Development in Denver: Controversial Plans Racing Thru Lame Duck Council

At tonight's Denver City Council meeting, members will be reviewing an unusual cluster of big-ticket development projects, amounting to several hundred million dollars of proposed public expenditures and "in kind" giveaways of revenue and property. All of them have profound implications for Denver's north side, and all are dear to the heart of Mayor Michael Hancock's administration, constituting key components of what they mayor has dubbed the "Corridor of Opportunity," stretching from Union Station to Denver International Airport. 

The action-packed agenda comes just four weeks before seven of the thirteen council members are scheduled to step down — in several instances, to be replaced by newly elected first-timers who have been openly critical of Denver's frenetic growth and have vowed to advocate for neighborhood preservation. And while the projects on tonight's list aren't facing final approval quite yet, their rapid track has left some grassroots activists asking, "What's the hurry?"

"It's not coincidental that three major agreements by the city, all of which require some degree of study and analysis by City Council, are all being pushed through by a lame-duck majority,"  says Thad Tecza, senior emeritus instructor in political science at the University of Colorado Boulder. "Mayor Hancock is putting through these projects before the new council members arrive."

One of the projects under discussion is the billion-dollar plan to transform the stock show grounds into a year-round tourist destination — a plan that's raised numerous questions and concerns in neighboring Elyria-Swansea and Globeville, as detailed in our June 10 feature.  The city wants to raise cash for the initial stages of the project, about $500 million, by extending "tourist taxes" on lodging and car rentals; but first council members have to sign off on putting the issue on the November ballot. 

The second big plunge also involves a ballot proposal that voters will ultimately have the final say on: a deal forged among Denver officials and their counterparts in Aurora and Adams County to split tax revenues from future commercial development at DIA, including a $10 million payment up front by Denver. Council members are expected to send that deal to the voters in November, too. 

The third item, it's safe to say, has received the least scrutiny of all. It's an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) between Denver and the Colorado Department of Transportation concerning the controversial expansion of I-70 between Tower Road and I-25, a $1.8-billion project that's been staunchly opposed by many neighborhood activists and Denver Auditor Dennis Gallagher.

Although the project is still awaiting environmental approval, the IGA specifies how Denver and CDOT will divvy up the costs of drainage improvements in the area (a 60-40 split in CDOT's favor, with Denver chipping in around $80 million); the amount Denver will contribute to the transportation project itself ($37 million, as well as other benefits, including some donated property and agreeing to take over sole maintenance costs of Brighton Boulevard); and more. Tecza notes that the complex document was only made available for public review late last week, and he questions how many council members have read it. 

Rafael Espinoza, the victor in the District 1 council race against incumbent Susan Shepherd, says he's frustrated that so many major development decisions are being shuttled through the process in apparent haste — and well before he takes office on July 20.  "It bothers me a lot," he says. "This all could occur in August and still make it on the ballot."

Espinoza says he had a "sit-down" with Hancock over the matter and was told that the current council members have worked hard on the north corridor projects and "just want to see it through." "I don't think that's the case," Espinoza says. "Some of them have lamented that they don't have the information to make these decisions." 

He adds that he's not necessarily opposed to the three projects but would like more data. "I've asked to see the numbers, and I have been told I don't have that privilege until July 20," he says. "But the devil's in the details. These [projects] involve waiving revenue we've worked hard to get and obligating taxpayers. They're trying to get us obligated to all sorts of things that I'm going to have to deal with for the next four years."
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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast