Developers say creative solutions are a necessity
Denver-area developers are emphasizing smaller, denser and taller as they try to build apartments and homes that young adults and first-time buyers may not necessarily describe as affordable but at least attainable.
But the developers are meeting resistance on many fronts and warn that creative solutions are needed to allow people of average means to own property so Denver doesn’t become a city dominated by transitory apartment dwellers and the affluent.
“We are going to be growing out because we can’t grow up,” said Jeff Plous, a Den- ver-area broker and developer, speaking on an affordable-housing panel at Denver Design Week, which runs through Friday at the University of Colorado Denver.
Many young adults want to live in the urban core or in older city neighborhoods, which has slowed suburban sprawl. But the urbanization trend also has raised pressures to increase density in already-developed neighborhoods, and that is generating push-back.
“(Millennials) want to live in the city and have a lifestyle. Functionality matters more to them than size,” Plous said.
That has contributed to a proliferation of micro-apartments and the emergence of accessory dwelling units, or cottage homes and apartments above garages at the back of existing lots. Development also is concentrating around transit stations.
In the River North Art District, it is manifesting as a push to get 16-story buildings approved near the commuter-rail stop at 38th and Walnut streets, said Jamie Licko, president of the district.
That height is double the city restriction in the area. As a tradeoff, developers will provide four times the number of affordable units the city requires and affordable commercial space, the latter of which is a new concept in Denver, she said.
A problem going forward is that millennials can’t easily raise families in 350- to
600-square-foot microapartments. They need options that allow them to own within price ranges their incomes can support, or they will be forced out to the periphery or to other more affordable cities.
“I have a heart for Denver, but I can’t afford to live there,” said a member of the audience, a young woman who lamented her relocation to Broomfield after housing costs became too high in Denver.
“My biggest fear is we become a transitory city,” said Jonathan Alpert, a managing partner at Westfield Co. who also was on the panel, called “Designing an Affordable Denver: Housing Solutions for the 99 Percent.”
Plous said he was part of a team that attempted to build entry-level homes in Denver’s Sunnyside neighborhood, only to find they couldn’t do it for under $500,000.
“Land was expensive and the construction costs were continually rising,” he said. Xcel Energy also required the project to bury power lines versus extending the existing lines from nearby poles, which added another $140,000 in unexpected costs.
The West Line Village, a community of 175 row homes at West 10th Avenue and Depew Street in Lakewood, is having more success coming in at a lower price, Plous said. That project will offer homes from $275,000 to the low $400,000s, prices he called “attainable.”
The same trends driving up home prices also are lifting the cost of apartments, and some of the newer urban projects are charging rents at $3,000 and up for 1,000 square feet, said Nate Jenkins, an associate with OZ Architecture in Denver.
Going smaller and providing more common spaces offer a way to get costs down to a range that service workers and others can afford.
“The size of our for-rent units is changing radically,” he said.
OZ designed an apartment project at East 16th Avenue and Humboldt Street that consists of two buildings of 50 units each crammed onto two longvacant lots. The apartments average 350 square feet, with a design that lowers the height of the bathroom ceiling by half, creating an additional 120square-foot loft that can be used for storage or a guest bed.
But the apartments come without onsite parking, and neighborhood groups, worried that tenants will still own cars and park them on already-crowded streets nearby, have come out in opposition. The project’s developer agreed to provide 45 parking spaces in a nearby lot.
The Denver City Council, despite members’ stated support for affordable housing, overruled city planning officials and voted in May to scale down parking exemptions for small infill developments.
The Coloradan, a 334-unit condominium project, goes up west of Union Station in Denver. Much development for young adults and first-time buyers seeking an urban residence is concentrating around transit stations.