Mayor Michael Hancock sat and listened for 45 minutes on a recent Saturday morning as three people explained why he should lose his job. He was the last speaker in a forum featuring the major mayoral candidates in Denver’s contentious election.
The challengers’ attacks were plentiful, but they shared one common theme: the city’s explosive development. They said the city was on “an unsustainable path of growth and development,” that “residents have felt ignored,” and that Denver is “dramatically out of balance.”
So, when it was finally his turn to speak, the incumbent grinned and adjusted his sport coat.
“Well, that was fun,” Hancock told the crowd of local politicos. “We suck in Denver, huh?”
He was joking, of course — but the moment illustrated how development is driving one of the city’s most crowded election cycles in decades. Hancock, who cruised to a re-election victory in 2015 amid an economic boom, now faces a referendum on growth and its impacts in his final re-election campaign.
Denver has added 100,000 residents in less than a decade, although the population growth is slowing. The competition for limited housing has driven apartment rent in Denver from a median of about $850 in 2011, when Hancock was elected, to nearly $1,500 today — a surge that also has recently slowed. Meanwhile, automobile traffic grows heavier, transit use stagnates and the spread of development is inspiring waves of resistance in newly affected neighborhoods.
Amid mounting frustrations, Hancock’s three major challengers have promised new approaches to development. Each says that they’ll give residents more power to shape development, and that they’ll ensure new construction delivers better results. None has embraced the “NIMBY” mantle — they all say growth will continue — but their ideas reflect a weariness and frustration that has only grown since 2015, when voters rewarded several lower-office candidates who ran on development-skeptical platforms.
Hancock, meanwhile, is trying to put his grander vision for the city in focus.
“In reality, I think people have very short memories. This city has had not a good or great but absolutely phenomenal run. We have challenges — but I would challenge everybody to point to a city that doesn’t.”
Where it’s happening
Ahead of election season, The Denver Post analyzed the city’s construction trends since 2016 and interviewed more than a dozen candidates and experts.
While urban neighborhoods like Union Station, parts of Five Points and Golden Triangle have seen the greatest concentration of large apartment buildings, it’s the redevelopment of lower-density areas that has attracted the greatest criticism.
Denver development map
See where residential development is happening in Denver with this interactive map that shows permits for apartments, condos and mixed-use developments, as well as other housing types, from 2016 to 2019. Where is Denver residential development happening?
The Post has identified three areas outside the urban core to demonstrate how development is reshaping the city’s politics. These places and topics will be the focus of Denver Post reporting over the next two months.
In northwest Denver, redevelopment is everywhere. Two neighborhoods — West Colfax and Lincoln Park — have together absorbed more than 1,000 new condos and townhomes, about a third of the city’s total for that category. With Councilman Rafael Espinoza stepping down, District 1 is a wide-open conversation about the side effects of construction and the design of the city’s new urban areas.
The spread of “slot homes” in this area shows a major challenge for the mayor: Some voters perceive new construction as cheap, ugly or out of character. On the other hand, the District 1 race isn’t focused on development as a yes or no question. Candidates and voters at a recent elections forum talked about how to deliver walkability, transit and affordable housing in an urban environment.
“The density doesn’t bother me. It’s the affordability that makes me sad,” said Jessica Dominguez, a 41-year-old teacher and real estate agent in the district.
“I just wish it wasn’t so ugly,” said Mike Huling, 38.
East and south Denver
Apartments and multifamily buildings have started to appear at the edges of single-family neighborhoods — a result in part of the citywide rezoning in 2010, just before Hancock took office, according to Ken Schroeppel of CU Denver.
While the scale of development there is smaller, the response is just as loud.
Incumbent Councilwoman Mary Beth Susman, who represents east Denver neighborhoods like Hilltop and Hale, says that inner-ring suburbs should expect some growth on their edges. One of her opponents, Amanda Sawyer, is gaining momentum with a message that would give residents more power to shape — and shrink — development.
It’s all part of a bigger debate. A nascent yes-in-my-backyard movement says that housing development is the solution, rather than the cause, for the housing crisis.
“The diversity of housing cannot only be for certain neighborhoods,” said Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore, who represents far northeastern Denver. “I welcome the challenges of older, more established neighborhoods becoming more diverse and inclusive. If that’s really the city we’re all trying to get to, you need to allow folks to live in your neighborhood.”
That message has traction among some district-level candidates and incumbents, but the mayoral challengers haven’t embraced it.
In northeast Denver, billions of dollars worth of public projects are happening simultaneously, including the state’s widening of Interstate 70 and the city’s work on the National Western Center.
This wave of public spending, along with the rise of River North in Five Points, could accelerate private development in lower-income neighborhoods like Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, where residents already are struggling with closed roads, construction noise and rising rents.
“They’re older areas that don’t have a lot of money or power. They don’t have a lot of push-back that you would get in other areas,” Maria De Luna Jimenez, a longtime community advocate in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, said through a translator. “It feels like every day, we’re no closer to the end. We’re right in the middle of the tsunami. Rents are going up and conditions are going down.”
Hancock’s report card
Hancock tells Denver’s story like this: When he took office, it was reeling from the economic recession, but it was ready to boom.
“Having grown up in this city and studied the decisions key mayors made, Denver’s been primed to make this kind of boom since (Mayor Bill) McNichols,” he said in an interview. McNichols and Federico Peña invested in major public projects, such as the airport, while Mayor John Hickenlooper later oversaw regional investment in transit.
“We’ve seen development respond to the demands of the market — and the good thing is that it’s responding with a balance of development and transit and mobility,” Hancock said. “We’re victims of our own prosperity, but now can meet those challenges.”
Asked what he would have done differently about development in his first two terms, he first named the city’s “aesthetic” challenges, such as slot homes.
Hancock’s response to growth kicked into gear in his second term. In 2016, the Denver City Council and his administration created a $15 million-a-year affordable housing fund, which has since doubled to at least $30 million a year. In that same year, his administration officially began work on the Denveright project, which sets the vision for Denver’s next 20 years.
Today, those plans are nearly ready for a vote by the council. The documents revise the city’s old concept of “areas of change” and “areas of stability.” Instead, Denveright says every neighborhood may change to some extent — whether that’s through apartment construction on major corridors or simply allowing homeowners to build accessory dwellings.
The plan also calls for transit investments along major road corridors, ranging from new buses to bus rapid transit and rail lines. That could cost between $1 billion and $5 billion or more.
But the plans mostly remain just that: plans.
For example, Hancock has talked about creating a city transportation department to supplement RTD’s services. That’s still in the works. The city has launched a major corridor improvement project — the Colfax bus rapid transit line is funded and in planning — along with a $48 million sidewalk expansion plan, but Denveright’s grander visions could be years in the making.
Meanwhile, the city’s new overarching plans face a new political challenge: The Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation, a citywide residents’ group, recently asked that the city postpone the approval of the Denveright plans until after the election, describing the 1,000-plus-pages of documents as “incomplete and vague.”
Brad Buchanan, the former planning director, said the new plans are based on tens of thousands of residents’ comments and hundreds of meetings over 30 months. It wasn’t done earlier because the city was still dealing with its massive 2010 land-use revision when Hancock took office, he said.
Denver also has launched an effort to draft area plans for each of its 78 neighborhoods, but with limited staffing it could take 14 years to cycle through the entire city.
In interviews, Hancock’s rivals didn’t challenge the broad strokes of the administration’s plans for development along transit-enhanced corridors and around growth centers — but they described them as too late and too vague. Each of the challengers said they would get residents more involved in the development process and try to ensure that it delivers better results for the people who live here now.
Jamie Giellis has positioned herself as a bridge-builder who can help communities figure out development.
“It’s not just development and density. It’s development, density and design,” she said. “Neighborhoods are not only frustrated (that) development is happening, but also concerned about the quality of construction and the design of construction.”
She points to her work on customized design requirements in places like River North and Old South Pearl. Those kinds of specialized rules can frustrate developers, but Giellis said they improve results. She also has promised $1 billion for “attainable” housing over a decade. Hancock’s administration dedicated $15 million per year to the cause in 2016 and recently doubled that commitment.
In a recent interview, she talked about her visions of a transit-connected, greener Denver — perhaps with streetcars — and she contrasted herself with the mayors who made their names as city builders.
“We talk about the quality of life and we talk about the economic sustainability of the city — being inclusive and being transparent and being accountable. That’s not as great of a pitch line as ‘Imagine a great city,’ ” she said, riffing on Federico Peña’s 1982 mayoral campaign motto.
Penfield Tate III said he would “sit down with developers and tell them open season is not open.” Like Giellis, he said he would give more influence to neighbors and more funding for affordable housing.
“We’re so overdeveloped. It hasn’t been planned, it hasn’t been designed, it hasn’t been directed,” he said. “The quality of life and the things that made Denver, Denver are disappearing.”
He’s not anti-growth, he explained. He’s skeptical, though, of Denveright’s projections that the city will grow to 900,000 people by 2040.
“I believe that there’s support that Denver is going to continue to grow, but there’s just no support for Denver growing and expanding how it has in the last eight years,” he said. “They want a change, and they’re going to get a change.”
He’s dubious, too, of emerging urbanist ideas, especially limiting parking in order to discourage automobile use.
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Lisa Calderón frames housing as a question of justice and inequality.
“I would describe the development in Denver as privileging the wealthiest as opposed to workers and working families,” she said.
” … The city is chasing corporate agencies to come in and give them essentially corporate welfare when we don’t have the infrastructure to support a huge influx of people, and we’re not taking care of our current residents. That’s where I think people push back on growth.”
She called for a “village concept,” where residents are considered experts and have a greater decision-making role in their areas. She also wants a more holistic focus on raising wages to keep people in Denver — an issue that the other challengers and Hancock himself have raised too.
With a different approach, she said, opinions on growth could change.
“People tend to conflate growth with gentrification, and those are not necessarily the same thing,” she said. “We want to grow and we want to revitalize. That’s a good thing to me.”
What do you want to know?
Submit your questions about development, density, transportation and the city election to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 303-954-1785.
Kevin Hamm contributed reporting and analysis to this story.