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Editorial: Does the good of housing density outweigh the bad?

Should some Colorado cities and counties be forced to rezone the land around transit corridors to a minimum density of 15 units per acre and an average density of 40 units per acre?

House Bill 1313 only makes sense if the benefit to existing Colorado residents of increasing density in these neighborhoods is greater than the harm. We think the bill is close to striking the right balance, but we do have some concerns we hope lawmakers address before the bill reaches the governor’s desk.

The framers of this bill — Rep. Iman Jodeh, Rep. Steven Woodrow, Sen. Chris Hansen and Sen. Faith Winter — need to think about whether their mandate will actually create livable cities that are walkable and include a majority of truly affordable housing. Or does the mandate place Coloradans at the whims of private developers?

Much of the responsibility for the successful implementation of HB-1313 actually falls on locally elected officials, which is good, and private developers, which makes us nervous. The mandate comes from the state for density, but state officials haven’t done enough in the bill to support that density being a success.

The density “in Transit-Oriented Communities” bill does include $30 million every year in income tax credits for private developers who meet federal requirements for affordable housing projects.

The bill also includes $35 million of general fund money every year to create a grant program for cities and counties to compete for funding for infrastructure improvements in the impacted neighborhoods.

Given the magnitude of the legislation — it’ll force upzoning on thousands of acres up and down the Front Range — that doesn’t seem like enough money to ensure cities and developers make this redevelopment of our communities go well.

Increasing density will allow for an increased supply of housing, but we are unsure exactly how much that will impact the price of market-rate units. As we’ve seen throughout the Front Range, most new construction projects are likely to be high-end, luxury developments with expensive amenities like pools, private terraces and yoga studios.

Some of that development will involve demolishing older, affordable, existing units. Lawmakers should include a requirement that in transit-oriented communities forced to upzone, developers replace any demolished units 1-1 in their new build with units that are the same price-per-square foot as those torn down. Replacement units should not count toward meeting requirements for affordability tax credits either state or local.

Those changes could dramatically help ensure adding density comes with the desired community improvements.

Why would we support such drastic legislation?

The benefits of hampering local control with a mandate of density around transit cut across many goals, and some local jurisdictions have been reluctant to add density in part because of opposition from local residents worried about negative impacts.

First and foremost, infill development along transit corridors will reduce urban sprawl, promoting better use of already developed land. Second, urban infill reduces commute times, and by concentrating the density along transit corridors, it will encourage folks to utilize our already existing bus and rail lines, giving Front Range transit a much-needed ridership boost in the next decade.

Both of those things work toward reducing the emission of greenhouse gases and easing unbearable traffic.

Many Coloradans wish their neighborhood was more walkable and handicap accessible — with built-out sidewalks, landscaping, and safe road crossings. And everyone wishes they had more nearby services like grocery stores, local restaurants, independent small businesses, and the jobs all three of those bring.

It will take smart, creative planning to incorporate the new development into a neighborhood to make it part of the community and not feel like it was dropped in. Adding amenities to the neighborhood will help.

We are impressed that Jodeh, Woodrow, Hansen and Winter have worked hard since last year’s attempt at state-mandated up-zoning to come up with a compromise that allows for local control but still carries a hefty penalty for communities that refuse to add density.

For example, in this bill it will be local elected officials deciding exactly where and how the up-zoning would occur. Cities can exempt some areas from the 15-unit-per-acre minimum, if there are other areas that can shoulder more density to still meet the 40-unit-per-acre average. That is an improvement.

Some communities will have an easier time meeting the requirements of the bill than others.

We worry about the long stretch of single-family houses tucked along busy transit corridors that either would already be required to upzone or are on the verge of being a transit community if RTD were to increase bus frequency.

The long stretch of Colfax in Lakewood and the long stretch of Broadway in Englewood could upend some communities if they were forced to upzone to the minimum of 15 units per acre or more.

This bill in theory gives local governments the ability to gently up-zone communities like this, however, the bill should be amended so it does not penalize communities that want to put strict set-back requirements for dense housing in neighborhoods facing big changes. Density next door is much more tolerable if it’s not right on the lot line or built immediately up to the public right of way.

Setbacks are the exact kind of work we need local governments to engage in for good government planning and design work to make sure the added density is a net benefit to Coloradans.

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