City Council approves rezoning for Carvana ‘vending machine’ site

A rendering of the proposed building and “car vending machine” that online car seller Carvana wants to build at the I-25/Evans Avenue interchange. (Courtesy of public records)

A proposed transparent, multi-story tower of soon-to-be-purchased cars off Interstate 25 took a critical step toward reality Monday.

The Denver City Council voted 10-3 to approve the rezoning of 4700 E. Evans Ave., where applicant Carvana is looking to build its signature “car vending machine.”

That project was not the official subject of discussion Monday. While it was a frequent unofficial item of discussion, the fact that the use of the land itself is not allowed to be the driving force behind the council’s decision was repeated numerous times.

That’s because a question of rezoning, such as this one for the parcel of land southeast the I-25/Evans Avenue interchange, explicitly prohibits the council from considering the end use of the property set to be rezoned.

The council, like the planning board and associated committee that heard and approved the matter before it, is confined to considering whether rezoning of the parcel meets five criteria:

  • • Consistency with adopted plans
  • • Uniformity of district regulations
  • • Further public health, safety and welfare
  • • Justifying circumstances
  • • Consistency with neighborhood context, zone district purpose and intent

That confinement, however, was as much a matter of consternation as the rezoning itself Monday night.

“I’m sure in the media, it will show ‘City Council voted to approve Carvana,’” Councilman Chris Hinds said with a chuckle. “Even though what we’re voting to approve is the rezoning. This is a conundrum.”

Hinds, at that point, was nearing the end of a fairly good-humored diatribe during the comments portion of the hearing wherein he had bemoaned the limits of the conversation and the manner in which it had been presented to the council.

“I’m irritated that we’re discussing a business but that we can’t discuss the determination,” he said prior to his comment about the likely headlines. “But it is how it is. The applicant has a clear business type and has already put interest and thought into how to use it, but we can’t talk about that. Can’t talk about Carvana, a company whose business model seems to be counter to Blueprint Denver. I’m excited to hear there are wide setbacks and wide sidewalks proposed, but that’s not zoning-related either, and we can’t consider that. After all, the developer could, when we approve rezoning, say nevermind.”

Hinds did end up voting to approve the rezoning, along with nine of his fellow council members. Councilwomen Candi CdeBaca, Amanda Sawyer and Amanda Sandoval were the three no votes.

Arizona-based Carvana has built similar structures in 24 markets around the country. The closest to Denver are in Kansas City and Tempe, Arizona. Customers who buy a car online through the site can opt to have it delivered directly to their home in many markets. Or they can opt to pick it up at one of the vending machines.

Carvana Director of Real Estate Bret Sassenberg did not hesitate when asked to describe the project being suggested, for which purpose the company had applied to rezone the parcel from IMX-3, a mix of commercial, industrial and civic uses, to SMX-8A, which, among other things, allows for an eight-story building to be constructed on the parcel in question.

Sassenberg said the structure would be about 80 feet tall, which is shorter than a standard eight-story building. The Evans Avenue location — which Carvana is under contract to buy from Denver-based Focus Property Group — was attractive given its visibility from the interstate, he said. The company would have loved a parcel near the stadiums, he said, but can’t afford that real estate.

Many council members questioned how it makes sense to ignore what will be built on a parcel specifically being rezoned for the purpose of the building in question. But most, even those vocally unenthused about the use, ended up voting in favor.

“If we had the means to build a perfect city, I’d put an eight-story building with affordable housing on that site,” said Councilwoman Kendra Black, who represents the district where the parcel is located and who was the strongest supporter of rezoning. “Great location, across from the light rail, and I think eight stories is appropriate here. It’s looming over I-25, and if you can’t put eight stories by a freeway, where can you put it? What I wouldn’t put there in my perfect city is a storage facility or a car-oriented business. But we aren’t voting on the project or the proposal. What we can do is get those better urban design standards with SMX-8A … and make it more pedestrian-oriented.”

Substantial questioning drove to the point of why it creates a more pedestrian-oriented space, in part because that was a key concept behind Community Planning and Development’s recommendation that the rezoning fit existing plans in Blueprint Denver and the Comprehensive Plan.

It was finally reluctantly agreed upon by most vocal objectors, namely Hinds and Councilmen Kevin Flynn and Paul Kashmann, that while it didn’t seem like building a car vending machine tower created a better walking zone, it was surely better to have an active, intentional use than the current vacant lot that’s been there for many years. All three, despite pointed questions, eventually voted to approve.

Perhaps contributing to winning them over were the comments of Councilwoman Robin Kniech, who, along with Black, turned out to be one of the most vocal proponents of the rezoning.

“If colleagues are wondering, ‘Maybe if I don’t zone this and affordable housing comes along,’ I don’t think that’s likely, not in this height category and with land values where they are,” Kniech said. “It’s not impossible. But an owner is here today, and I think there’s a lot of value in that.”

Carvana, city staff pointed out in its presentation, has signed a voluntary affordable housing agreement, wherein if one day the parcel is redeveloped for residential uses, the land is encumbered — even beyond its ownership by Carvana, which has no plans to build residential projects on the land — with a requirement to incorporate affordable housing into that hypothetical future use.

While some council members balked at that concept, regarding it as fluff added to the proposal for show, Kniech spoke to its value.

“I know that was questioned, but we’ve seen projects not pan out,” she said. “It was supposed to be commercial and it didn’t happen, the economy changed, and there was no affordable housing agreement on it. None of us knows what happens with the owner.”

Sawyer and Sandoval spoke ultimately against the rezoning, and were joined in their no votes by CdeBaca, who was otherwise silent on the issue.

Sawyer’s commentary gave rise to a larger discussion about the process itself.

“A concern people had about Blueprint Denver in 2019 when it was adopted was that it says, ‘Look to the neighborhood plan,’ and if there’s no neighborhood plan, then what? This is the first rezoning we’ve dealt with where there’s no neighborhood plan,” Sawyer said.

She added, “It’s coming, that conversation is coming next month or soon after. The community will have the opportunity to have a conversation about East Evans and what the corridor should look like and what kinds of property should be here, what sorts of businesses we want to attract. The problem is it’s not here yet, which means we’re a little too soon on this rezoning.”

 

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