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Denver City Council changes rules for future development along East Colfax Avenue

Properties near future bus rapid transit stations will have to feature nonresidential, active ground floor space

A RTD bus heads to Aurora from Downtown Denver on East Colfax Ave in Denver, Colorado on Tuesday, December 5, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
A RTD bus heads to Aurora from Downtown Denver on East Colfax Ave in Denver, Colorado on Tuesday, December 5, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
Joe Rubino - Staff portraits in The Denver Post studio on October 6, 2022. (Photo by Eric Lutzens/The Denver Post)

Hundreds of properties along a 5-mile stretch of East Colfax Avenue will have to include active, ground-floor commercial space in any redevelopment plans after the Denver City Council on Monday approved new design guidelines for buildings clumped along the city’s most famous street.

The council unanimously supported applying the pack of new rules, collectively known by the active centers and corridors design overlay, to a stretch of Colfax that by 2027 is slated to be home to Denver’s first bus rapid transit line.

That transportation system is designed to use dedicated bus lanes and high-frequency, quick-boarding buses to transform the way people move along East Colfax. The design rules stand to change what the street offers to people walking and rolling along its sidewalks.

The rules will apply to all new buildings within two blocks of a planned bus rapid transit, or BRT, station between Sherman and Yosemite streets. Not only will projects in those areas be required to feature an active, non-residential use on at least a portion of the ground floors, they will also have to be set back at least two feet farther from the street to widen sidewalks.

“This overlay is not just as a zoning change, this really signals the beginning of an investment in the future of our city and the Colfax corridor,” Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer, one of the measure’s co-sponsors of the zoning change, said. “It really underscores our commitment to creating a vibrant and walkable neighborhood that is unique to the city of Denver.”

Sawyer represents east Denver’s District 5, one of four council districts that will have properties impacted by this change. The rules were now applied to every property along the 5 miles to allow for some larger housing developments to pop up, she said. Residential density will be needed to feed the new businesses city leaders hope will populate the new ground floor spaces.

Denver resident Robin Rothman was among a trio of Denver residents who spoke against the design overlay Monday, saying it did not go far enough because fast food drive-thru restaurants could still develop along portions of Colfax. She noted a Jack in the Box restaurant is being planned for the corner of Colfax and Williams Street, a property not covered by the rules changes.

“Businesses like fast food operators, banks and gas stations have overcome far more onerous requirements than what (the zoning overlay) asks for and the result has health consequences,” she said, pointing to unhealthy food choices and air pollution for idling cars.

Councilman Chris Hinds, the measure’s other co-sponsor, said that while he favors regulations that tip the scale more toward pedestrians and road users other than cars, he felt the design overlay stuck a balance.

Twelve projects already in the planning stages are exempt from the rules, senior city planner Libbie Glick said Monday, but the rest of the properties in the ordinance are now subject to the requirements.

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