Denver City Council approves Welton Corridor plan, sparking fears of eminent domain

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After a lengthy public hearing where dozens of property owners and merchants in the Five Points area weighed in on the future of the historic neighborhood, the Denver City Council voted to approve a controversial redevelopment plan that deems the area "blighted." Supporters argue that the plan will lay the groundwork for a major revitalization, while opponents worry the proposal's approval gives the city the opportunity to seize private property for redevelopment projects.

At the heart of this debate are tensions between economic development and historic preservation, as well as fears the city will use eminent domain for a large-scale urban project in a neighborhood like Five Points, which has a lot of historical value but has sometimes struggled to attract lasting developments.

In a public hearing that brought out nearly forty speakers and dragged on for several hours last night, opponents and supporters were almost evenly split, with testimony by both sides prompting shouts and screams.

"This would be a disaster for Five Points and a slap in the face to property owners," said Scott Davis, a property owner and vocal opponent of the plan. "It is an awesome neighborhood. To call us blighted, it's offensive."

As we noted in our post yesterday, the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, or DURA, the entity behind the plan, argues that the approval from city council doesn't directly authorizes the use of eminent domain -- the process by which governments can seize private property for some kind of "public good," with just compensation for the property owners.

The official Welton Corridor Urban Redevelopment Plan does contain language referencing eminent domain, though DURA officials argue it merely states the authority's power to exercise condemnation with specific approvals. Even though the plan passed last night -- with twelve of the thirteen council members supporting -- any use of eminent domain would still require an additional public review process and another green light from the city council.

Those arguments, however, haven't quieted opponents of the plan, including the ones who created petitions and websites urging a "no" vote from council.

These property owners argue that this plan, which has a 25-year time stamp, will loom over them for decades, discouraging them from investing in their homes and their neighborhoods knowing DURA could try to seize their land.

Jeff Sitzman, who has lived on Welton Street for a decade in a property that dates back to 1883, testified that the support he is hearing for the plan comes from outside the project zone. "Outsiders...they are all for it, because they are not in the urban renewal area. Their homes aren't subject to eminent domain.... So I ask you to please consider the people who have houses down there."

"They are saying eminent domain is part of the plan, but we are not going to use it," noted Davis. During his testimony, he said he has no reason to trust city officials on the project, citing poor communication and notification around this specific proposal.

DURA and its supporters say the plan would open up the door to Tax Increment Financing, which allows the agency to capture new or incremental taxes that are created when a property is redeveloped. The city can use those revenues to help fund redevelopment projects. In other words, it could theoretically catalyze development and bring financing to a neighborhood that they argue really needs it.

The word "blight" evoked a lot of controversy, with some arguing that the term is an insult to those who have built the neighborhood without the city's help, while DURA officials point out that the determination of blight is simply required for this kind of urban renewal project. Blight, as defined by the Welton Corridor Conditions Study relates to various factors, such as deterioration, vacancies, under-utilization and unsanitary conditions. By proving blight, DURA is able to specifically direct financing toward the project zone. In fact, a number of speakers and city officials supporting the plan said they wish they didn't have to use the term blight, but note that it's just a necessary part of the process.

One speaker said blight is like "calling someone's baby ugly," while another said blight and the threat of eminent domain is equivalent to modern-day slavery.

Just before the vote, Councilman Albus Brooks -- who was personally insulted several times in testimony from opponents -- said, "We are not blight. We are beautiful, the other 'B' word.... For purposes of getting public funding...we have been identified as blighted, but that does not speak to the character of who we are."

Continue reading for more testimony from the public hearing and comments from the one council member who voted no. Mike Biselli, who is in the process of building a tech start-up in the health care industry, testified that he wants to move his business into the Welton Corridor and needs support from this kind of redevelopment effort.

"We've had people in the audience tonight clap for stagnation. Clap for stagnation!" Biselli said of the project opponents. "We are at a crossroads...not only in this community, but beyond.... We have an opportunity to do one of two things. We can stay stagnant or we can celebrate our diversity, celebrate what makes Five Points and the surrounding areas one of the most shining examples of a city and build upon it. Not push out what made Five Points Five Points, but to build on it."

Biselli, the chief marketing officer for a company that is only a few months old, lives in the San Rafael neighborhood, adjacent to Five Points. He said he sees the potential for entrepreneurs and start-ups to move into the area if they have the right development environment

He urged residents not to oppose the project "just because of some simple words: eminent domain. If we go and look at the studies and we go and look at what it says in there, these people are going to rarely use it. These people are not making it the building block of the entire process here. Let's keep that in mind."

DURA has used eminent domain three times in the last thirty years.

Jill Dorancy-Williams, who owns a property on Welton Street that was built in 1883, has lived in her property since 2000 and several years ago converted it to her office, where she works as an attorney.

Wearing a "YES" sticker, she urged council to vote for the redevelopment plan, saying that at this point, the neighborhood just needs it.

"I moved to the Five Points area because of its cultural heritage, because of its proximity to downtown and because it reminded me of New York," she said. "And I stayed in the Five Points area because I had vision."

She continued, "I recognize that as a property owner, if this plan is approved, this community, my community, gains access to tax-increment financing.... It will also create opportunities for growth and development. This, too, has been used to help revitalize other important urban areas."

Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz, the only member to vote against the project, said she understands the fears of eminent domain in a final speech just before the vote.

"If I were wanting to make a further investment in a home and plan on living there in the long-term and had that hanging over me for 25 years, I would not sleep easily, and for that reason, I am not going to support this proposal tonight," she said.

Outside the City and County Building at around 10:30 p.m, a handful of property owners chatted after the vote, debating what to do next. They wondered if they could designate their homes as landmarks to try and avoid eminent domain in the future.

Paul Paul-Havrilcsak, 49, who owns two properties in the redevelopment zone and has been in the neighborhood for seventeen years, told Westword that he's pretty confident he couldn't get landmark status. He also thinks the city would want to seize his property should future developments get underway, based on its central location.

"I think I'll lose my houses," said Paul-Havrilcsak, who lives with his partner. "I've put so much into my home. I've got history here."

More from our Politics archive: "Scott Gessler: 141 registered voters aren't citizens"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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