“Not on our block”: Hilltop fought back against densification and the Green Flats development — and won

By Robert Davis

Many neighbors in the Hilltop neighborhood expressed great concern over the effect a re-zoning project would have on the neighborhood. But the battle that played out in a City Council vote highlights a question Denver will have to wrestle with in the near future: will residents tolerate increasing densification as land for development runs out?

Brownstone homes in the Hilltop neighborhood next to where the Green Flats development would have been built. (Credit: Sarah Ford)

Brownstone homes in the Hilltop neighborhood next to where the Green Flats development would have been built. (Credit: Sarah Ford)

In a late night vote held in early January, Denver City Council defeated a contentious motion to rezone seven properties on South Holly Street in Denver’s Hilltop neighborhood in order to make way for a 23-unit net-zero development known as the “Green Flats.”

Councilmembers Rafael Espinoza, Kevin Flynn, Paul Kashmann, Paul Lopez, and 

Debbie Ortega voted against the proposal. Because of the overwhelming opposition from Hilltop residents, the proposal needed a super-majority of 10 votes to pass. 

Hilltop residents opposed to the development cited three primary concerns: increased traffic, public safety, and a lack of accordance with the neighborhood character. 

“Our goal in this fight is to have control over what development comes into our neighborhood,” Tom Hart, a Hilltop resident, told the Council during the public comment portion of the meeting. 

During the public comment portion of the meeting, multiple residents cited that there had been 20 accidents and six hit-and-runs at the corner of Holly and Cedar. Others noted that drivers who want to avoid the light at Alameda and Holly will use Cedar Avenue and oftentimes travel well above the posted speed limits. 

Residents estimated the development would bring in between 50 to 60 cars to the neighborhood, even though the development only made room for 40 parking spaces. 

Amanda Sawyer, who is running for District 5’s seat on City Council, sent a letter to the Council just days before the meeting and noted that “the businesses on that block offer amenities specifically to draw families to the location, so there are always kids at that entrance [of the proposed development].”

“Are we willing to be complacent in manslaughter in order to allow a development like this?” Katie Borcuk, a Hilltop resident, asked emphatically.

The seven home owners who pooled their property together for the development argued that they would like to be allowed the same property rights as the other residents of the community. 

“The investment opportunity was part of the plan in purchasing our home,” said Jennifer Preston, who owns one of the properties being redeveloped. “These are seven old homes with bad roofs and failing sewers. Many similar homes are being torn down around the neighborhood to make way for 6000 square foot homes.”

Proponents of the development said it would add homes to the neighborhood that first-time home buyers could afford.  

“This kind of missing-middle housing will help get young professionals out of the renting market and help them become first-time home buyers. To me, this is an opportunity to purchase a dream home,” said Adam Estroff, a Five Points resident.  

Homes in Hilltop currently average a $1.1 million sale price while the neighboring Crestmoor neighborhood averages $833,000, according to Zillow. The Green Flats units would sell for between $350,000 and $500,000, according to developer Jason Lewiston. 

Plans for the Green Flats Project, which City Council voted against passing in January 6 meeting. (Credit: The Cranmer Park/Hilltop Civic Association)

Plans for the Green Flats Project, which City Council voted against passing in January 6 meeting. (Credit: The Cranmer Park/Hilltop Civic Association)

Lewiston admitted that current zoning laws allow him to “max-out” the property and build a 20-unit apartment “block,” as he described it, without having to go through the Council. He chose the latter route in order to spread the density across multiple plots. 

“If you live on an arterial street or a collector street or anywhere near a bus stop or train station, it’s absurd to have single family housing,” he said. 

Hilltop has 12 bus stops, all of which are located on the edge of the neighborhood along Alameda Ave. and Colorado Blvd. 

“There is a lot of change throughout the entire city,” he said. “Frankly, it’s time for everybody to bear their share. I’ve heard a lot about traffic. More single-family, spread out development isn’t gonna help with that.”

In 2006, Denver’s city government decided to take a transit-oriented development (TOD) approach to dealing with increased densification. This caused the city to mesh transit stations within neighborhood contexts, and update the city’s zoning codes to reflect this newfound relationship, according to the Transit Oriented Development Strategic Plan of 2014. 

However, this strategy has limited development outside of transit lines. For neighborhoods such as Hilltop, this means they can keep their single-family homes and push the burden of densification onto other more urban neighborhoods such as Washington Park.  

Councilman Rafael Espinoza took umbrage with the use of Denver’s row house application for a stacked apartment development. He also questioned whether or not the proposed development would be the actual building erected if the zoning were approved. 

“If this proposal came to my neighborhood, I would be fighting like hell to get it approved,” Espinoza said. “But, I can’t overlook the fact that it’s not simply a mass-and-scale question about the zoning at hand.”

Councilman Kashmann said he didn’t believe the homes currently on the plots up for redevelopment would be there much longer, but he objected to the inconsistencies in the zoning application. 

“I’m not convinced that the elements of health and safety is met,” he said. ■