- Guest column by Dick Farley.
- Farley is a former Denver City Planner.
- Farley addresses heights and densities.
By Dick Farley
Special to DenverRealEstateWatch.com
Like cousins, building height and density are related but different.
A two story house 30 feet high can contain two or three bedrooms and a family of three or four. Or, it could contain four or five bedrooms (including a basement apartment) and an extended family of five or six.
The density in units per acre doesn’t change, but the density in people per acre does.
Such a house without any change in form or height, but with a change in zoning, can also be converted to half a dozen apartments. That has been the case with many large homes in Capitol Hill, for example.
It only takes the conversion of six or seven such houses on 50 by 125 foot lots to reach upward of 40 units per acre. Before the conversion, the density was six or seven units per acre.
Often, the converted apartments are small, so the average number of residents per unit might be in the range of 1.25 people per unit, yielding something like 50 people per acre.
Six or seven large houses might contain six or seven large families, perhaps averaging four people per house yielding 25 to 30 people per acre.
The density increase in people per acre might not be as drastic as it seems when you count only units per acre. All these density options occur in the same house form limited to 30 feet in height.
The same differing amounts of density occur in larger apartment forms of the same height and stories.
A four-story apartment might have 100 small units housing 125 people, or 50 larger units housing the same number of people.
Office buildings of the same height can have the same variable densities of building population and usable building area, depending on floor-to-floor heights and office layouts.
In Denver’s new form-based zoning code, measurements of density are largely superseded by the description of building form and height.
Consequently, height and building form (urban house, row house, apartment, etc.) have become somewhat inaccurate rules of thumb for density.
Building Height and Views
Building heights, views, sun exposure and shadows instead of daylight, can turn into issues as contentious as density.
People living in both high rises and houses commonly have the same complaint – someone built a higher structure near me that blocked my view, or my sun exposure.
There ought to be a law!
Well, in Denver there is and there isn’t.
Some views are protected by view ordinances.
These are public views from specific spots in parks or plazas. Generally, they preserve the view of mountains. Sometimes, they protect the view of the downtown skyline.
They are mapped as pie-shaped arcs that capture a portion of the mountain range.
Since the mountains are at a significant distance from the viewpoint and are higher than the viewpoint, the ordinances’ view planes allow lower buildings to occur within the boundaries of the arc. That is, as long as they don’t protrude into the mass and profile of the mountains.
There are exceptions, of course.
The view ordinance that protects the iconic view of the mountains and the downtown skyline originating from the west steps of the Museum of Nature and Science in City Park stops short of downtown. This allows downtown high rises to interact with the profile of the mountains.
These view ordinances are highly prized by the public and neighborhood organizations. Not only do they protect the views from parks (sometimes blocked by other prized elements – trees), but also to add another layer of control to building height over a neighborhood.
Denver also has a few design standards that protect sun exposure and daylight to public spaces.
The 16th Street Mall has a sun exposure design standard that requires at least a third of the street per block to be in sun from the spring equinox to the fall equinox during the mid-day.
The downtown also has a standard called a Waldram diagram that requires a high rise to provide a certain percentage of sky exposure to the street.
Both of these design standards (under the old B5 zoning ordinance) are relatively complicated. In part, that is to be fair to property owners on both sides of a street. The owners might have unequal sun exposure impacts. It is also complicated because it allow for a variety of building configurations.
Views from Private Property
However, views from private property are not protected by ordinances.
Nor do zoning ordinances offer much direct protection for sun exposure and daylight to private property other than side yard setbacks and the bulk planes for house forms.
There may be indirect view protection from units in higher buildings where a zone district with higher height limits abuts a zone district with lower height limits.
Long distance views from private property may also be serendipitously protected by a public park (with a Mountain View Ordinance) or down a public right-of-way.
Of course, you can protect your view or your sun exposure the old-fashioned American way by purchasing the property that provides your view or your sun.
The new zoning ordinance is much better than the old ordinance in providing more predictability for what can be built in a zoning district.
Under the old ordinance, Planned Unit Developments, which essentially cut a hole into a zone district to create their own rules of height and density, are now strongly discouraged.
The new ordinance also has reduced the ability to build anomalous higher structures in the neighborhoods, which, under the old ordinance, were over-zoned for greater heights and densities than actually existed in the neighborhood.
However, exceptions exist, often due to irregularities in the old zoning, which become built into the new zoning because of the city’s disinclination to substantially downzone property.
These exceptions fuel the perception that out-of-control development is rampant in our neighborhoods. This is actually less true under the new zoning ordinance than the old.
What is true is that Denver is a far more attractive city now than in the past.
While commercial parking lots might have provided informal views and sun exposure to properties adjacent to them, it is wonderful that the market is finally filling them in with new architecture, residents and activities.
Should there be more protections for views from private property and/or sun exposure to private property?
Should some properties be blessed by the view or sun-gods, while other properties are not (or even suppressed in order to provide the blessings)?
Is design review for large areas of the city an answer, given the myriad number of differing conditions, and the fine-grained design adjustments necessary to work out acceptable compromises?
For a populace that doesn’t trust government, that is a substantial governmental intervention into the decision-making process of private property owners.
It is also a costly one for both the government to administer and the property owner to undergo. In my view, that should be reserved for special areas and specific purposes rather than blanketing the city.
In the end, I would come down on the side of continually refining our form-based zoning ordinance.
The goal should be to make rules addressing private property heights, views and sun exposure more easily administered and have objective criteria.
That would make them more fair and consistent.
This may not prevent the blocking of views, or the casting of shadows on another building as infill development occurs.
However, it should provide a predictable and level playing field.
Dick Farley is principal of Richard Farley Urban Design LLC. Farley was Deputy Director of the Denver Community
Planning and Development office in charge of Urban Design from 1987 to 1996.
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