Planning for the Continuum of Attainable Housing

The Summit Sky Ranch Aspen House provides a gathering space for residents surrounded by the site’s natural beauty. Courtesy of Emily Zoeller

As Colorado continues its phenomenal growth, housing availability remains a top priority throughout the state. From the greater metropolitan area to mountain communities, attainable housing is in short supply. Covering a full spectrum from affordable housing for low-income residents to first homes for young couples and families, to mountain homes in a medium price range, creating attainable housing is a complex process. That process begins with each individual site – well before a single home, townhouse or apartment is built.

Mitch Black

Mitch Black
Principal and Partner
Norris Design

Each property has opportunities and constraints that must be explored to determine best use. Key is knowing the target market for the ultimate residents – their needs, expectations and amenity wish list. Developers and builders often have much of this information in hand with completed market studies and business plans, while others need some assistance with this information phase. Once all of these variables have been explored and understood, programming, site analysis and conceptual design can move ahead to realize the site’s full potential.

From a planning and design perspective, the team thinks about both marketability and livability. What are the socio-political, economic and physical impacts on the site? What are specific zoning and entitlement requirements? Is there a special financing district involved, imposing a specific framework on the property? What densities and housing types are acceptable (and desired)? What features currently exist on the site that should be maintained, changed or enhanced? Early design studies explore all of these questions, and test assumptions against the market objectives. Also key at this point is consideration of how and when to involve neighbors in the process. Their input to and participation in an informed process in which they play a part contributes to the community’s ultimate success.

Three developments that occupy different niches in Colorado’s spectrum of attainable housing demonstrate how important this early planning is to the ultimate success of each:

Mariposa’s Focus on Connections

Denver Housing Authority’s Mariposa Phase 4 (87 units) is in a mixed-use, TOD, redeveloping neighborhood in Denver’s South Lincoln Park. DHA’s vision was to create a new Denver neighborhood to provide both a link to the surrounding community and on-site opportunities for residents to connect through fitness and gathering spaces. Planned early in the design process, the streetscape design activates 10th Avenue as it connects to Santa Fe and the art district near the 10th and Osage light-rail station. Engaging playgrounds focused on families and an early childhood education center are key elements of the courtyard formed by the new homes. Also featured in this central gathering area is an outdoor fire pit, community greenhouse and gardens. In addition to promoting healthy eating and gardening activities, the courtyard contains a play and fitness zone featuring outdoor elements for adults and children. Public art is the centerpiece of the courtyard – a sculpture tower designed and built by local school children reflects the multicultural aspects of their community. The result: authentic connections that physically extend into the adjacent community fabric and help weave a positive everyday lifestyle within Mariposa.


A sculpture tower built by local children is the centerpiece of Mariposa Phase 4’s courtyard.

Midtown: Reclaiming a Brownfield to Grow a Community

Midtown is a landmark transformation of a 182-acre brownfield site into a vibrant, new, mixed-use Denver neighborhood just five minutes from downtown. This former heavy-industrial site is being remade as a traditional neighborhood with 21st century amenities. Adjacent to the Clear Creek greenway and regional trails, and within walking distance to three transit stations, Midtown is evolving into a healthy urban neighborhood with a mix of traditional and affordable housing options. Early market studies and planning identified the need for smaller footprints for both townhomes and single-family homes, keeping them within reach of people buying their first homes.

The preliminary development plan and design guidelines for Midtown established a framework and vision for the community. Working closely with Adams County staff, the planning team revised zoning requirements and developed new standards and guidelines to create this new neighborhood. Development standards purposefully enable new home ownership opportunities while respecting adjacent 1950s development. Community-driven, right-sized and custom-designed amenities are abundant at Midtown, including a working urban farm, a 43-acre regional park, community gardens and an all-ages splash park.


Midtown is designed as a traditional neighborhood with 21st century amenities, including this popular community center and gardens.

Filling a Market Niche in the Mountains

Mountain living presents one of the most challenging economic scenarios for attainable housing. Locals are often priced out of the market when looking for a home to buy, with few options available in a reasonable price range. Located on 416 acres near Silverthorne, Summit Sky Ranch provides attainable housing for both local residents and second home buyers with 70 homes earmarked for a lower price point. Originally zoned for 83 large lot custom homes, the planning team worked with local officials to rezone the property to make environmentally respectful, efficient-footprint homes a strong focus. As the team developed the vision and planning for the site, the local community and Front Range residents responded with overwhelming support and the first phase of 46 homes sold out quickly. With homes as small as 1,570 square feet featuring streamlined modern design and low maintenance, locals have a welcome new option in housing. Summit Sky Ranch also makes efficient use of the larger community property, providing 5 miles of outdoor trails, a community center with pool and hot tub, and private lake access. The vision is rapidly taking shape with planning that began in 2013 and brisk construction activity currently underway.

Planning to Benefit All

Each of these opportunities fill a niche in the housing spectrum. Planning began for all three as the real estate market was seeing signs of improvement and they are thriving with strong construction activity. When planning every type of community, it’s crucial to understand market differentiation and keep a laser focus on the ultimate goal: creating a great lifestyle for each resident. From the first planning and design stage, the final result should be clear and remain in mind – the homes that become the foundation of both family and community. Careful consideration of every square inch matters in attainable housing, and today’s planning makes all the difference for tomorrow’s residents. \\

Featured in the September 2016 issue of Building Dialogue

Edited by Building Dialogue