Denver Government

Congress Park Residents Raise a Stink Over Trash Removal

Congress Park is dealing with a stinky situation.
Congress Park is dealing with a stinky situation. Chalabala/iStock
In June 2021, many residents of Congress Park received a City of Denver notice in the mail that the trash pickup scheme for their part of town would be changing ASAP. Instead of city trucks collecting waste in the alleys behind the roughly 2,500 homes from Seventh Avenue to Colfax and Detroit Street to Colorado Boulevard, the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure was switching trash pickup to the front of homes, where city trucks were already collecting compost and recycling. And that caused an immediate stink in the area.

Over a year later, residents affected by the move are still saying that the city's move was garbage. "It’s stupid. I can’t begin to tell you how stupid this is," says Vicki Eppler, president of Congress Park Neighbors, the registered neighborhood organization.

This part of Congress Park generally has narrow streets, with on-street parking on both sides.

"Congress Park is a mixture of single-family, small rental and large rentals and commercial-size buildings," notes Eppler. "Only 30 percent of Congress Park has driveways. Very, very few homes. The neighborhood was established from 1900, with the latest homes being built in the ’50s. But it was all based on alley structure, and it has always been alley pickup."

For DOTI, the move was all about improving employee safety, reducing the potential for property damage in tight alleys and improving efficiency, since trucks were already running one route in front of the homes and a second behind them. "Efficiency has been particularly important post-pandemic as we collect greater volumes of household trash amid staffing shortages," says Nancy Kuhn, a spokesperson for DOTI.

But those explanations haven't placated many residents.

According to Kyle Rose, who lives in the 900 block of Fillmore Street, putting the bins on the street contributes to congestion there. "This is particularly true around Teller Elementary School and Sewall Child Development Center," he says. "The streets become very congested with cars during school pickup and drop-off times, so these cars have to find alternative places to park during these high traffic times, as the normal street parking can become blocked by trash, recycling and compost bins. That means preschool and elementary school children having to walk further and potentially risk their safety."

Rose also notes that many of the houses are on slopes, so homeowners now have to take the trash down multiple steps to get the bins to the street. And Eppler points out that other homes can be so close together that homeowners have to take their trash containers all the way down the alley to reach the street, where they're left in clusters.
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Congress Park residents had gotten used to alley pickup for trash.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
"Some houses get as many as ten, twelve bins out in front," Eppler says.

On large-item pickup day, the streets look downright trashy. "It’s not just bins," Eppler notes. "It’s mattresses and air conditioners and old furniture. This is all going directly into the street year-round."

But some residents have welcomed the switch.

"Our alleys have never been cleaner, because there's no trash out there. There's nobody driving through the alleys looking through trash cans," explains James Twark, a resident of Congress Park since 1978. "The city employees have it a lot easier. They don't have to be lifting cans. I just have a total respect for the city. I think they do a fantastic job in this instance."

Councilman Chris Hinds says he gets calls and emails about Congress Park trash pickup every day at his office, so he organized a town hall with DOTI representatives to discuss the issue on August 24. Dozens of neighbors attended the virtual meeting, and some were hot.

"My question is, will DOTI follow the will of the public? Because you guys are the public servants, and we are your kind of masters here. You do what we say; it’s not the other way around. And if we want it to be done our way, isn’t it your duty to do that?" asked Congress Park resident Andrew Clark.

"If the ask is should we take our limited resources and do the will of the people we’re hearing from in Congress Park at the expense of the rest of the city?" responded Margaret Medillin, a DOTI deputy manager. "No, that’s not what we are here to do. But what we are here to do is to hear from our constituents and to come up with plans and to collaborate together."

For DOTI, one of the most significant aspects of the switch was allowing the department to reduce its use of semi-automatic trucks that require a worker to get out of the truck and move the bins. Instead, an automated mechanism on the vehicle lifts and empties the bins.

"I think, as a society, we’ve accepted a lot of unsafe conditions for our employees. That’s something that we’re really moving away from and finding ways that we can do our job and really do it in a way to protect our crew," said Medillin, noting that solid waste management is one of the most dangerous careers in America.

"I appreciate everything you guys do, I really do," said Chris Russo, another Congress Park resident. "Can you do something about the sound? I work from home as well, and on trash day, it is fantastically loud. Those trucks...they roar like dragons."

One solution might be smaller electric vehicles that could better navigate alleys and still pick up trash with an automated mechanism; DOTI is currently pursuing grants for a pilot program that would explore that system.

"Hopefully with that EV that we are looking into, that will help, and you won’t be hearing that," responded Richard Villa, DOTI's interim director of solid waste management.

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These Congress Park streets are too narrow for trash pickup, some residents say.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
And DOTI officials also said that neighbors would be hearing more from the department, apologizing for its limited outreach before the switch in June 2021. "We all realize that was a really poor job of communicating," Medillin said.

"They agreed to engage the public before making sweeping trash collection changes, like what happened in Congress Park," Hinds says, reflecting on the commitments that came out of the town hall.

Among them is accommodating the elderly and those with disabilities. "We have offered staff to physically move their trash carts to the street and back on collection day," notes Kuhn.

"I asked anyone who wanted them to reapply, and to copy me on that application so we can track the progress," Hinds says.

But Eppler thinks that Hinds's involvement in the issue is too little, too late. She wants the current Congress Park trash system to be dumped.

"I really, truly think if DOTI would sit down with us, we could figure out something where only a small little corner of Congress Park would have to use the avenue or street and the majority could use the alley," Eppler says.

But for DOTI, that's a non-starter. Concludes Kuhn, "Especially for the health and safety of our employees, it would not make sense to reverse course."
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.