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May 2015 • Online Edition

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Buchanan Reaches Out To Heal Bruised Neighborhood Trust | Print |  E-mail

by Paul Kashmann

When Mayor Michael B. Hancock chose Brad Buchanan to replace Rocky Piro as executive director of the Department of Community Planning and Development (CPD), it caused furrowed brows among many of Denver’s dedicated cadre of neighborhood activists.


AS THE DIRECTOR OF COMMUNITY PLANNING AND DEVELOPMENT, BRAD BUCHANAN hopes to return to a more functional process of respectful engagement and conflict resolution between neighborhood groups, developers, and the city.  Photo by Paul Kashmann

Piro, who resigned unexpectedly in February after barely a year on the job, had garnered broad support among Denver’s registered neighborhood organizations. He was chosen to lead CPD when Peter Park left in mid-2011 after spearheading the first major redesign of Denver’s zoning code and zoning philosophy in half a century.

Buchanan, an architect by trade, is seen by some as too connected to big business and big developers to be open-minded on the continuing raft of issues and projects that often set neighborhood preservationists and advocates at odds with the development community.

A former member and chair of the Denver Planning Board (2005-2013), Buchanan served on the Denver Zoning Code Task Force (2005-2010) and as chair of the Downtown Denver Partnership (2010-2011). He is founder of Freedom By Design, a non-profit providing design and construction services for the disabled community.

Most recently, Buchanan was intimately involved in the design of a mixed-use redevelopment of the former St. Anthony’s Hospital site in west-central Denver. Neighbors objected to bringing downtown-scale density to a property on the edge of an established residential area of largely single-family homes.

Buchanan is aware of the need to allay concerns and heal rifts. “The sacred trust between the neighborhoods and the city has certainly been bruised,” he said at a recent meeting of Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation (INC), an umbrella group of 80-plus Denver registered neighborhood organizations. “I am absolutely committed to rebuilding that trust, to creating a forum for healthy, productive engagement to make changes that better people’s lives.” Noting that promises can at times be hollow, he promised, “I will win you over with my actions.”

As a first step to facilitating engagement, Buchanan recently accelerated the rezoning notification process, alerting communities to rezoning applications 30 days earlier than in the past. “Nobody knows context like the immediate neighbors,” he told The Profile. “We’re going to invite public comment for our staff to assess and understand as they develop their recommendations as part of the review process. That additional month is important time. There’s been this sense that by the time an application reaches Planning Board, the train has left the station.”

Addressing another contentious area, Buchanan has delayed publication of a text amendment designed to clarify the city’s calculation of open space requirements in larger-scale developments. Text changes in the 2010 citywide rezoning have led to projects being approved with less open space than would have been allowed under previous guidelines. In a letter to INC, Buchanan promised to convene a public task force to consider the issue before a final amendment is made. “This future amendment will correct the existing error regarding open space calculations in GDPs (General Development Plans).”

Acknowledging the flood of building that is under way following years of recession-driven stagnation, Buchanan said, “We’ve got wind in our sails right now, which is a good and a bad thing. In 2013 we processed twice the number of permits we were presented with in 2009, but (due to budget-balancing personnel cuts) we did it with 60 percent fewer people.”

Buchanan admitted that the reduced staff has kept the city from timely completion of required inspections and reviews. “We are substantially behind. Currently, about half of that work is in backlog – from family room fix-ups to high rise development. We’re going to address that backlog as quickly as possible within the constraints of competing budget priorities,” he stated.

In the planning area, CPD has a full plate of historic proportion. A never-ending need for neighborhood plans is competing with an avalanche of special projects. A redo of Blueprint Denver (the land use and transportation plan drafted in 2002) should come to the fore in the next year or two, while the revitalization and reintegration of the Elyria/Swansea and Globevile neighborhoods hits the front burner as Colorado Department of Transportation prepares a re-engineering of I-70, from I-25 to Tower Rd.

Add to that the ongoing evolution of the aerotropolis on and around the DIA grounds; rebuilding the National Western Stock Show for the next century; planning for a new gateway into Denver along Brighton Blvd.; transit station planning;  and the ongoing challenges in downtown; and Mr. Buchanan and his staff look to be stretched for the foreseeable future.

The need to facilitate getting people from home to mass transit – “first mile” – and from there to their ultimate destination – “last mile” – is a large piece of the need to revisit Blueprint Denver. “That first/last mile element is a real driver,” said Buchanan. “Large parts of Blueprint were devoted to the need for a new zoning code. Obviously that’s been dealt with. Now we’re in a time where transit alternatives are critical. Until we clearly define our needs and where they are, we can’t get projects funded. The good news is, the buffet of options is substantial.”

The recent upzoning of a University Park property to five stories – that had been zoned at three as part of the 2010 zoning code update – has led residents in that community to question why a zone designation would be changed after such a short time, when part of the zoning code redo was so developers and neighbors had something they could rely on.

“None of us (on the Zoning Code Task Force) expected that getting a new code would preclude or stop rezonings from happening. We hoped we’d see a significant reduction. What we were hearing from elsewhere is that we could expect to see a third or more in reductions of rezonings. What we found is we’ve had at least a 50 percent drop. In 2008-2009 we averaged more than 50 per year. In 2011-13, we had a total of 72, or 24 per year.

“The late (former planning director) Jennifer Moulton liked to say that, ‘Cities are messy places,’ and she was right. What we do here is not simple, it’s complex. Edges and transition zones can be very hard to manage.

“What’s interesting to me is, I ask all kinds of people to describe their favorite place, the kind of place they like the most. A developer or an activist will describe similar places – pedestrian friendly, often mixed use. Places where you’re comfortable and support neighborhood character. We argue about height, density and traffic, but I believe the goal remains the same.

“I don’t have all the answers,” said Buchanan. “We won’t always have everyone happy with what everyone else is doing, but we can get to a place where there’s respectful communication between parties that love our city and value the places  that have been created where people want to live, and developers want to invest.”

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