City getting grip on downtown infill
Design Standards Project seeks to protect existing neighbrohoods

Ryan Benson, center, works with his crew on renovating a home on East 6th Avenue on Friday.  The city is undergoing an Infill Design Project, which will ultimately lay down rules on how Durango’s older neighborhoods will look in the face of increasing infill and upgrading./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by Amy Maestas

The recent development boom has found its way inside Durango city limits, and as a result, city officials are inching closer to implementing a new set of guidelines for in-town residential developments. The hope is that the new guidelines will help preserve the quaint charm and tidy character of neighborhoods that are facing mounting pressure from growth.

Tonight, June 9, is the fifth in a series of public workshops the city and its hired consultants have held over the last several months to glean input from residents in downtown neighborhoods about how to preserve their uniqueness while allowing infill development in established residential neighborhoods. The workshops are part of the city’s ongoing Infill Design Standards Project. The result will be a new set of regulations governing look, size and scope of new homes or remodeled residences.

The impetus of the project was a noticeable shift in trends from greater development outside downtown to existing neighborhoods that historically have a variety

of distinctiveness, says Greg Hoch, director of Planning and Community Development. Hoch says more people had an eye to finding vacant land in these neighborhoods because they wanted to live closer to city amenities.

“At the staff level, we were always aware that big things could happen in these neighborhoods. But it took the changing economy and social-economic indicators, and requests by certain citizens, to happen,” says Hoch.

A number of residents found themselves facing loss of living standards with new developments sometimes detracting from how the neighborhood has appeared for decades and what it offers. Residents were often frustrated that a developer planted a three-story home next to a single-story home and took away their views, solar energy and privacy.

When the public outcry increased, the city passed an emergency moratorium on developments exceeding a

specific height and on steep slopes. It followed it up with the infill project, on which the city is spending about $100,000, according to Hoch.

For some residents, the shift to infill development is a frustrating surprise that, defined correctly, is about the competing interests of private property rights and neighborhood infringement. M’Lissa Story recently encountered this hard lesson when a developer requested city permission to subdivide a lot next door to her home on East Park Avenue. Story, who moved to Durango six months ago, feels the city’s land-use codes are antiquated. Because of the zoning in her neighborhood, Story’s home will be overshadowed by a newly built house that will cut off her solar energy from the east and diminish her privacy. Story is also upset that the development will take out three 100-year-old trees. To accommodate the home, the developer is asking for a variance on parking requirements. 4

“I feel like I’m subsidizing the developer on the intangibles,” Story says. “Variances should be accepted on hardship, not on economic gain.”

Hoch says the proposed development is legal, because the codes allow subdividing the lot for new development. Unfortunately, Story’s frustration is one of timing. New land-use codes that would better address Story’s dissatisfaction may end up on the books once the Infill Project is complete. For now, with the current codes in place, the city is bound to allow the developer due process, says Hoch.

Construction materials litter the entryway to a home under construction in downtown Durango on Friday. With more people wanting to live close to downtown, the city is seeing an increasing amount of infill, and as a result, is seeking community input on standards to guide the process./Photo by Todd Newcomer

Hoch says the proposed development is legal, because the codes allow subdividing the lot for new development. Unfortunately, Story’s frustration is one of timing. New land-use codes that would better address Story’s dissatisfaction may end up on the books once the Infill Project is complete. For now, with the current codes in place, the city is bound to allow the developer due process, says Hoch.

Ron Greene is sympathetic to Story’s position. Last year Greene led the charge in getting city leaders to enact the emergency height and slope moratorium. A resident of West Park Avenue, Greene was unhappy watching a tall duplex rise above his home – one that affected neighbors’ standard of living. Greene is pleased that the city recently extended the moratorium through August. The moratorium appears to be directly addressing its intention. Tuesday night, the Durango City Council denied a developer’s plans to build three-story duplex on a slope at Ninth Street and Seventh Avenue. Relying on the moratorium and the strong neighborhood opposition, council members upheld their stance that out-of-place developments deserve scrutiny.

Greene is actively making sure the city goes a step further than the moratorium. He has been vocal in the Infill Project process.

“A lot of work is being done to address this. I’m pretty convinced that good things are going to come out of this process,” says Greene.

Greene says draft proposals look promising for the neighborhoods being impacted by infill development, especially issues that address design standards that would make new homes blend better with existing ones.

However, Greene has lingering concerns. He says he’s troubled by his impression that residents attending the workshops and providing feedback have focused more on protecting their own property rights and less about people wanting protection from the impacts of infill.

“My concern is that I’m hearing more comments from people who want the city to ensure that they can do what they want to on their own property. I hope that is addressed by the end of all this, because even new standards can impact projects negatively,” Greene adds.

Current draft standards orient more to building mass and scale, floor areas, lot coverage, parking and conserving traditional looks of neighborhoods. The draft standards do not, though, propose changing zoning categories, says Vicki Vandegrift, a senior planner for the city.

“These guidelines are meant to address reducing bulk and scale. The underlying uses won’t change,” she explains.

Greene would like to hear different news. He says over the last 20 years he has watched West Second and West Third avenues begin a subtle change to have more duplexes than single-family homes. It’s a change he doesn’t like to watch. But if it’s going to happen, Greene hopes the city strengthens the new infill regulations by holding developers’ feet to the fire to consider the impacts on their neighbors.

“They should be forced to do it in a neighborly way. You can’t ignore the impact on adjacent property owners. They should have some power in these situations,” he says. •

 

 

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