A slot home project is under construction next to another townhome development on Tennyson Street north of West 45th Avenue, on May 3, 2018. The sideways-oriented town homes are packed into a lot, often with garages on the first floor of each unit.
Heather Noyes walks along the northern reaches of northwest Denver’s Tennyson Street district and sizes up what has been built over the past decade, replacing house after house.
She and other longtime residents repeatedly see this from the sidewalk: a bank of gas meters, a fire door and perhaps a storage closet window. Newer buildings might have a solitary front door.
As in several other older neighborhoods in Denver, the landscape is now dominated by hundreds of “slot” homes, which feature sideways-facing townhomes stacked horizontally to the alley.
Noyes says she felt “blind-sided” by the kind of development that unfolded after Denver city leaders adopted a new zoning code in 2010 — a land-use plan that notably adopted Berkeley neighborhood leaders’ support for more intense development along Tennyson, especially between West 44th and 46th avenues.
“We wanted mixed-use. We wanted more people, more families over here,” says Noyes, who works out of a landscape architecture office on Tennyson and lives a short walk away. “But to have development consistently turn its back to the street by ignoring the type of elements that contribute to street character is a missed opportunity, and that is what has frustrated so many people here.”
A let-up is in sight. On Monday night, the Denver City Council, after nearly two years of city discussions and task force meetings, is expected to approve a raft of zoning rule changes that will more heavily regulate townhomes.
The changes crafted by the task force, which included Noyes as a member, are led by a new requirement that developers orient new projects’ main buildings — and more front doors — toward the street. Projects still could include other units farther back in the lot.
The goal is to make slot homes, as Denver knows them, a thing of the past, or at least to wipe the current form off developers’ drawing boards.
Often built in pairs on adjacent properties, slot homes are so named for the notches created by the garages tucked behind and beneath each home, with a drive aisle running alongside the building. Front doors for seven or eight townhouses, which typically replace one single-family home, are down a narrow paved path on the other side.
Developers love slot homes because they maximize the profit potential on smaller residential lots that have three-story zoning. Dozens more projects that incorporate the much-derided slot form are still on the way, since they won approval under the old rules.
Use the slider to see slot homes and other new development since 2006 along Tennyson Street (oriented left to right) between West 44th and 46th avenues. More projects are under construction or in the review pipeline.
Neighborhood advocates say the street-facing requirement will do the most to better tie future townhomes to their pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods. Even some slot home developers, while expressing cost-based concerns about complying with the new rules, agree with that observation.
“The new design — the forward-facing — is going to be awesome (for neighborhoods),” said Dawn Development owner Ty Mumford, a task force member who advocated for less-drastic changes overall.
Other proposed rules include tighter height restrictions, provisions for enclosed stairways to rooftop decks and a requirement to incorporate features that increase street interactions, such as porches.
Slot homes line Tennyson Street north of West 45th Avenue on May 3, 2018.
Should changes have come sooner?
While some developers worry about the new rules’ financial effects on future projects, critics of the sideways townhomes are left asking: What took the city so long to crack down?
Denver’s Department of Community Planning and Development, or CPD, reacted to slot homes earlier, winning council approval in 2015 for small-scale zoning rule changes that required vehicle access to be from the alley rather than the street. The changes also included creating new standards in mixed-use zoning districts.
But CPD spokeswoman Andrea Burns said those changes didn’t address the larger issues. The department soon initiated that effort a year later, and it required more time so planners could study it holistically, seek public input and propose the zoning text amendment to the council, Burns said.
“That (earlier) work helped us understand that the slot home problem is complex,” Burns wrote in an email. “They occur in multiple zone districts, building forms and areas of the city.”
Rafael Espinoza, a city councilman elected in 2015 on a surge of anti-development anger, previously was a neighborhood activist who raised the alarm over slot homes for years.
“It’s not CPD,” Espinoza said, crediting the department for spending time on the new zoning changes. “It’s the administration (of Mayor Michael Hancock) not heeding to calls.”
He said the coming issue was evident in his neighborhood of Jefferson Park before the 2008 recession wound down. Even before the recession, precursors of the slot home had begun to go up in the city, under the old zoning code.
Espinoza recalls warning neighbors in the neighborhood association’s newsletter soon after the city adopted the new zoning code: The designation applied to the area’s residential core paved the way for what he said was likely to be a bonanza of slot homes.
Fast-forward a few years, and Jefferson Park trailed only the West Colfax neighborhood in slot home development, according to CPD research of project approvals issued in 2015 and 2016. They were also popular in Highland and Five Points, among other places. Burns says the department lacks comprehensive figures that capture development over a broader time span.
Jefferson Park neighborhood
Use the slider to see slot homes and other new development since 2006 in the area north of West 23rd Avenue.
Espinoza fears the new rules come too late for his neighborhood.
“Orientation to the street would’ve benefited Jefferson Park, but it will benefit other areas of the city going forward,” he said.
The planning department is viewing backlashes against development seriously these days. It soon will propose wider-scale changes that could affect the look and property coverage of all new development in some areas, particularly downtown and in bustling neighborhood districts. Those changes probably will include broader use of design-review requirements and design overlays.
A comparison provided by the Denver planning department shows a typical “slot” home development (upper left) and a version that incorporates proposed zoning rules.
Slot homes popular with younger buyers
Meantime, slot homes have found an eager market. They are popular with younger homebuyers — often singles and couples — who are looking for midpriced homes near downtown. Such a price point lately is in the $450,000 to $550,000 range.
They became especially attractive as developers shied away from condo construction over concerns that they could face too many lawsuits under the state’s construction-defects law. That law, amended last year, doesn’t apply to self-contained townhomes, even when they share walls.
“I think the only thing that’s driving that demand is price,” said Mumford, the slot-home developer.
Christine Franck, a residential designer, has studied the proliferation of slot homes in Denver. In fact, she coined the term. She founded the Center for Advanced Research in Traditional Architecture at the University of Colorado Denver, and she stepped down last fall as its director while serving on Denver’s slot home task force.
She says the lack of condo construction combined with pent-up demand after the recession to drive demand for the townhouses. And there was a third factor, she said: the new zoning code, which didn’t envision slot homes but contained plenty of pliable rules for developers to exploit.
West Colfax neighborhood
Use the slider to see slot homes and other new development since 2006 in the area northwest of Federal Boulevard and West 16th Avenue.
The result, Franck said, was a unique architectural form that hadn’t been seen much in other cities — at least until Denver developers set it loose.
“In West Colfax, in Jefferson Park, on Tennyson, it’s sad,” Franck said. “Those neighborhoods are just gone. … That could be taken as saying that change is bad. It’s not — change is not bad. Cities need to grow if they’re going to be healthy. But so much change so quickly, in such an incompatible way, tears neighborhoods apart.”
Another task force member, Maggie Miller, has wanted to keep slot homes out of her part of Five Points, where single-family homes often are scraped to make room for larger houses or multi-family buildings. She recently helped push successfully for scaled-down zoning limits that were motivated, in part, by a desire to prevent slot homes from getting built in the area.
“It’s a compromise,” she said of the proposed slot home changes. “There’s things I don’t love about it, but there’s some things about it that developers don’t like. … I’m just so happy that front doors are facing the street, and there’s more transparency facing the street and more of a sense that there’s active use.”
Mumford said the task force incorporated too little of the industry’s input.
He doesn’t necessarily disagree with some of the criticisms of his projects. But he sees a place in the market for what he’s building, and he argues that the more stringent lot configurations set out by the proposed changes are likely to accommodate fewer units in most cases — typically one less than the seven that fit on each lot in a current project.
He predicted that new townhomes would be smaller while costing more per square foot to build. That’s a concern shared by some who worry about Denver’s housing affordability crunch.
That probably also means lower offers to buy up properties, he said.
“There is no doubt in my mind that this will slow development in the areas where townhomes have already taken place,” Mumford said, worrying that the current economics will diminish the benefits of the coming changes: “If somebody had thought of this 10 years ago, it would have been great.”