Heeding a call neighborhood organizations made years ago, Denver now says every neighborhood will have an area-specific plan within the next 10 to 14 years.
At the previous pace, that would have taken about 80 years.
Neighborhood plans describe the character residents value in the places they live and the vision they have for its future. It identifies land use changes that should guide future development, amenities like parks, rec centers, bus stops or sidewalks that are sorely needed and transportation improvements that would help residents and workers get around better.
Putting something in a neighborhood plan doesn’t make it happen — that would take money, in many cases, and additional action by City Council — but it does tell city government about the community’s priorities. Projects identified in a neighborhood plan might make their way into a future general obligation bond or grant request. Land use maps can guide future rezonings.
Right now, less than 20 percent of the city has an area plan that was created after the adoption of Blueprint Denver in 2002, and 47 percent of the city has no small-scale area plan at all, including rapidly changing areas like Berkeley and West Highland.
It’s been taking the city two to three years to complete each neighborhood plan, and at that pace, it would take 80 years to do up-to-date plans for all of Denver.
The Neighborhood Planning Initiative speeds that process up considerably by putting adjacent statistical neighborhoods into groups for planning purposes, committing to getting area plans done in 18 to 24 months and, yes, throwing money at the problem in order to work on more than one plan at a time.
The 2017 budget adds more than $1 million — a 27.2 percent increase — to the Planning Services Division’s budget, bringing the total to almost $5.1 million. Not all of that is for neighborhood planning — the division is also working on Denveright, implementing the transit-oriented development strategic plan and pursuing other regulatory updates — but the department has already hired four new planners and intends to hire two more for next year. The city will also hire outside consultants to work on the plans.
This is a big effort.
Margie Valdez, the zoning and planning committee chair for Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation, a citywide alliance of neighborhood associations, said the planning initiative is long overdue.
“We couldn’t go on that way,” she said. “Two years for one small area plan? And we have so many neighborhoods that it would have taken 99 years to get from A to Z. I really think this is a step in the right direction.”
Valdez lives in Cheesman Park, which has an old neighborhood plan that needs updating. She said grouping neighborhoods has other benefits besides expediting the process.
“It’s really good to have the neighborhood people talking to each other,” she said. “I think it will give us a better understanding of the whole area. I’m looking forward to engaging with people who might have a different take on what the neighborhood needs.”
Neighborhood Planning Supervisor Steve Nalley said the process for Five Points’ neighborhood plan in some ways will serve as a model. Five Points is one statistical neighborhood, but by neighborhood standards, it’s huge and includes multiple, distinct areas like RiNo, Curtis Park, Arapahoe Square and the Welton Street corridor.
When the city does planning for these larger groups, each neighborhood within the group will have a dedicated planner and its own representation, he said.
What about that other big planning effort, Denveright?
Denveright (no relation) has not gone away. Denveright, which includes an update to Blueprint Denver, as well as transportation and parks plans, is chugging along. But that’s a citywide process. The neighborhood plans will be more specific and ideally will help implement these larger plans at the neighborhood level.
At a Planning Board meeting Wednesday, members had some concerns about how this all meshes together. What neighborhoods want for particular blocks won’t necessarily line up very well with larger city goals.
“I worry that macro issues like affordability and how you deal with density and transportation will get lost,” Planning Board member Susan Stanton said.
And then there’s the trade-offs. Planning Board member Susan Pearce noted that the planning initiative talks about affordability but not density. She said that “needs to be addressed head on.”
What’s next? Where’s next?
The Neighborhood Planning Initiative will be presented to the City Council’s land use, transportation and infrastructure subcommittee, but it doesn’t require City Council approval because it’s a strategy, not a policy. Individual neighborhood plans will require City Council approval.
The Neighborhood Planning Initiative will kick off in March in far northeast Denver — Montbello, Gateway and Green Valley Ranch. Neighborhoods are being prioritized based on a number of factors, including not having plans or having outdated plans, how much change is going on and whether certain basic amenities are lacking. In the case of far northeast Denver, the city is also trying to coordinate with planning for transit-oriented development around the 61st and Peña A Line station.
Other Phase I areas are identified as east-central and east — that’s North Capitol Hill, Capitol Hill, City Park, City Park West, Congress Park, Cheesman Park, South Park Hill, Montclair and East Colfax — in part to coordinate with a federal grant for planning along the East Colfax corridor.
Phase II areas include: near southeast, which includes Goldsmith and Indian Creek and the Evans Avenue corridor; west, which includes Valverde, Villa Park, West Colfax and Sun Valley; and near northwest, which includes Jefferson Park and Highland.
City planners say there will be lots of opportunities for community involvement, and each plan will start with several months of getting to know the community and identifying leaders and potential steering committee members.
Planning Board members sounded a note of caution here, too, with Don Elliott telling planners to take care that strident voices who may not represent the majority of residents don’t commandeer the process, and Chris Smith saying it’s not enough to work with whoever shows up. There are neighbors who are harder to engage, who are more hesitant to speak up, and their voices matter too.
“You need to make sure you do more than just make the process open,” he said.
You can read more about the Neighborhood Planning Initiative here.