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The election is over, and it’s abundantly clear that Denver voters are clueless.
Traffic is their No. 1 problem, they say. Oh, how they hate to spend their mornings in traffic jams when they could be at the gym or sipping cold brew on the patio at Stella’s.
And homelessness is so filthy, so disgusting. Voters wonder why the city won’t do something about it — something that keeps urban campers far away from their neighborhoods, doesn’t affect the image of any tony businesses and doesn’t increase their property taxes.
Then there’s the problem of housing costs. Fix it, they say. Just don’t put any multi-family developments anywhere near those posh neighborhoods that outlaw sidewalks and feature nothing but 3,000-square-foot homes that are in a constant state of remodeling.
If you attended any candidate forums before the election, it was clear that the NIMBY sentiment was positively Trumpian across the city. The clearest path to victory in the recent election was running on a Make Denver Great Again message.
Voters refused to admit that as the city’s economic boom continues, the only alternative to urban density is sprawl — with a lot more traffic, smog, noise, parking hassles and environmental degradation.
The fastest route to oblivion in this month’s election was for a candidate to dare to acknowledge that the only ways to address homelessness and high housing costs are either a commitment to requiring a significant investment in affordable housing in every neighborhood or another gut-busting economic recession.
So, Denver hurtles down the path to soullessness that has seen San Francisco, once a thrilling mecca for artists, counterculture activists, peoples of all colors and gender identities, become a sterile enclave for bland, rich white techies.
San Francisco has the lowest percentage of children (13.4 percent) of any major American city and its African-American population has plummeted. Cultural and other nonprofit organizations have fled because the exorbitant costs were draining their coffers.
The ethnic restaurants, the eccentric bookstores and hotspots for live music — the elements that gave the city its personality and charm — are disappearing. Restaurant workers, booksellers, musicians, teachers, police officers, nurses — pretty much all the people who make a city functional and interesting — are being driven out.
An annual salary of $117,000 is considered low-income in San Francisco.
Meanwhile, the homeless population has increased by 17 percent in the past two years, with a 45 percent increase in the number of people living in vehicles. The average home price is $1.2 million. The average rent for an apartment is $3,821.
Denver is on the same trajectory. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
The laser focus on economic development that brought so many thriving companies to Denver in the past 10 years can be retrained on efforts to address the fallout from that eye-poppingly successful effort.
Instead of tax breaks and economic incentives to attract more new businesses, the same kind of forward-thinking public investment needs to be made in the infrastructure necessary to support what’s here. That means more incentives for affordable housing, more programs to address the causes of homelessness, and a lot more public engagement and investment in transit solutions.
It means taking a hard look at the city to determine the best options for increasing density and ensuring that systems are in place at the same time to protect the parks, the residents and the small businesses that give the neighborhoods real character.
The message to city leaders this spring was clear: Denver voters are uneasy about change.
But this doesn’t mean leaders should look to the past for answers.
There’s no going back to the quaint cowtown where it cost a buck to park downtown for the day and the only traffic jams were on Sundays when the Broncos had a home game.
Mayor Fed called upon us back then to “imagine a great city.” The slogan still rings true.
Great cities don’t build walls around neighborhoods to keep out the condos, the apartments, the first-time homebuyers and the people struggling with homelessness. They don’t pave park blocks to provide more space for cars. They don’t look away when locally-owned businesses get crushed by faceless chain stores.
This is not Omaha, people. Wake up. Density can be a really good thing.
It can bring terrific urban mobility solutions like those in London, cutting-edge cultural institutions like the ones in Toronto, delightful bistros like in Paris and vibrant diverse communities like in Amsterdam.
Michael Hancock has four more years to articulate a coherent vision for Denver. Five new councilmembers will have their chance to grapple with the economic and political pressures that are at play in the neighborhoods across the city. There’s no time to waste.
Denver residents, too, need to stop pining for the old days and seize the opportunities before them.
Clinging to the past just means more traffic, higher housing costs, less diversity and more homelessness.
It means passing up the chance to have a role in creating an exciting 21st century urban community — just so they can continue to spend their weekends mowing the Kentucky bluegrass, blasting their infernal leaf-blowers and waiting for football season to come around again to provide something that feels like meaning in their lives.
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.
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