“Bulky, hulking, modernist boxes, ugly blank facades.”
These are words that Denver residents use to describe “slot homes,” says Christine Franck, founder of the Center for Advanced Research in Traditional Architecture (CARTA) at the University of Colorado Denver’s College of Architecture and Planning.
As CARTA defines the term, slot homes are attached housing “turned perpendicular to the street [rather than facing it] and arranged in one or two rows with their garages and pedestrian entries accessed by a long, narrow slot in the middle or sides of the lot.” They often are “non-contextual,” meaning they don’t fit in with neighborhood design.
According to the Denver Community Planning and Development Department, they can “detract from the design quality and sense of community in Denver’s neighborhoods.”
These homes typically have few or no windows on the ground floor and no porches or balconies facing the street.
“These buildings are large and don’t have human-scale elements,” said Analiese Hock, Denver senior city planner. “They’re not relatable to a human or pedestrian.”
West Colfax, Sunnyside, Highland, Five Points and Cherry Creek are among some of the neighborhoods where slot homes most frequently occur.
Franck said that when she first moved here in 2013, “I was perplexed and saddened to see such an urbanistically bad, uncivil, non-contextual building form springing up in old, small-scale neighborhoods like West Colfax and Jefferson Park.”
Franck organized a conference in 2014 to investigate slot houses.
“Aside from my astonishment at the bad architectural design, my overriding concern was that the intent of the city’s form-based code — a more walkable, transit-oriented city — would never be met by this new building form,” she said. “An anti-urban, car-oriented architectural form like slot houses cannot create a desirable, walkable environment.”
Franck emphasized that there is a large difference between the form and style of slot homes. The form of the slot houses is their sideways orientation away from street frontage. Their style is what she believes “people react so negatively to” — the actual shape, colors, and lack of detailing.
“I would go so far as to say that if the architectural design of these new buildings had been better, more sensitive, and more fitting for our city, the outcry over them would have been much less heated,” she said, adding that there is “no excuse” not to have a front entry on a unit.
“There is no excuse for such overwhelmingly bad architectural design except laziness and lack of concern,” she said.
In response to citizen’s displeasure with this style of dwellings, the city of Denver assembled a “Slot Home Evaluation Task Force” last year to address concerns about the negative impacts of slot-home design. Franck is among its members.
The task force says it found five key issues with the design:
They prevent public realm engagement, as they don’t have street-level activities that promote interaction with neighbors and pedestrians. The setbacks from the street, site, and uses within these homes do not reflect the existing character on the area. Nor do they reflect the desired future conditions of the street. Slot homes don’t incorporate human-scale proportions, heights and design elements that could promote compatible mass and scale relationships among buildings, such as coordinated facade widths, heights in stories, window patterns or distinctions between building floors.Slot homes often incorporate visible driveways, parking areas and garage doors that have a negative effect on the pedestrian-oriented character of the street, sidewalk, and neighborhood.Slot homes often orient their most active facade areas toward adjacent properties, rather than the street and sidewalk, or include other elements, such as rooftop decks, which may have negative visual, solar, or privacy impacts on neighbors.
Jane Crisler, a task force member and architect at Form + Works Design Group, said the vagaries and gaps in the zoning code “lead to the construction of an unanticipated building form in Denver.
“One important function of zoning regulations is to provide predictability for the kinds of future development that can occur, without limiting creativity and growth,” she said.
City planners have now proposed a zoning amendment that would reign in the rapid development of these homes. Developments would have to meet stricter rules that would require them to orient towards the street, engage more with the street, meet stricter height requirements and reduce setbacks from the street.
Hock said it will affect all zoning across the city of Denver that allows for multi-unit or mixed-use development.
The proposal goes to the Denver City Council on May 7. Meanwhile, council members Wayne New and Rafael Espinoza are supporting a moratorium on approval of site development plans for side-by-side residential developments starting March 15.