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May 2015 • Online Edition

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I-70, Safety, Weed & Housing: Where To Go From Here? Council Priorities | Print |  E-mail

by Paul Kashmann

Over the past decade Denver voters passed bond issues to fund major projects, solidify our civic infrastructure and support local education.

In 2010, after seemingly endless discussion and debate, City Council passed a comprehensive rezoning to guide development in the Mile High City well into the 21st century. We’ve survived the recession that put major development projects on hold and knocked holes in the city budget, and the world has its eyes focused on Denver as we take the lead in guiding the great social experiment known euphemistically as “recreational marijuana.”

With so much hard work under our belt, what are the challenges that face our city in the coming years? With an eye toward the future, we asked Denver City Council for their perspective on what lies ahead. What we got was a mix ranging from major projects that could rectify a century of sins, to day-to-day service issues that keep the city on track.

[Editor’s note: Six Council representatives will be replaced in the May 2015 election. Term limits preclude Jeanne Faatz (District 2), Peggy Lehmann (District 5), Charlie Brown (District 6), Judy Montero (District 9), and Jeanne Robb (District 10) from running for re-election, while Chris Nevitt (District 7) has announced his intention to forego another term in favor of a run for City Auditor. Some Council boundaries will also change, affecting a number of central/south Denver districts.]

 “Citywide, we must deliver the best services possible to our constituents,” said Councilman Paul Lopez. “It’s the everyday issues that maintain quality of life. We need to maximize the benefits for each dollar spent. Rather than just divide our limited funds by 13 (councilmembers), we need to spend them where it counts the most.” Paving long-ignored alleys, replacing dumpsters with trash barrels (to reduce illegal dumping) and providing access to healthy food are high priorities in Lopez’s southwest District 3.

“No matter what zip code we live in we should expect the same life expectancy as anyone else. We need more access to grocery stores and less access to liquor stores; more parks and recreational activities. Folks need to have healthy choices.” Lopez assisted with getting a long-abandoned market at W. 1st Ave. and Knox Ct. reopened. “I helped on the condition they’d have fresh vegetables, and take food stamps.

“These are not Republican or Democrat issues,” he continued. “There may be some topics to split votes about, but to make sure residents are safe and healthy, there’s a lot we can do together. We should be proud of every neighborhood we step into, from Downtown to Hale to Wash Park, to Athmar Park or Westwood.”

Farther to the south, Faatz echoes her cohort’s call for attention to the basics. “My district is affected most by the constant challenge for street repair and park maintenance, and the increased presence of coyotes leading to needless pet deaths.”

The need to maintain safe streets and neighborhoods did not escape notice from Council. Faatz wants to see a greater police presence throughout Denver. “During lean budget times, Denver suspended police academy classes,” said Faatz. “We have reinstated those classes, but for safety purposes we need to bolster them even more to replace retiring officers and put more officers on the street.”

Brown sees safety as of primary concern in Downtown Denver. “The 16th Street Mall and LoDo have to be at the top,” said Brown. “That mall is the number one tourist site in the city. There’s aggressive panhandling, and crime and violence. The homeless issue is part of the problem. We keep spending a lot of money and the numbers just don’t go down. Complaints keep coming in. If you don’t have a safe city you can forget the city. It’s the number one issue. People have to feel safe.”

First term At-Large Councilwoman Robin Kniech acknowledges the uptick in Denver’s economy, but emphasizes the need for all residents to share in the good times. “Our economy is recovering quickly and our schools and city services are stable and trending in the right direction, so the near future looks strong and bright overall. Yet a shortage of affordable housing and services for the chronically homeless leaves too many residents behind.

“In the medium term, Denver will be increasingly harmed by state fiscal crises,” she said. “Transportation (tax) dollars are shrinking, and without transforming how we fund transportation it will be harder to support transit projects and the pedestrian- and bike-safe roadways necessary to support growing populations and jobs in the region. Similarly, schools cannot continue to both grow and improve without state funding, or we will face putting the entire burden on property taxes.”

Over the long term, says Kniech, “Denver faces flat wages and widening income inequality. A strong economy depends on a healthy middle class, and with a continuing trend toward low-wage service jobs we risk becoming a ‘barbell economy,’ with only very low and very high income earners, putting our economy at risk.”

Robb shares the concern about a lack of affordable housing opportunities across the city. “How do we deal with rising housing prices in a city for all people?” she asks. “Do we choose to place further requirements (on developers) through our inclusionary housing program, explore a real estate transfer tax, strengthen Denver Housing Authority, all of the above – or none of the above?”

Montero’s District 9 is seeing hopeful change in affordable housing. “La Alma/Lincoln Park (the South Lincoln Redevelopment) has been a national model for what can be done, replacing the old 1950s’ bunkhouse model of public housing with something much better,” said Montero. “We’re getting mixed-income housing instead of old-style ‘projects’. The old stereotype of isolating those who are disadvantaged as far as wealth, is no longer satisfactory. The redevelopment of Brighton Blvd. could be a big help in providing workforce housing.

“For the remainder of my term I want to look at having more non-profit housing developers at the table and in the discussion. We need to continue to find a balance so there’s equitable housing for those who work the jobs that support this city, but may not be fully sharing in the wealth.”

Lehmann has been at the center of a hotly disputed land swap between the city and Denver Public Schools. The school district gave the city an office building at W. 13th Ave. and Fox St., that Mayor Hancock would like to use for a domestic violence resource center. In exchange, DPS was given nine acres of open space in southeast Denver where DPS plans to build an elementary school. Parks advocates argue the city charter calls for a vote of the people before parkland is repurposed. The courts have disagreed up to this point.

“My schools are at and over capacity,” said Lehmann. “We’re going to build the Hampden Heights school. That was never parkland. Two acres are a parking lot, and the rest is pretty much weeds. I have five elementary schools now. Four all have modular trailers and they’re running out of space to park more trailers. The fifth one, Bradley Elementary will be at capacity next year. My district is single family residential with lots of kids. Along E. Hampden Ave. and Havana St. are apartments with lots of kids. The Hampden Heights school will provide relief.”

Much effort in recent years has gone into protecting the well-established neighborhoods and parklands of Denver’s idyllic central and southern reaches. As we advance through the two thousand-teens, the city’s primary focus seems tilted towards strengthening long-ignored communities to our north as well as maximizing benefits to be had from new developments in the aerotropolis that will spring up on the plains surrounding Denver International Airport (DIA).

Mayor Michael B. Hancock has identified a “Corridor of Opportunity” stretching across 23 miles of I-70, from I-25 east to Tower Rd. Kelly Leid is project manager for the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative (NDCC), a cooperative alliance of stakeholders riding herd over a half dozen projects that will transform the neighborhoods from I-25 to Colorado Blvd., Martin Luther King Blvd. to E. 56th Ave.

“We’re looking at three core neighborhoods,” said Leid. “Globeville, Elyria and Swansea. This part of the city, as close as it is to Downtown, is very disconnected by man-made and natural barriers. You’ve got railways, a river, a highway and deficient infrastructure. Over 100 years, these barriers have fractured the communities, but they’ve survived, in a fragile state. The mayor has decided it’s time to decide how best to strengthen them, and have them reemerge as full partners in our civic fabric.”

To reconnect the neighborhoods separated by I-70, Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) wants to tear down about 1.5 miles of the 60-year-old highway viaduct between Colorado Blvd. and Brighton Blvd., lowering I-70 below grade, and covering an 800-foot stretch of highway with a cap that would be converted into a four-acre park re-joining the neighborhoods north and south of the highway in the area of Swansea Elementary School, 4650 Columbine St. The project is estimated to cost $1.8 billion to complete.

“Think of the I-25 Narrows just north of University of Denver,” said Leid. “The highway is below grade in that area. CDOT is proposing a similar alignment, but adding a cover to create usable space.”

Meanwhile, Denver is looking at adding a separate cover at the Vasquez Blvd./Steele St. intersection to the east, that will not connect with CDOT’s cap. “There are limits on how much you can cover due to venting needs, and at a certain length you’re talking about a tunnel and a whole other layer of engineering issues.”

Don’t expect dirt to fly just yet, however. CDOT will release a preliminary Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project this spring followed by a period for public comment, and a final EIS in the fall. Debate is expected to be contentious, as there are those who would prefer the highway not be lowered, but moved altogether to the corridor to the north that now accommodates the I-76/270 roadways. Cost estimates in the $4-6 billion range have nixed that option when raised in the past.

If CDOT gets the go-ahead from the Federal Highway Administration sometime next year, it is expected work could begin in 2016.

Other projects NDCC is coordinating include the revitalization of the National Western Stock Show/Denver Coliseum complex; updating neighborhood plans for Elyria, Swansea and Globeville; redevelopment of the Brighton Blvd. corridor from 29th Ave. to the Adams County line; major investment in the northern reaches of the S. Platte River through the same area; and coordination of the three light rail lines that affect north Denver – the East Line to DIA, Gold Line to Arvada and North Metro Line slated to run as far north as 162nd Ave.

Also being discussed as part of Hancock’s “Corridor of Opportunity” is widening I-70 by two lanes in each direction from I-25 to Tower Rd.

Leid was unwilling to venture a guess as to what all these projects might cost. “The planning process will inform our decisions,” he said. “We’re about to pick a master planner for the National Western and Coliseum. As part of that exercise they’ll give us a rough order of magnitude of timing and cost. At that point we’ll start looking at public and private financing options.”

Referring to the complex of projects on the table, Leid said, “This is a massive undertaking, like the repurposing of the old Stapleton Airport. You can consider this a 20-year effort. Don Hunt, director of CDOT, has repeatedly called this ‘one of the most complicated efforts we’ll ever face.’”

Much of the work the NDCC is assessing is part of Montero’s District 9. “I’m so optimistic and excited about our city,” she said. “I have a sense of urgency to get some of this stuff done before leaving this job.”

Chris Herndon (District 10) sees nothing but opportunity in the northeast part of town which includes the Park Hill and Stapleton neighborhoods as well as Montbello, Green Valley Ranch and DIA itself.

“We’re looking at the next phase of development at Stapleton that will basically replicate what’s been done south of I-70 on the north side of the highway.” Stapleton is currently home to some 17,000 residents.

“Out at DIA, we’ve got a huge enterprise under way with the terminal hotel under construction, as well as the East Line that will bring rail transit out to the airport. We’ll spend a heavy chunk being sure that moves forward, and that’s just a start. The entire aerotropolis envisioned out there will be a massive boost to the city in general and District 10 specifically.”

Mary Beth Susman (District 5) is also enthused by the opportunities presented to the northeast. “We are adding non-stop international flights and space-age business like we’re the center of the universe,” said Susman. Closer in, her central Denver bailiwick is preparing to accommodate major infill developments at 9th Ave. and Colorado Blvd. (the old University of Colorado Medical Center property) and Boulevard One, a 60-acre Lowry parcel that is the last piece of the old Air Force base to be turned over to civilian use.

Maintaining a watchful eye on the impacts of legalized marijuana was a top priority among several members queried. Faatz noted Denver must “assess the long-term effects, if any, of marijuana legalization, and prepare our regulatory structure for even more retail outlets in 2016.” Until Jan. 1, 2016 only those with pre-existing licenses to operate medical marijuana dispensaries may apply to sell to the retail trade. After that date, anyone may join the fray.

Brown, who spearheaded Denver’s efforts to regulate the new industry said, “I didn’t vote for it (legalization), but it passed, and it was critical that we set things up the right way. We need to stay focused on keeping it away from our kids.  My top priority before I leave office is to ensure that 1 percent of the 3.5 percent additional sales tax on marijuana is used for a public, multi-faceted education campaign targeted to middle and high school students. I believe we have a moral obligation to spread the word to our young people about the inherent dangers of smoking marijuana.”

Nevitt adds, “Time will tell what changes and adjustments we need to make, but it appears that Denver is showing the world how to do this right, and we must continue leading the way – thoughtfully and responsibly, but also bravely.”

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