Garage-to-garden project hints at green-roof challenges

Not quite a green roof, an urban farm in downtown Denver may help lay a path for new projects
Larimer Uprooted is an urban farm atop a parking garage in Larimer Square. (Photo: Colorado Builder)

There’s been little change to the rooftops of Denver following the passage of the green roof ordinance, but a project by Bio-Logical Capital aims to help people navigate the challenges of getting these projects off the ground.

Larimer Uprooted is an urban farm atop a parking garage in Larimer Square. There are about 4,000 square feet of production space, most of which is dedicated to growing fruits and vegetables, with a third dedicated to native perennials, according to Lilly Hancock, ecological designer at Bio-Logical Capital.

It features a mix of traditional box beds and wicking beds. The problem is a “wicking bed is much heavier than a traditional bed because you have so much more water.”

[Related: Understanding green roofs and water sustainability]

Repurposing an existing structure presented its own challenge, according to chief operating officer Meriwether Hardie. The team built garden beds over parking spaces, leaving driving lanes open.

“That is because this area of the parking garage is meant for a car to move through it, not to pause,” she explained. “The weight-bearing and capacity load is greater along the edges there, so that’s where we focused our bed production.”

She noted that one of the end goals for the farm is to “help make this easier for other people who want to do this as well, especially with an existing structure.” That includes both how to maintain a productive farm, as well as the permitting process.

Hardie said that in working with the city on zoning and permitting, “everyone we talked to was so excited, but they didn’t necessarily know what to do with us.”

Jacob Ward, food and farm operations coordinator at Bio-Logical Capital, said that the project required approval from the Lower Downtown Design Review Commission, a “relatively straightforward [process] considering our project doesn’t alter the streetscape, and isn’t viewable from the ground.”

However, gaining a use permit was much more difficult, he explained.

[Related: Sky high growthWhat landscapers need to know about green roofs]

“The primary challenges throughout the use-permitting process were the cumbersome language in Denver’s zoning code, and the vagueness of options for agriculture projects,” according to Ward.

Of the five agriculture-related use classifications, Ward said, three were specifically prohibited and two weren’t right for the project.

“We finally found a solution by classifying the farm as an ‘accessory garden use,’” he explained. “Accessory uses are designed to complement a building’s primary use; however, ‘parking garage’ and ‘garden’ aren’t obviously complementary. Luckily, the city was willing to make an exception to the rule because they saw value in our project, and have a mandate to promote urban greening and agriculture.”

Ward believes the process would have been “measurably easier” if the project were being built on a roof instead of a parking garage, and thus subject to the green roof ordinance. “I also think we won’t see an uptick of small- to mid-scale urban farming until the city develops a clearer pathway for these projects,” he added. 

Danielle Andrus is managing editor of Colorado Builder. She can be reached at [email protected]

Danielle Andrus

Danielle Andrus was previously the managing editor for Colorado Builder, and is currently Editor for the Journal of Financial Planning.

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