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Krieger: It’s time for a change at Denver City Hall

“I think people are concerned the city seems to be drifting along with growth that doesn’t seem to have any rational, logical, consistent pattern to it.”

Which candidate for Denver mayor said this?

Lisa Calderón? Jamie Giellis? Penfield Tate III?

Actually, no.

It was Federico Peña. Thirty-seven years ago.

Times have changed, but that observation from Denver’s 41st mayor — nearly a year before he was elected — is resonating again as we approach another mayoral election on Tuesday.

Rapid, unrelenting growth appears to be overwhelming some neighborhoods, not to mention the city’s transportation infrastructure. Nor is all that growth improving affordability for low- and middle-income residents.

Denver housing prices have increased dramatically in recent years. The affordability crisis is a product of the widening disparity between price growth and wage growth. Wage stagnation and income inequality are coming home to roost. These issues are hardly unique to Denver, but that doesn’t absolve local leaders of the responsibility to address them.

Dave Krieger.

The three candidates who pose a serious challenge to a third term for Mayor Michael Hancock say that new approaches are required. They tend to focus on increasing neighborhood input into what seems like a massive redevelopment wave orchestrated largely by private interests and barely guided from the top down by Hancock and his allies.

A decade after the financial crisis, Hancock is still casting himself as the superhero of economic recovery, with little or no apparent awareness of the problematic effects this influx of people and development brought with it.

“We should be proud of the fact that we’re the most desirable city in the country, and let’s let the market figure it out going forward,” he said during a recent mayoral debate hosted by 9News.

Challengers aren’t sure the market knows what to do

His leading challengers are less sanguine about letting the market figure it out.

“Ask anyone who’s sat in traffic in rush hour seven days a week, because that’s what our rush hour looks like now, whether we’re at capacity, and many of them would say yes,” said Calderón, a community activist and professor of criminal justice and sociology at Regis University.

“Our infrastructure has not grown (as) the city has grown. I think it’s interesting that the mayor wants to take credit for all of the growth, but take no responsibility for any of the growing pains that go with it, including people being pushed out of their communities.”

Tate, a former state senator, struck a similar note, objecting not to growth itself but to a mayor who seems more like a blocking back for developers than a watchdog for his constituents.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

“The problem we have is (our growth) hasn’t been well managed, hasn’t been well directed or well guided,” Tate said during the same debate. “And that’s what you hear in neighborhood after neighborhood after neighborhood. We’ve grown in a fashion that isn’t compatible with neighborhoods. That’s why we lead the nation in terms of Hispanic gentrification.”

Giellis, an urban planning consultant and former president of the RiNo Art District, has a plan for her first 100 days that includes moving many city planning functions into neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, empowering neighborhoods is also the tactic used most often by the Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) movement, in which entrenched homeowners organize neighborhood opposition to block new housing development, thereby exacerbating the supply shortage. This movement has taken control of the city council up the road in Boulder as a response to an earlier development wave there.

Law of supply and demand has not been repealed

The law of supply and demand has not been repealed. Adding housing supply as the population grows is a necessary but insufficient condition for affordability. When the market is allowed to write the terms of development, that laissez-faire policy gives weight to the NIMBYs’ favorite slogan: You can’t build your way to affordability.

How we get more thoughtful about the consequences of all this growth — congestion, rising prices, gentrification, homelessness — is the overarching issue of the mayor’s race. We have a strong-mayor form of government. A determined mayor can make a difference.

It seems to me obvious by now that Hancock’s policy of letting the market figure it out is producing some unwelcome results. Let’s use a few neighborhoods in northwest Denver as an example.

Just west of downtown, there was a bucolic stretch of 17th Avenue that ran between Sloan’s Lake Park and what used to be St. Anthony Central Hospital. Not long ago, St. Anthony dropped the “Central” from its name and moved to the suburbs. More revenue, fewer indigent patients, don’t you know. St. Anthony of Padua could not be reached for comment.

As it happens, that stretch of West 17th Avenue also represents the border between two very different Denver neighborhoods. To the south is the West Colfax neighborhood, which sits astride an urban transit corridor that is pretty much the definition of a place where urban planners believe high-density, multi-use developments should be located.

With the sprawling St. Anthony lot suddenly wide open, that is exactly what is happening there — an enormous, apparently interminable construction project of mid-rise and high-rise towers that will add untold thousands of residents to the neighborhood when it is finished.

A few blocks to the east, according to a recent flier from the Sloan’s Lake Neighborhood Association, term-limited District 3 City Councilman Paul López is sponsoring a rezoning application to permit a 16-story, 800,000-square-foot development that will, like the St. Anthony redevelopment, be located within a neighborhood deemed appropriate for such density.

MORE: Read more politics and government coverage from The Colorado Sun.

Sloan’s Lake for example…

But, like the St. Anthony redevelopment, it will also be located along the southern border of an entirely different type of neighborhood. Sloan’s Lake, dominated by one of Denver’s most picturesque municipal parks, consisted until recently of small, single-family homes, many of them decades-old Denver bungalows and ranches.

Over the past several years, those older homes have been scraped at an accelerating rate, many of them replaced by towering duplexes, each half of which can cost twice the value of the house they replaced. This doubles the density on each lot, which is a good thing, given our need to house more humans, but it exacerbates the affordability crisis. Gentrification is already a big issue in northwest Denver, where a historic Hispanic culture is struggling to maintain a foothold.

It’s also problematic from a more prosaic standpoint. Go to the corner of West 32nd Avenue and Lowell Boulevard, in the heart of the thriving West Highland neighborhood business district. At busy times of the day, you might see traffic backed up for multiple cycles of the traffic signal.

Approach the intersection on foot, expecting to see a crash or a double-parked delivery truck or some other proximate cause of the backup. But no, it’s just somebody trying to make a left-hand turn.

Did it not occur to anybody in the Denver Public Works Department that the population and traffic growth in the surrounding neighborhoods might require turn lanes at such intersections? Now it’s too late. New development crowds the street, part of the reason Susan Shepherd lost her city council seat four years ago, the first incumbent seeking re-election turned out by a Denver council district in a generation.

Now let’s travel back down to West 17th Avenue, where light asphalt rises and falls in waves like the Pacific surf, deformed by huge construction vehicles not in the calculus when they built this once-imperturbable two-lane street. What will the traffic patterns look like when hundreds of cars choose northern exits from the sprawling West Colfax developments?

Has anybody in the Hancock administration thought about this? There is no sign of it in the construction zone. The towers rise hard against the right-of-way. During rush hour, traffic backs up for blocks between the intermittent stop signs that were once adequate there.

Letting the market figure this out is no answer. Ensuring adequate public infrastructure is city government’s job. Ensuring housing affordability for working people making modest wages and older people on fixed incomes is among the most complex policy challenges out there. There are federal programs, state programs and local programs; deed restrictions, commercial linkage fees and community land trusts. We need smart, knowledgeable people at City Hall dedicated to doing better on these things than we’re doing now.

Unintended consequences untended

Thirty-seven years after Peña’s critique, Denver is the great Western city his iconic yard signs foretold, with all the attendant problems. It is home to at least 200,000 more people than it was then, and the surrounding metro area has grown by much more. 

But criticism of the city’s handling of growth and development again headlines a mayoral race. There may be more of a pattern to development now than there was then, but there is not much evidence of attention to its ancillary and unintended consequences.

Denver’s growth and development will continue. The city council just approved a blueprint that foresees another 200,000 people living here by 2040, which certainly sounds plausible. It is a wonderful town. People want to live here.

But we need a little more thoughtfulness and a little less cheerleading out of City Hall. We would benefit from a mayor less interested in slogans and self-congratulation and more interested in facing up to our challenges around affordability and infrastructure.

In the last 50 years, only two Denver mayors have served three terms — Bill McNichols and Wellington Webb. In retrospect, it seems fair to say that their third terms were not the high points of their tenures. A certain sclerosis, perhaps tinged with entitlement, seems to set in. 

As a Denver voter, I marked my mail-in ballot for Pen Tate, a smart, personable lawyer and former legislator who worked for Peña during the last years of his administration. He seems to grasp the complexity of the issues we face. Slogans won’t address them — not those of the NIMBYs and not those of the “free market” crowd, either. 

Ideology doesn’t help here. What helps is the ability and willingness to go to work on difficult, complex problems.

Hancock, who donned the uniform of the Broncos mascot Huddles as a high school senior, was an effective, ebullient cheerleader for Denver coming out of the Great Recession. But after a decade of record growth, letting the market figure it out is not sound urban policy.

I would consider voting for any of the three main challengers in a two-person runoff against Hancock in June. Tate is the one I’d like most to see there because he seems the most thoughtful and experienced alternative.

But whomever Denver voters choose, the age of rah-rah needs to be over.


Dave Krieger has been a Colorado journalist since 1981. Follow him on Twitter @davekrieger



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