Centennial approves rezoning for townhomes in historic Pickletown area

Despite neighborhood complaints, city OKs redeveloping site of vacant preschool, home

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A plan to replace a defunct preschool building — and an apparently vacant house — with 12 new townhome units and two single-family homes in the historic Pickletown area of west Centennial was approved 6-3 by city council, despite opposition from some area residents who feared more traffic, noise and changes to the aesthetics of the neighborhood.

The March 15 vote by council approved a rezoning of the site along the south side of Orchard Road between Grant and Logan streets, a few blocks east of Broadway. The rezoning to planned-unit development status allows for a mix of types of properties in an area that a city's normal zoning wouldn't allow.

Before the decision, several residents of the neighborhood — and others who live farther away — tried to convince the city not to change the zoning. A development that “would ruin the look and feel of the neighborhood is really not just,” said Jim Typrowicz, who asked the council “not to turn your back” on the city's residents.

Some of the opposition centered on what the city calls its “Neighborhood Conservation” zoning districts, which are “intended to preserve the integrity and character of existing neighborhoods,” according to the city's land development code. That's the document that lays out zoning and sets design standards for new construction.

Residential areas throughout Centennial are under various types of Neighborhood Conservation districts, and the Orchard Road property was within those districts as well.

The rezoning decision came as the city council continues to discuss Centennial's housing market, a topic that also arose at an April 12 council meeting, prompting a popular newsletter to warn about the “future of Centennial housing.”

“What do you want for your neighborhood? Do you want more multi-family housing? Are you okay with less suburban, single-family housing? That's the national trend and the City of Centennial is looking into changing (Neighborhood Conservation districts) and other zoning to allow for more urbanization,” read an April 12 email newsletter from the Neighbors for The Streets at SouthGlenn. That's an effort led by Ron Phelps, an activist on development issues and a candidate who ran unsuccessfully for Centennial City Council in 2019. 

In a newsletter about the Orchard Road property, Phelps wrote: There is concern this may establish a precedent in Centennial where developers purchase a few single-family lots and rezone to a (planned unit development) allowing high-density housing.”

Ever since the Neighborhood Conservation zoning in the city's land development code was developed, the city had never used the planned-unit development process to rezone residential property before its action at the March 15 council meeting, Michael Gradis, a city planning official for Centennial, confirmed at the meeting.

'Trying to attract'

The Orchard Road properties “are in significant disrepair,” according to a letter to the city from developers who hoped to move the project forward. Some city councilmembers at the March 15 council meeting expressed hope that the addition of townhomes could add some relatively affordable housing in Centennial.

“These are the kinds of places where the people in that neighborhood, their kids will be able to afford this and be able to live close to, you know, where they grew up,” Councilmember Tammy Maurer said during the meeting.

Councilmember Kathy Turley recounted “downsizing” after living in a single-family house for 40 years and then moving to a townhome. “We could hardly find anything in Centennial to move into,” Turley said.

Mayor Stephanie Piko felt split on the issue, calling it one of the hardest decisions she has had to make. She pointed out that Orchard Road didn't start out as a four-lane street, for example, arguing that some change to neighborhoods is inevitable over time.

The townhome plan is “the exact housing stock kind of thing that we have been looking for and trying to attract,” Piko said. She added: “We have been trying to get townhomes in Centennial since I have been sitting on any board anywhere.”

The developer's team argues that the townhomes will create a steadier transition from the commercial spaces near Broadway — and what the team says is an assisted living facility to the west — into the residential area, possibly buffering some noise. The team plans to add a small park south of the townhomes.

Families that are “just starting out” could put 3.5% down and get into the proposed homes, developer Otto Aichinger told the city council.

The median sales price for townhomes and condominiums in Centennial in March 2021 was $350,500, according to the Denver Metro Association of Realtors. In Greenwood Village, whose border runs near the Orchard Road property, the townhome and condo median sales price for the same month was $461,000.

The median sales price of a single-family home in the Denver metro area was $540,000 in March 2021, according to the association.

Intended as a 'safety valve'

Complaints about the project from area residents centered on fears about higher density.

“Traffic, noise, and all the issues that higher density brings with it will only lower the quality of life for all residents,” a comment listed online from Brent and Pat Meyer said. The comments were responded to by the development team and city staff.

The townhomes would be accessed via an alley, with garages behind the homes and the front of the units facing Orchard Road. Some off-street guest parking would also be included in the proposed alley, according to a planning letter from the development team.

Several online comments — and a couple during the public hearing — expressed concern about losing the “character” of the neighborhood, although what was meant by character wasn't entirely clear. Some comments suggested it was about aesthetics.

“The proposed development would stick out like a sore thumb to the local neighborhood,” one comment read.

A city staff member, Jenna Campbell, responded to one comment by noting that the developer has “chosen many high-quality building materials that fit the character and style of other nearby homes.”

Councilmember Mike Sutherland laid out the most thorough case against the rezoning during the council meeting, nodding to the concerns from longtime residents about the potential to change what he called the “character of the neighborhoods.”

Sutherland served on the city's Planning and Zoning Commission — a body of citizens who make development recommendations to city council — for several years before he was elected to council, and he participated in the process that led to the changes to the zoning code that established the Neighborhood Conservation zoning, Sutherland said.

The planned-unit development process was left in to be used only when there was no other means to “sensibly” rezone a piece of property, Sutherland said.

“The PUD was designed as a safety valve, not as primary planning tool in order to enable redevelopment of residential property,” Sutherland continued.

Councilmembers Richard Holt, Don Sheehan, Christine Sweetland, Marlo Alston, Maurer and Turley voted “yes,” and Councilmembers Candace Moon and Sutherland, and Mayor Piko, voted “no.”

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