Denver Direct: Danger to Denver parks in proposed zoning code

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Danger to Denver parks in proposed zoning code

Photo from Museum expansion plans.

Title: Denver Museum of Nature & Science – New Storage and Education Center
Project Type: Refurbish and Expand Cultural Facilities
Construction (Start) Quarter: Q2
Construction (Start) Year: 2011
Project Status: Planning
Neighborhood: City Park
Council District: 8
Description: Construct storage facility. Remodel/build classrooms, labs, teacher ed ctr, relo library & 2nd traveling hall

Ed. Note: Thanks to Dave Felice for arranging this exclusive commentary by well-known Denverite Tom Morris, retired architect, living in the South City Park neighborhood.

by Tom Morris
July 31, 2009

The Hickenlooper administration is proposing a new zoning ordinance for Denver. The new code withdraws zoning from our larger parks. The proposal says that all decisions about what is built in our parks will be left to the whims of future managers of parks and recreation.

Zoning is one of the most useful tools for urban stability. Not because it freezes the city in the amber of law but rather because it outlines the means of resolving land use issues within a functional relationship. Take away zoning and the result is lingering disputes, anger and unstable land uses.

For five years in the late 1970s I attended most city council meetings. I had a prime seat at the press desk in the days when reporters actually attended council meetings. When zoning hearings came before council the press people would yawn and exchange gossip. I, on the other hand, loved every minute of every zoning hearing.

I saw zoning as the ultimate expression of the genius of American democracy at work. Disputes often involved the forces of political power in their grey suits and ties arrayed against the underdog locals in their plaid shirts and tennis shoes. The two opposing forces were made equal in zoning disputes because the deciders, members of city council, were equally beholden to the expertise and money of the suits and the votes of the public. There was very little backroom discussion. More often than not the decision was based on what was said at the hearings.

When zoning hearings were over and the issue was decided, the dispute was over. Oh, the anger might linger a while. The council member whose district was under discussion might lose their seats at the next municipal election. The neighborhood might suffer from the decision. A developer might lose a lot of money. But the question had been decided in a fair forum. It may have taken a couple of years, but the arguments were over.

Contrast this with the question of whether the Museum of Natural History could double its size back in the 1980s. The manager of parks and recreation at the time, made the decision quickly without bothering to tell the public. She signed the construction documents and the museum began building its addition. When the public discovered what she had done when a gigantic furniture warehouse engulfed the prim Beaux Arts museum and the Phipps Auditorium a lingering dispute burst into view.

By the time the dust settled a decade and a half later, a succession of parks managers had come and gone often in the heat of battle, the city’s aquarium had been removed from City Park’s future, the city’s parks department had been barred from the park by a court decision, City Park had a joke of a master plan, park roads had been closed, the city charter had been amended, the parks advisory committee had been expanded by 14 new members, two subterranean parking garages had been constructed and neighbors of the park had a festering distrust of the department.

An example of the fitful resolution of the various issues in the park was begun with a statement by the museum’s CEO, Raylene Decatur, that the museum would never again expand its floor area in the park. Based on that statement (which was never reflected in any law), the parking garage serving the museum was designed without the capacity to expand vertically even though its was sharply restricted in horizontal expansion by underground utilities, roadways and nearby structures.

Since there were no legal limits installed by zoning, the next museum CEO, George Sparks, got the city’s voters to approve an additional 60,000 square feet of exhibit space for the museum. In the olden days when the city saw a lack of parking as a detriment to orderly growth, the zoning ordinance would have required the museum to provide 300 more parking spaces as a condition of its expansion.

The Hickenlooper administration, however, views a lack of parking as a sign of urban vitality. This means that when new museum visitors again begin parking along the shady residential streets of west Park Hill, the neighbors will have to find comfort in the idea that they are living in a trendy neighborhood rather than an inconvenient mess.

The new zoning ordinance being proposed by Hickenlooper removes any suggestion that the neighbors be informed about changes coming to their lives, have any right or opportunity to speak out on their own behalf or have any decision recorded in any way which might protect them from future “great” ideas. The Hickenlooper ordinance even allows future managers of parks and recreation to change any agreements now existing.

If you live near or love a Denver park, get ready for a couple of decades of dispute and anger.