I don’t normally think about it, but I always find it interesting, and somewhat surprising, when I realize just how much of an impact architecture has on pretty much everyone’s daily life. This point was really brought home the other day while I was attending a meeting of the Denver Board of Adjustment for Zoning Appeals. Two cases that were reviewed reveal this point clearly.
In one instance, a developer is interested in purchasing a lot containing a gas station and wants to convert it to a space that could accommodate up to four small neighborhood food establishments with outdoor seating. He’s looking for a variance to allow for this use prior to purchasing the old gas station to ensure that he can do what he plans with the property. The architect was present, with draft plans, along with the developer and the couple selling the old gas station. This would completely change the character of the neighborhood by providing a great gathering place. The board was sympathetic to the developer’s pro-activeness, but did not know how to provide a variance for a use that is really not defined yet, since he has no leases. Of course he is unable to get the leases as he doesn’t own the property. The architect’s designs were critical for the approval, in particular, how he had defined the outdoor space. The impact of the design and the zoning decision on the entire neighborhood, and this section of the city, is clear. It can become either a wonderful space connecting the neighbors and the neighborhood to other parts of the city, or a concrete wasteland. The board decided to convene an executive session later to reach a decision as the discussion was taking too much time.
The other case that struck a chord on the impact of architecture was more small scale and personal in nature. A woman had purchased a triplex ten years ago and has been renting all three units ever since. It was originally a single family home and the previous owner had added extra kitchens and divided the property into three units, without any permits. Via an anonymous complaint, the city investigated whether the building was within the current zoning rules and up to current code. Current zoning allows for the multifamily use, but she was short one parking space per the requirement to have one space per unit. She was hoping for a stay for 3 to 5 years for the market to improve so she could sell the property when she is hopefully not “under water”, preferably to someone that would convert it back into a single family home. Through an emotional discourse, it finally became clear to her that the zoning appeals board could only waive the parking space requirement and that she would have to bring the building up to code (sprinkler system, etc) if she is going to continue to rent it as a triplex. The lack of appropriate design in the past has created extreme difficulties for this woman and how the issue is resolved in future will be critical to her ability to maintain this property.
Architecture and the importance of good design are all around us everyday. Experiencing some of the very personal effects that they have on people’s lives can really highlight this point. Hopefully we’ll all provide spaces that have positive impacts.
-Charles Shifflett, Associate AIA, LEED AP BD&C, PMP
AIA Colorado Associate Director