Michael Hancock might have secured a third term on June 4, but even the incumbent mayor admitted that the campaign made it clear that not everyone was satisfied with his performance on the job. He got under 37 percent of the vote in the first round, and only retained his seat after a contentious runoff against former RiNo Art District president Jamie Giellis.
Still, the most frequent criticisms of the Hancock administration during the campaign, both from his competitors and voters, related to growth: things like traffic congestion, sky-high housing costs and homelessness. In the weeks leading up to the original May 7 vote, Hancock proposed a slew of initiatives to tackle these woes. On April 2, he announced a new Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, and just a few weeks later came the new Department of Housing and Homelessness. He already had plenty of big projects on his plate, including the renovation of Denver International Airport, now off schedule and over budget; the delayed Colorado Convention Center expansion; and the billion-dollar National Western Center project that’s just getting under way.
Term-limited Hancock won’t need to spend the next four years campaigning. But he does have his legacy to consider, and a lot of work to do. Here are eleven of the issues and projects we’ll be watching:
Thanks in large part to a controversial May ballot initiative aimed at overturning Denver’s urban camping ban, homelessness became a top issue in the mayoral race, especially during the no-holds-barred runoff contest. Hancock and his allies went hard after Giellis over what they saw as her mixed messaging on the camping ban; while she opposed the Right to Survive initiative, she also voiced support for replacing the ban, which the city enacted in 2012, with a vaguely defined alternative.
Hancock defended the camping ban, which opponents say criminalizes homelessness, as a necessary enforcement mechanism, used to connect unhoused people with shelters and other services that make up the city’s broader approach to the issue. Now, Hancock’s faith in that approach — and the promise made by Right to Survive opponents that “We Can Do Better” — will be put to the test.
As part of a flurry of campaign-season policy announcements, Hancock in April proposed the creation of a new Department of Housing and Homelessness, bringing together current services that a recent report from Denver Auditor Timothy O’Brien called “fragmented and understaffed.” He also promised $5 million in funding for a housing-voucher program and $10.7 million for expansion of “day shelters,” facilities that offer daytime support services aimed at getting people permanently off the streets.
During debates, Hancock would frequently argue that as mayor, he’d rather deal with the woes of a growing city than a dying one. It was at once a pat on the back — his administration helped lift Denver out of the recession, after all — and a response to critics who said that he hadn’t done enough to help those who’d fallen victim to Denver’s boom. Then he’d point to the work his administration has done around affordable housing, including creating a fund in 2016 that’s expected to give some $30 million a year to such projects, and plans to move housing out of the Office of Economic Development (OED) and into the new Department of Housing and Homelessness.
The sound bites were effective, but they required serious context. A 9News investigation in 2018 found that residents whose incomes were too high were still sold homes through the city’s affordable-housing program and then were told to sell, possibly at a loss. A city audit later that year found that the OED “did not accurately collect fees from developers meant to fund affordable housing, and it dispersed incentive payments to developers in excess of annual limits,” among other “serious errors.” Will a new city department fix these problems?
On average, about 68 percent of Denver commuters drive to work in single-occupant vehicles (SOVs) every day — polluting the region’s air, contributing to global warming and making streets and sidewalks less safe for pedestrians and cyclists. In its efforts to combat those problems, Hancock’s administration has pledged to reduce the share of SOV commuting trips to 60 percent by 2020 and 50 percent by 2030.
So far, there’s little evidence that they’re making significant progress toward those goals. During the campaign, Giellis blamed low transit ridership on the city’s failure to augment RTD’s regional light-rail network with enough local, so-called last-mile options. Hancock’s plans for improved mobility include a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line along Colfax Avenue and other high-traffic corridors — but that and many other projects remain in the planning stages and haven’t yet been fully funded.
Transit was the focus of yet another conveniently timed mayoral announcement made in the run-up to the election: In April, Hancock unveiled his proposal for the creation of a new Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, which will have to be approved by voters in November. But in his third and final term, can Hancock at last bring long-planned projects like Colfax BRT from splashy artists’ renderings into reality?
The timing couldn’t have been better for the Giellis campaign: During the runoff, the Trust for Public Land released a report showing that Denver had slipped in its national ranking of park access and quality. A vast majority of the city’s residents — some 90 percent — are within a ten-mile walk of a park, but only about 8 percent of Denver is parkland.
Giellis jumped on the stat, pledging thousands of acres of new green space and telling Westword that her focus on parks was one of the major differences between her campaign and Hancock’s. For his part, Hancock didn’t commit to a set amount of new acreage when prodded by the Denver Post, but did tout the vast green space the city owns outside its boundaries, including Red Rocks and Lookout Mountain.
And there’s trouble within city boundaries. The City Park golf course renovation is behind schedule, neighbors are worried about what will become of the Park Hill golf course, and a city audit published on June 6, two days after the election, showed that Denver Golf hadn’t implemented recommendations from a 2017 audit, including creating a strategic plan. “Without a strategic plan,” wrote auditor O’ Brien, “Denver Golf can’t ensure it makes decisions based on a well-defined direction. Further, without financial policies and procedures, employees may not fully understand how to perform certain processes, and the agency risks losing institutional knowledge with the loss of key employees.
“This should’ve been an eagle for Denver Golf,” he continued. “It looks more like a double bogey.”
Hancock began his first term as mayor in 2011 with a promise that he would reform the city’s police and sheriff’s departments. That reform, although delayed, appears to be progressing in some areas.
In 2018, the police department released a new use-of-force policy that won the praises of Independent Monitor Nick Mitchell. The department has also started releasing data about use-of-force incidents for the first time. Police officers are now collecting demographic data from people they stop, a program that ought to provide a fascinating look at racial profiling.
But the department also faced major issues when it comes to gender, according to some officers. A civil-rights complaint alleging sexism filed by Magen Dodge, one of the highest ranking female police officers in Denver, is indicative of larger concerns that some local activists have about gender inequity in the department. Indeed, allegations of sexism have become a recurring theme in the Hancock administration.
The sheriff’s department, which has dealt with controversies surrounding multiple in-custody deaths in the past decade, is also pushing ahead with some reforms. There were no in-custody deaths for the department in 2018 — not a particularly high standard of success, but still a noteworthy statistic for the department. Additionally, in December 2018, Hancock and Troy Riggs, the executive director of the Department of Public Safety, unveiled a new civilian-staffed division that would investigate allegations of misconduct by sheriff’s deputies. The sheriff’s department has also started the process of reinstating in-person visits of detainees at jails. As of now, family and friends of detainees can only communicate with them through video conferencing.
Denver International Airport
Not long ago, Denver International Airport would have been the last thing you’d expect to give Denver’s mayor a major headache. By the time it celebrated its twentieth anniversary, in 2015, DIA had overcome its troubled beginnings to become one of the top-rated airports in the country, an important engine of economic growth and a symbol of a city on the rise. Lately, though, it seems to have reverted to its bad old days of delays and dysfunction.
A renovation of the airport’s Great Hall is facing a twenty-month delay and cost overruns of up to $400 million, developers reportedly told the city last month. Construction issues arose more than half a year into the project, when testing revealed problems with the strength of the concrete in the terminal’s existing structure. Additional tests are due to take place in the coming months, and DIA officials and contractors are negotiating over exactly what the impact on the project’s schedule and cost will be.
Giellis slammed Hancock’s administration for mismanaging the project, but the mayor brushed those criticisms aside, arguing in a May 28 debate that any estimates of delays or overruns were “premature.” Hancock will be out of office by the time the Great Hall renovation is complete, which now could be as late as 2025 — but the slow drip of bad news about the project, and questions about who’s to blame for the oversight, could haunt him in his third and final term in office.
When asked last year by Denver’s Casa Magazine what he wanted his legacy to be, Hancock had a ready answer: “I would like the ‘Aerotropolis’ to be operating,” he said. “And I want people to say, ‘Wow! Hancock launched that idea in 2010.’” Indeed, from his earliest days in office, Hancock has championed the aerotropolis concept, envisioning a bustling hub of residential and commercial development around Denver International Airport.
While aerotropolises have become a popular hobbyhorse for development-minded politicians all over the world, they’ve also encountered plenty of skepticism and pushback, in Denver and elsewhere. In many ways, the aerotropolis model runs counter to the new-school urbanist thinking about density, mobility, sustainability and other factors that have become increasingly valued by city planners over the past few decades. Does the city of the future really so closely resemble 1960s-style suburban sprawl?
A Denver aerotropolis would take decades to fully develop in what is now mostly vacant land in northeast Denver, Aurora and unincorporated Adams County. But construction on an initial step, a 12,500-home development known as Aurora Highlands, is already under way. By the time he leaves office in 2023, will Hancock have planted even more seeds for his legacy project? Does the city even want it?
The Denver Department of Planning and Development has been without an executive director since Brad Buchanan left earlier this year to head the National Western Center Authority, the nonprofit working hand in leather glove with the city on the new National Western Center. Since then, Jill Jennings Golich has served as interim executive director, but it’s high time the city appointed a new leader for this critical department, which oversees development projects and services in this city, and also works with Denver neighborhoods on plans that are supposed to help preserve their character. For years, though, neighbors have complained that their complaints go unheard; meanwhile, developers and builders large and small complain of increasing difficulties getting information and permits.
We’ve got just the person for Hancock to appoint to this post: Jamie Giellis. During her campaign for Denver mayor, she frequently discussed the problems she’d encountered dealing with city bureaucracy as she tried to push neighborhood projects. She’s got a master’s in urban planning from the University of Colorado and a Ph.D. in the school of hard knocks, thanks to a bruising election season. As a result, she’s not only knowledgeable enough to take on the job, but plenty tough enough.
National Western Center
The ballots making Hancock mayor of Denver had barely been counted in 2011 when he got some bad news: Aurora was trying to rustle the National Western Stock Show. Gaylord Entertainment had plans to build a hotel/convention center/resort complex in Aurora, with a $300 million assist from that city, and the NWSS was ready to saddle up and depart the city-owned buildings it occupied in Denver in favor of a shiny new complex in Aurora. Between Gaylord and the Stock Show, many of the town’s toughest lawyers and lobbyists were already riding for the Aurora brand, but Hancock was up for the fight.
During his first inaugural speech, he offered this: “And yes...we are going to find a win-win-solution to the challenges and opportunities facing the National Western Stock Show.” The solution? An extension of Denver’s lodging and rental-car tax that, coupled with public-private partnerships, will pay for a massive new campus in north Denver. Denver City Council adopted the National Western Center Master Plan in 2015; when the project is completed years from now, the National Western Center is supposed to transform the historic site into a year-round global destination for agricultural heritage and innovation.
But first, there’s that pesky federal lawsuit filed by Denver Rock Island Railroad, which doesn’t want to move its lines, as well as complaints from neighbors who are already suffering through the Central 70 project. And Hancock has to ride herd on that billion-dollar budget...
Colorado Convention Center
The lodging and rental-car tax extension that Denver voters approved in 2015 to help fund the National Western Center included a set-aside for the Colorado Convention Center, in part to placate business owners who worried that the new center would compete with their facilities downtown. But work on the $233 million convention center expansion was abruptly halted in December, when a city employee discovered an unauthorized private suite in the plans, as well as other improprieties that got both program manager Trammell Crow and Mortenson Construction booted off the project.
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In April, Denver sent out another call for bids, and work is now months behind...while questions still linger as to how, exactly, a project could get that far before suspected "collusion" was reported.
Or was it just business as usual?
Right next door to the Colorado Convention Center, the Denver Performing Arts Complex is contemplating the Next Stage, the city’s ambitious plan to get the complex ready for the future, complete with the possible replacement of Boettcher Concert Hall. The complex’s top tenant is the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, whose CEO, Janice Sinden, was formerly Hancock’s chief of staff; the DCPA just hired Gretchen Hollrah, the current executive director of the Mayor’s Office of the National Western Center, as its new CEO.
But while Denver’s big arts institutions get plenty of attention at City Hall, some of its smaller ones remain an endangered species. Many of the DIY spaces that were closed in the wake of Oakland’s Ghost Ship warehouse fire in 2016 decided to simply disband rather than follow the city’s complicated rules to compliance. Other studios and galleries that can no longer afford Denver rent are decamping for nearby suburbs. Meanwhile, the artist live/work spaces in RiNo, a joint project of city agencies Denver Arts & Venues and the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative and national nonprofit Artspace that Hancock touted two years ago, went up in a puff of smoke this spring.