming G-Line train is a prime candidate.

Denver’s planning director says he sees a lot of potential in allowing more height as a way to get developers who are benefiting from a booming market to chip in for basic needs in a given area — whether it’s affordable housing, upgrades to roads and other infrastructure, or other investments.

“In the places where density is planned … most cities choose to make it as easy as possible to allow investment to occur,” said Brad Buchanan, executive director of the Department of Community Planning and Development. “This flies in the face of that a little bit.

“However, it is realistic about what the impacts (of development) are. And it’s a responsible way to tackle some of those challenges.”

The map above, from a city presentation, shows where the affordable housing height incentive overlay district and the larger, overlapping design standards overlay district will apply. Initially, the zoning overlay will apply to properties with mixed-use zoning.
Provided by Denver Department of Community Planning and Development

The map above, from a city presentation, shows where the affordable housing height incentive overlay district and the larger, overlapping design standards overlay district will apply. Initially, the zoning overlay will apply to properties with mixed-use zoning.

The proposed changes would allow the boosting of base zoning, which would range from three to eight stories, to be increased by one to 11 stories. Maximum heights would step down closer to single-family residential blocks.

To build higher than base zoning allows, developers of primarily residential projects would have to build income-restricted units in their projects or nearby. How many would depend on a formula that factors in the height above the base zoning and the building’s square footage.

An example provided by the city — for a 12-story building on a lot otherwise zoned for five stories — would net 10 income-restricted apartments or condos.

Commercial developers would pay five times the city’s usual affordable housing impact fee for the incentive-enabled floors, totaling an estimated $1 million in impact fees for a 12-story building in one scenario. They also could build affordable housing off-site or provide space for “community serving uses,” such as a grocery store, artist spaces and day cares, to reduce the fees.

“By increasing density near the station, not only are we encouraging affordable housing but hopefully discouraging driving,” said Andrew Feinstein, an art district board co-chair who owns the EXDO Event Center and Tracks nightclub. He’s also a developer. “I hope this is a model that the entire metro area looks at. If we can densify around our stations, hopefully we can get people out of their cars.”

A map of the area surrounding the 38th and Blake transit station shows suggested base building heights (marked by numbers) and incentive heights (shaded by color) if developers incorporate affordable housing or, if it's a commercial project, pay extra impact fees into a city housing fund.
A map of the area surrounding the 38th and Blake transit station shows suggested base building heights (marked by numbers) and incentive heights (shaded by color) if developers incorporate affordable housing or, if it’s a commercial project, pay extra impact fees into a city housing fund. Some property owners have opted out of the zoning above.

The proposal has excited some residents and business owners in the area, and several developers have outlined potential projects.

But others have concerns, from doubts the incentives will work out financially for commercial projects to skepticism they will result in a serious addition of affordable housing to the area. Some neighborhood advocates fear the city has given in to hungry RiNo developers.

“This is really dense. Twelve or 16 stories — that’s like downtown,” said Drew Dutcher, president of the Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Association. “In this race to develop all we can, we wake up one day and find we have really diminished the quality of life in the city because we’ve densified.”

To come up with the plan, city planners worked with Councilman Albus Brooks and a community steering committee representing areas including RiNo, Globeville, Elyria-Swansea and Cole; developers; and affordable housing advocates.

The group fixed on two objectives: spurring the building of more affordable housing and clamping down on design.

The design overlay focuses less on subjective aesthetics than on how buildings are oriented to sidewalks and streets, how visible parking garages can be, and the structures’ mass and scale, requiring those to be reduced as buildings go higher. The overlay would cover properties from roughly Broadway and the Denargo Market redevelopment on the southwest to near the Denver Coliseum on the northeast.

The council is set to consider a package of zoning and ordinance changes for the 38th and Blake area at its 5:30 p.m. Monday meeting on the fourth floor of the City and County Building. They will be the subject of a public hearing at the end of the meeting.