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News 5 In Depth: infill offers sustainable option for growth

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Posted at 12:21 PM, Jul 01, 2024

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado — The Pikes Peak Region is growing. El Paso County's Population is expected to grow to nearly 1 million people (971,444 projected) by 2040.

In our in-depth series on urbanism and growth, News 5 is exploring the ideas and policies that will shape the way our communities look and function in the future.

One idea Colorado Springs is pursuing to help densify the city is through infill. The most recent estimate suggests a combined 4,259 acres of vacant lots exist throughout the city that are suitable for infill development.

To better understand the potential, compare that to the 3,200-acre proposed Amara annexation. The developer's master plan calculates a maximum of 9,500 dwelling units on a property roughly 1,000 acres smaller.

Developers face extra challenges with infill. Many vacant lots are small and disconnected from each other. Some have an irregular shape. Under previous land use regulations, it might not have been so easy to build on these lots. But those regulations are changing.

In May, Governor Polis signed a new state law blocking cities from enforcing parking minimums on new multi-family housing developments. State Rep. Stephanie Vigil of Colorado Springs sponsored the bill. She explained how mandating a minimum number of parking spaces adds to costs and land requirements for new development.

“We’ve just made our communities less responsive to all of our interconnected immediate needs and the market can respond to that," Vigil said. "We actually don’t need government to mandate that in every single case, all of the time.”

Earlier in this series, we shared how state lawmakers passed another bill to encourage high-density housing development near transit corridors. It's an idea that former city planning director Peter Wysocki said Colorado Springs adopted years ago.

“When the city updated its comprehensive plan and when we adopted PlanCOSand subsequently adopted RetoolCOS, which was formerly known as the Uniform Development Code, we provided opportunities for landowners and developers to increase their density in TOD areas, in Transit-Oriented type Development,” Wysocki said.

City council adopted PlanCOS in 2019 and ReToolCOS in 2023. One of the primary goals of PlanCOS is to increase new residential density. The city's online Indicator Dashboard shows the new net density of residential development grew from 8 dwelling units per acre in 2019, to 13.8 units in 2022.

These changes to local and state land use regulations are intended to counter a housing development trend in America that can be visualized as a barbell, heavy on one end with low-density single-family housing and heavy on the other with high-density multi-family apartments. What's missing is medium-density housing.

Some common types of medium-density housing include duplexes, townhomes, and condos. One could also view the brownstones near the Broadmoor as medium-density housing.

The success of that development suggests that medium-density development, with the right planning and design, can enhance and complement an existing neighborhood. Creating vibrant neighborhoods is another primary goal of PlanCOS.

“We just want to make sure that all neighborhoods of the city thrive," Wysocki said. "Particularly when there’s pressure to grow outward that we’re not forgetting existing neighborhoods and making sure that they are vibrant and can be successful into the future.”

Another way to build new housing in existing neighborhoods is with Accessory Dwelling Units, (ADUs.)

These are complete homes with kitchens, bedrooms, baths, and living areas. They tend to be smaller and are built either attached to or detached from the main home.

Theresa Spicer and Kelci Hunter are building a two-story detached ADU in the backyard of their home in Old Colorado City as a rental property.

"We are a couple of weeks away from finishing and are ready to start getting some renters in, start making money on the place," Spicer said.

The couple chose to buy here because the city's zoning allowed them to create this income-generating property.

“Building in an area like this where it’s a walkable neighborhood, we walk to restaurants, we walk, I mean we have all these shops around, that was really important for us,” Hunter said.

Once again, Colorado Springs led the state in relaxing land use codes to allow for more ADU construction.

ReToolCOS specifies lot sizes and zoning types most suitable for ADU construction. Builder Alex Kosley of StreamHome Construction explained how state lawmakers freed up grant money during this most recent session to encourage more ADU development.

"It will be up to the local jurisdiction to jump through the hoops to get qualified as supportive jurisdictions to have access to those funds,” Kosley said.

Infill, ADUs, and Transit-Oriented Development are all concepts that can lead to higher density. There are environmental and quality-of-life benefits to increasing density. In our first report in this series, we explained how new suburban "greenfield" development expands a city's boundaries and can lead to greater vehicle dependence, traffic congestion, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Increasing density also lowers the cost for cities to provide services to new developments like transit, utilities, and public safety. Developers typically bear the cost of installing new roads and utilities, but maintaining that infrastructure becomes the city's responsibility.

“Recently, the city has adopted police and fire impact fees that are used to help build capital projects for police and fire operations," Wysocki said.

"That includes building new police fire stations or expanding existing ones or buying police and fire equipment.”

He also points out that housing development is driven by market demand. Developers build new neighborhoods because buyers want them. However, even the new greenfield proposals are changing.

"If you look at some of our larger master-planned communities, they do have different housing styles," Wysocki said. "It's not all just single-family detached, but they do have townhomes, they have patio homes, in some cases even apartment buildings."

In part four of this series, we will talk about water. Water planners with Colorado Springs Utilities will give an update on water sourcing and the ongoing negotiations over the Colorado River Compact. We'll also share recommendations on how to better conserve water at home.

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