Bill Ramsey – BTR townhomes: Pushing in the right direction

Colorado Real Estate Journal

November 1, 2023

Housing crisis is on the tip of everyone’s tongue this year. The combined effect of the pandemic, housing policy and rising costs has caused a shortfall that can’t be ignored. In response, cities around the country are adapting zoning codes to increase allowable density. Density creates incredible opportunities for diverse and affordable housing but maximizing density isn’t always appropriate. Affordability is crucial, but parts of the country are seeing equal demand for midmarket and workforce housing. Designing for the needs of a community, not just density targets, means providing a variety of living opportunities, and my experience has taught me that incorporating build-to-rent as part of your neighborhood is optimal for carving out that midmarket sweet spot.

Central Park Station is a new transit-oriented district in Denver’s Central Park neighborhood that mixes commercial uses with high-density apartment living and mid-density build-to-rent townhomes. KTGY was involved in both the planning efforts as well as the design of two apartment buildings. So, when my team started working on the build-to-rent part of the site, we brought our deep understanding of the area, rooted our design in community needs, and adopted three guiding principles: Good design pushes limits, honors context and connects people.

The entire site is zoned for high density, creating an urban enclave for light-rail commuters that primarily supports downtown Denver. Surrounding the development, however, are preexisting single-family detached neighborhoods. The apparent conflict between how our site was zoned and the character of the existing neighborhood created a moment of reflection for KTGY’s architects and our client.

By carefully pushing back on the idea that the entire development needed to capitalize on density maximums, we were able to create a seamless suburban-to-urban transition. Build-to-rent townhomes were not only able to accomplish density with a detached lifestyle, but there was also the opportunity to innovate around metering. Typically, in detached communities each home is metered separately, but since these homes are professionally managed, we integrated master meters. This creates a community that blurred the line between typical for-sale (individual metering) and for-rent (master meters). Blending techniques ensures the community and its infrastructure reflect its real-world usage and streamlines operation for the property owner.

The units aren’t typical for townhouse design. These tend to be smaller, favoring more two-bedrooms than comparable for-sale developments. The L-shaped units interlock with each other to increase density. Crucially, though, each is designed to be fee-simple and on its own lot, allowing property lines to separate each townhome while still achieving medium density. Each townhome sits on its own footprint, which means simpler construction, lower costs and a faster build time.

Designing for the needs of a community means providing a variety of living opportunities | Central Park Station TOD BTR

Understanding context is key when you want to transition between established and new. Our goal was to move from one- and two-story buildings into the denser planning district in a way that the neighbors would appreciate. Bringing in apartments that reach 100 units per acre to the edge of the site didn’t feel like a win to us. So, we went back to the principles of good design, and honored the local context by limiting our enclave to three stories, making a natural transition from the dense core to adjacent low-density homes.

Part and parcel of the urban transition is the physical connection we make between this neighborhood and the rest of Denver. We softened the transition between suburban and urban with less dense, lower-height buildings, but we accelerated it at the ground level. The goal of any transit-oriented development is to ease car dependence, so we positioned front doors to active pedestrian circulation and common green space. A dynamic ground level is what makes the difference between urban and suburban, and we’ve oriented the homes to connect naturally to the station and denser parts of the planned community, like multifamily, offices and retail. Pedestrian traffic is heaviest around the station, so we were careful to direct commuters, residents and visitors where they need to go without fences and gates.

This is one of a growing number of cases I’ve seen where we, not just as a design team but as partners with the client, had to take a step back from the requirements and reassess. In this case, we were able to come back to the table with something that worked better for the neighbors and the client, while tapping into the desire for mid-density development. We wanted to cater to residents who want a historically for-sale lifestyle, but who also want a more outward-facing, faster pace to life. As our industry continues to discuss housing attainability, it is important to think about the places where we can work creatively alongside zoning and density requirements to find solutions that serve people first.