By Joel Warner
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"It's the type of zone that does not take into account incompatible uses next to each other," explains Kent Strapko, the city's zoning administrator. "There's not a lot of controls."
When bus companies asked permission to do business in this neighborhood, city officials essentially opened the zoning books, ran their fingers down the list of acceptable B-8 uses, found "bus stations" and said okay. As long as the companies followed basic regulations, such as property maintenance, they could haul as many passengers to and from Mexico as they wanted. They could even load and unload customers on the sidewalk.
"If the ordinance says you can do it, it's automatically allowed," Strapko says. "There's no negotiating."
But in the late '90s, as neighboring businesses and nearby residents became increasingly vocal in their complaints, the city gathered all sides around a table with a mediator and tried to negotiate.
It wasn't easy. Authorities couldn't simply "down-zone" the area and add more restrictions -- not without a fight. Many of the area's landowners believed that this part of town could become the next LoDo, and they resisted any suggestion that might restrict development.
Not only that, but the bus lines already had permission to operate and had more or less complied with the provisions of the B-8 zoning. Changing the rules after the fact could result in a nasty court battle. "You can't just change the law and make them go away," Strapko says.
Instead, the city tried to crack down by citing a Denver regulation that limited idling to ten minutes, but then the feds stepped in and overruled the city, saying that buses must idle more than ten minutes to operate safely, so a compromise of up to thirty minutes was reached.
Authorities could, however, make sure the bus lines followed noise, litter and traffic laws, which the companies agreed to do. Among other things, Golden State ordered its drivers not to park outside homes or businesses, and it stored coaches overnight at a maintenance lot on 58th Street. Limousine Express, meanwhile, hired security guards to help buses maneuver in and out of traffic, ordered employees to pick up trash, asked the city to empty its dumpster more often during the busy season, and directed customers to park in a nearby paid lot.
In September 2000, officials finally amended the B-8 zoning to require that any new bus companies moving into the area provide parking and passenger loading and unloading on the same lot. But since most of the bus companies were grandfathered in under zoning's original provisions, they were exempt from these changes.
And the newest arrivals on the block, El Conejo and Chihuahua, managed to wriggle their way through the amendment by sharing a single parking lot and knocking down a brick wall behind their terminals to give their coaches more room. Strapko had denied the original permit, saying the configuration would cause traffic problems, but he was overruled by the city's Board of Adjustment.
"Most urban problems are usually solved through give and take," says Denver City Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt, who has wrestled with the issue for years. "With this one, there really is no give and take."
Councilwoman Elbra Wedgeworth, who represents the area, agrees. In hindsight, she says, none of the bus stations should have been allowed to operate at a busy intersection near a residential neighborhood. But once the city has given permission, it's hard for officials to rescind it.
"It's a real catch-22," Wedgeworth says. "We cite them and things are fine, and they try to make improvements, and then it starts all over again. Basically, our hands are tied."
Jose Mendez leans against a wall facing Champa. Beside him, his wife bounces their shirtless seven-month-old son in her arms while their seventeen-month-old daughter fidgets nearby. Mendez is here to say goodbye to his mother, who's been visiting from El Paso. He checks his watch, folds his arms and watches the elderly woman in blue slippers shuffle off to check the departure time.
He and his family picked the worst time to come to this corner: 6 p.m. on a Friday. The sidewalk is packed, almost festive. Paletero bells ding, ding, ding over the grind of rush-hour traffic, vendors hawk bottles of Gatorade and peach nectar from ice chests, norteño music jangles from passing cars, and the muggy air carries the aroma of hot grease from a nearby lonchera.
Mendez comes here about once a month, he says, and it's always the same: crowded, dirty, noisy. The service is bad, the parking is nonexistent, the security is minimal. Sure, the ticket prices are reasonable ($40 one way to El Paso), and the eleven-hour bus ride to the border beats driving himself or forking out a few hundred bucks to fly. He's not happy -- not happy at all -- about his family having to wait outside and breathe in diesel exhaust. But what can he do?
"I have no choice," he says. "This is where the buses are."
Across Park Avenue West, near the El Conejo office, Leticia Flores waits with her husband, two daughters and a niece, who's returning to El Paso. A dozen yards away, outside the Chihuahua bus station, a Ford F-150 jumps the curb and parks on the sidewalk beside a Cherokee, which had done the same thing a few minutes earlier. A family carrying pillows and suitcases piles from the pickup and joins the mob.