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THERE GO THE NEIGHBORHOODS

If she feels at all beleaguered, Jennifer Moulton isn't showing it. Standing behind a podium in the auditorium of Carson Elementary School, Moulton looks decidedly calm despite the anger and the heat. It is after 8 p.m., and more than 200 east Denver homeowners are in the audience, peppering the city's director of planning and community development with questions about plans to bring homeless shelters and low-income housing to Lowry Air Force Base when it closes in September. The room is sweltering, in part because someone has turned on a set of wall-mounted Klieg lights for the benefit of two television newsmen recording the proceedings with a video camera and a boom mike.

Many members of the audience hate what the government plans to do out at Lowry, and they're in a nasty mood. A federal law called the McKinney Act requires that portions of surplus federal property--including closed military bases--be set aside for providers of services for the homeless. Lowry residents have been assured in the past that any shelters at the base will be "good neighbors," but many don't buy it. One nonprofit group wants to put in a home for the mentally ill. Another would open a residential care facility for homeless people with AIDS. Yet another has applied to give counseling and other services to women who have had "involvement in the criminal justice system."

Moulton has come to assuage fears. The latest rumor buzzing through the crowd is that Lowry has been designated an "empowerment zone" under a new $3.5 billion urban renewal program initiated by President Bill Clinton. The residents envision a host of new welfare programs sprouting up at the base, along with a requisite increase in crime, graffiti and drug use. They fear a sharp decline in the value of their homes. "It's one big tax-exempt social experiment," Lowry resident Anne Callison says of the empowerment-zone program. "It's points taken from the Great Society and the War on Poverty and enterprise zones. [They'll] roll it all together and have one-stop shopping for every welfare offering made in America."

Moulton informs the crowd that Lowry has not, in fact, been designated an empowerment zone. The city, however, has applied to the federal government for empowerment-zone status, which would cover not only Lowry but fifteen other census tracts in the Denver area as well. If selected, the city stands to get $100 million in federal funds over ten years.

The planning boss makes no apologies: At Lowry, she says, empowerment-zone money would be used to fund infrastructure improvements, not welfare programs. That in turn should speed private development of the site, which is what the Lowry neighborhoods want. "It is an opportunity for the city," she tells the homeowners. "It's a lot of money that this city cannot afford not to go get." When she sits down, after an hour of interrogation, Moulton even receives a polite round of applause.

Afterward, however, it's clear she hasn't converted everyone to her point of view. Callison, co-chair of a group called the United Neighborhoods Organization, remains convinced that Lowry is destined to become "a homeless magnet for the West" under the empowerment-zone program. "I thought she did a great spin job," Callison says of Moulton's speech. "I didn't buy half of what she said."

People who join homeowners' associations are a notoriously cranky lot. Forget Bosnia, health care and welfare reform: If you want a really contentious dispute, go to a planning board meeting and listen to citizens wrangle about roadway medians, easements, speed bumps and floor-area ratios. "Most people in neighborhoods really enjoy the status quo," admits Larry Life, zoning chairman for the Sloan Lake Citizens Group. "They won't agree to anything, no matter what, come hell or high water."

But among Denver neighborhood groups right now there seems to be more than just the obligatory amount of sniping at City Hall. Lowry's neighbors are up in arms. Cherry Creek North merchants are angry that the city has washed its hands of an agreement written to control redevelopment of the nearby shopping center. People in Congress Park feel forgotten because the city fumbled its work on their neighborhood plan. In Capitol Hill and Globeville, they're fuming about the city's recent attempt to revise a carefully crafted group-home ordinance, hashed out over more than two years, to regulate the placement of homeless shelters and community corrections facilities.

Many critics in the neighborhoods compare the administration of Mayor Wellington Webb to that of Federico Pena, and don't like what they see. Pena, they say, was a near-zealot when it came to neighborhood planning. He fervently believed in including neighborhood groups in the decision-making process. He poured money into neighborhood improvement projects. Webb, they say, either doesn't care as much, or, buffeted by the political turbulence surrounding Denver International Airport, simply doesn't have the time to worry about neighborhood matters.

 

"Clearly there's a difference in philosophy," says councilwoman Debbie Ortega. "The previous administration had a very strong commitment to neighborhoods. That commitment is not the same as it was."

"I definitely feel like this administration has been too distracted by big-ticket projects like [DIA] to be concerned about neighborhood issues," agrees Jan Belle, executive director of the SouthWest Improvement Council, a group representing Westwood. "We've been put on the back burner while they try to get that stupid airport to fly."

The lightning rod for these complaints tends to be the planning department. Headed by the 44-year-old Moulton, the department's eighty-odd employees staff the planning office, the zoning office and the Community Development Administration--and are responsible for dealing with virtually all of the city's neighborhood controversies.

Planning has taken a "totally different direction" than it did under Pena, says Steve Metcalf, a resident of the Cole neighborhood who believes the city has abandoned its improvement efforts there. "There was a much greater communication and much more of a partnership with the neighborhoods when Pena was in office."

Accompanying these external complaints are rumors of turmoil inside the department itself. Some city planners speak glumly about a proposal to relocate the Community Development Administration, and whisper that the move is the result of a personality clash between Moulton and CDA chief Ann Mitre. Others gripe about Moulton's top-down management style. "We've got a dictatorship," says one disgruntled staff member. "It's a form of management that went out with the dinosaurs."

Moulton admits there are morale problems in the department and says she's been trying to do something about them, including ordering a series of in-house surveys to help pinpoint the source of discontent. But she denies that the Webb administration has forsaken the city's neighborhoods. Yes, mistakes have been made, she says. But Webb was elected precisely because he walked the neighborhoods, one by one, during his 1991 campaign. It's just that the city has a lot of huge, enormously complex projects on its plate right now: DIA, the redevelopment of Stapleton, the closing of Lowry and the construction of a new baseball stadium downtown.

"We're going to get better," says Moulton. But any mistakes that may have been made, she adds, are "absolutely not a reflection that this administration doesn't care about neighborhoods. It's us learning how to do business in a new environment. I ask the people of Denver to see the big picture...and be a little more patient."

It's easy to see why the city might want to put neighborhood issues aside for a while. The new $3.7 billion airport--beset with technical problems, its opening delayed once again last week--has become a fiscal nightmare that could do irreparable harm to Denver's national image if it isn't brought under control.

But when people sense a threat to their homes, their block or their children's school, they tend to lose interest in the big picture fast. Take DeAnne Minner, president of the group Congress Park Neighbors. In January Minner sent Moulton a letter complaining that the city was dragging its feet on the area's neighborhood plan.

Without a plan in place, Congress Park residents were anxious, Minner said. University Hospital was stepping up talk about expanding its operations to the west side of Colorado Boulevard. Housing developers were eyeing the closed Stevens Elementary School as a potential site for upscale apartments and townhomes. Management at the Denver Botanic Gardens was considering putting in a new multilevel parking deck.

Residents had held "countless" meetings about the plan, the letter said--diligently compiling data, setting development goals and devising implementation strategies. But there had been little from the city in reply.

"Our best efforts to work collaboratively with your office during a time of transition have been entirely unsuccessful," Minner wrote. "Eighteen months after our initial meeting with you, we are not even close to having a usable document to show for the enormous efforts of the neighborhood."

Personnel changes in the planning office had compounded the problem, the letter added. Lupe Herrera, the former planner assigned to Congress Park, had been replaced by Dennis Swain, but Swain was overloaded with other tasks. Minutes of meetings had been lost. Phone calls weren't being returned.

"We cannot get a clear answer about the city's commitment to completing the effort," Minner wrote. "Without any formal dialogue with the neighborhood, it is apparent that Congress Park is no longer a priority to your office."

Today, Moulton makes no excuses about her office's handling of Congress Park. "Yes, the ball got dropped," she says. But once she received Minner's letter, she insists, she made sure members of her staff got back to work on the project. Planning officials met with the Congress Park Neighbors board; now, completing the neighborhood plan is a department priority.

 

"It's back on track and it's working," says Mary Ferrell, the Congress Park resident in charge of the neighborhood plan. But Ferrell says the real test of the city's commitment to the area will come later, when the plan is up for approval before the city council, and after that, when a developer or hospital comes in and tries to circumvent it.

"The jury's out on what happens next," Ferrell says. "The proof comes down to when the neighborhood is threatened. My hope is that Webb's administration...will back us up. We are an old-fashioned city neighborhood, and I hope [the city] understands how important that is."

As a longtime resident of the Cherry Creek area, Diane Somers is used to heated disputes with developers. What she doesn't want, she says, is to have to battle City Hall at the same time.

But that, Somers and others say, is precisely what's been happening over the last few months--ever since the Detroit-based Taubman Company moved ahead with controversial plans to put new retail shops inside closed portions of the old Cherry Creek shopping center. "You expect the city to be behind you," says Somers, a member of a group called the Cherry Creek Steering Committee. "You don't expect to be cut loose."

Somers's concerns stem from an agreement reached in 1986 between Taubman and the City of Denver. Original plans for a new mall at University Boulevard and East First Avenue, hatched in the early 1980s, called for close to 2 million square feet of retail space. Neighbors complained, fearful of massive traffic snarls and potentially fatal competition for the boutiques in the nearby Cherry Creek North retail district. The Pena administration stepped in and worked out the compromise agreement, under which Taubman, the mall developer, could put in 1.2 million square feet of retail on the eastern portion of the mall site but was required to leave the west end for housing, office space and other nonretail uses.

In the last few months, however, Taubman has proceeded with plans to put several stores and restaurants in the now-vacant buildings on the west end. Some neighbors--especially wary Cherry Creek North merchants--have charged that the company is breaking its promise. Backed by former Denver planning officials Bill Lamont and Maggie Sperling, they've argued that Taubman was precluded from putting in any new retail at all in the old shopping center. The Webb administration has thrown up its hands, however; Moulton says that Pena's 1986 agreement was too vaguely worded and wouldn't hold up in court if challenged by Taubman's lawyers. "It's like they just played dead," Somers says.

(Taubman vice-president John Simon says the development agreement was silent on the question of what could be done with the old buildings; he adds that the company is legally entitled to lease them again, and insists that the city has "bent over backwards" to help the neighborhood.)

Cherry Creek neighbors are far from unanimous about the future of the old shopping center. Many competitors at Cherry Creek North would prefer that the old stores remain vacant--while some people who live in the area would love to see the drab buildings fixed up and put to use.

But Somers says she's irritated by the city's cavalier attitude toward the compromise worked out with Taubman eight years ago. By publicly renouncing the 1986 agreement, she and others argue, the city lost much of its leverage to force Taubman to appease neighborhood groups. "The problem is that the process was sort of tossed aside," Somers says. "We'd like to know that we're not fighting our own government all the time."

The city also faces charges of political betrayal from neighborhood groups who helped revise Denver's group-home ordinance. The city adopted the new ordinance in May 1993. It was the result of more than two years of negotiations between neighborhood representatives, city officials and service providers. A key provision of the ordinance was a spacing rule designed to prohibit clusters of shelters and community corrections facilities from saturating small areas.

But last year, with the construction of Coors Field in lower downtown and an accompanying rise in land values in the area, owners of property around the Salvation Army shelter at 24th and Blake stepped up complaints about the facility, which houses alcoholics, drug addicts and other chronically homeless men. They threatened to sue if the city didn't begin to enforce building codes at the shelter. The Salvation Army was faced with either shutting down or moving, so the mayor's office stepped in to help the facility find a place to go.

 

The administration found one--a former flower warehouse in the 1900 block of 29th Street. The only problem with the site was that placing the shelter there would violate the spacing provision of the new group-home law: It was too close to other shelters already in the Denargo area.

What the city did next outraged many neighborhood activists. The zoning office, which is overseen by Moulton, proposed an amendment to the ordinance that would have allowed existing shelters in the city to relocate without regard to the spacing provision.

"It would have gutted it," says one resident. "It would have made the ordinance and all the work that people put into it void."

Worse from the neighborhoods' point of view was that the zoning office wrote the amendment without notifying most of the people who'd worked to craft the original law. "It's almost the arrogance of government--that they know what's best for people, regardless of what people think," says one neighborhood activist who worked on the ordinance.

In March seven neighborhood groups sent an angry letter to Webb, charging that the administration was seeking to circumvent the ordinance they had worked on together for so long. "It is difficult to reach consensus on a complicated policy when city officials are surreptitiously trying to undermine a previously successful process," the letter said.

Moulton, however, says the administration had been put in an impossible position. The Salvation Army shelter serves an important purpose and has to go somewhere, she says. Her agency's mistake, she adds, was creating the impression that the proposed amendment was a "done deal." It has now been withdrawn from consideration, and the city intends to help work out an acceptable compromise. But the city, she says, can't just ignore the homeless issue altogether.

"We're between a rock and a hard place," she says. "You're damned if you do and damned if you don't."

Moulton has never been accused of shying away from confrontation. Though she lacks a background in planning, friends and enemies alike say she has brought a high degree of intelligence and forthrightness to her job. Formerly an architect with Barker, Rinker, Seacat & Partners, she went on to head the Historic Denver preservation group before joining the Webb administration in 1992 as the first female head of the department.

"Jennifer is smart," says Larry Levi, a real estate consultant and activist with the Upper Downtown Development Organization. "And she's a real straight-shooter. I may not agree with her, but at least I know she's not playing games with me."

Roz Schneider, a marketing partner at Barker, Rinker, Seacat who worked with Moulton for several years at the firm, says she has had her own sharp battles with Moulton in the past. But "whether I agree with her not," she says, "I respect her.

"I'm sure she's rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, because that's the way she operates," adds Schneider. "If she has a mind to make things change at the planning office and clean house, there's nothing that's going to stop her. I suspect that doesn't set well with a lot of people who've been there forever."

Moulton says the rumors of a feud between her and the CDA's Ann Mitre probably have been fueled by plans to consolidate community development into one office. Currently eight CDA employees are working in the Columbine Building on 16th Street. The city thinks it makes more sense to have them working with the rest of the CDA staff, now housed in the permit building at Bannock Street and 14th Avenue. This may require relocating the agency out of planning to another site, she says.

"Ann Mitre is a very ambitious, bright, thoughtful woman," Moulton says. "I am an ambitious, bright, thoughtful woman. And sometimes we don't agree...What can I tell you? We're both stubborn and we're both opinionated. And it makes for lively times."

(Mitre agrees that rumors of a personality clash have been "blown out of proportion" and says a move by CDA would be nothing more than routine bureaucratic reorganization. "There shouldn't be any cause for concern," Mitre says. "There really won't be any change at all except that the community development staff will be able to operate more effectively.")

But while Moulton downplays the alleged rift with Mitre, she acknowledges that morale among the planning staff is a concern. Most of the unhappiness, she says, stems from the creation of a layer of middle management that she ordered early in her tenure. Planners who were accustomed to instant access to the department head now must first go to one of three assistants--Bar Chadwick, David Wicks or Harriet Hogue.

In 1992 Moulton hired a consultant to hold a series of what she called "town meeting workshops" designed to identify the reasons for low morale and to come up with solutions. Since then she has conducted follow-up surveys of the planning staff. The results have been underwhelming. One poll taken last November showed that about half of the 74 employees surveyed believed there had been "some improvement" in relations between staff and management. When it came time to grade morale in the office, however, 30 percent gave the department a C, 29 percent a D and 24 percent an F. Only 17 percent picked A or B. (The results of another, more recent survey still are being tabulated.)

 

"No planning director has taken more time to listen to staff people's problems and to try to work them out," Moulton says. But she adds that her primary goal remains to serve the mayor. "I didn't come here to win a popularity contest," she says. "I came here to put a structure in place so we could get a whole lot of work done."

As for the city's relations with neighborhoods, Moulton says her office is trying hard not to lose touch. There are obstacles, however: The fiscal constraints of Amendment 1 prevent the planning department from just going out and hiring more people to relieve an overworked staff. And DIA and the other big projects that have taken so much time and attention in the past aren't going to go away soon. The closing of Lowry alone, she says, consumes as much as a quarter of her time.

"I know there is frustration because there are fewer resources," Moulton says. But "these are unusual circumstances," she adds. "We're doing the best we can.


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