On November 7 — or now, if you vote by mail-in ballot — Denver residents will decide if they want to approve nearly a billion dollars’ worth of bond measures, the heftiest general obligation bond proposal in the city’s history.
The GO Bond package, billed as “a plan to repair and improve Denver’s infrastructure,” is broken up into seven categories, labeled 2A through 2G: transportation and mobility systems; cultural facilities, which include the city’s biggest museums, the Denver Botanic Gardens, the Denver Zoo and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts; Denver Health, which would get a $75,000,000 outpatient ambulatory center; the public-safety system, which would improve and replace some police headquarters and fire stations; libraries; parks and recreation; and the public facilities system. They are listed individually on the ballot, so that voters can pick and choose.
Denver started using bonds in the 1940s to pay for projects like airports, hospitals, recreational facilities and public libraries. In the nearly seventy years that the city has taken bond measures before voters, only one proposal — a $325,000,000 justice-center bid in 2001 — was rejected. The last bond project, the $549,730,000 Better Denver Bond Program, passed in 2007. Some projects are still in the works. (You can track their progress at denver.org.)
The GO Bond’s boosters have touted the fact that approving the measure won’t raise property-tax rates; the city has seen an increase in property values, which allows for the new debt of $937 million without triggering an increase to tax rates, says Courtney Law, communications director at the Department of Finance.
After numerous committees submitted their wish lists, Denver City Council unanimously approved the final GO Bond project that’s on the ballot. There is no formal campaign against it, and the Denver Elections Division reports receiving just a handful of complaints from residents. Meanwhile, Our Denver, the formal campaign for the GO Bond, raised $2,191,428.72 through October 5 and is filling the airwaves and mailboxes with advertisements hyping the GO Bond components. “We need ’em all,” says Mayor Michael Hancock in a TV ad.
But while the bond proposal is supposed to be forward-thinking, many projects would address problems created by recent history, such as Denver’s exploding population over the past ten years and the opioid crisis. The whole package also raises philosophical questions about Denver’s future and how, exactly, we’ll get there, down to the dollar.
To see where Denver might be headed, we examined some of the projects included in the GO Bond. We'll roll out our stories about the Bond all week. Here, we examine 2A and 2B.
2A: Is the Transportation Bond Enough?
Nearly half of the total bond package, $431 million, is earmarked for transportation projects, including bridge repairs, expanded bike lanes, 33 miles of new sidewalks and a $55 million bus rapid transit (BRT) system on East Colfax Avenue. Question 2A is an essential component of Mayor Hancock’s mobility action plan (MAP), which aims to provide better and safer options for getting around Denver’s increasingly congested streets.
The need for pedestrian improvements and a more coherent bike network is clear; Denver spends far less than more progressive cities on such amenities, and Denver City Council recently rejected an effort to boost the annual spending on bike lanes by a mere $1 million. (At the current rate of spending, around $2.5 million a year, Denver won’t complete its bike network until 2040 or so.) But critics of 2A say that using long-term bond debt to deal with crumbling infrastructure and other maintenance issues is a bad idea.
There are plenty of other unknowns in what 2A proposes. Will a BRT on Colfax draw enough new transit riders to make it worth giving up two lanes of auto traffic? Does Denver have any business getting involved in overseeing a new transit project — basically shifting the cost of the BRT from the Regional Transportation District’s budget to the shoulders of property owners? Will increasing bike lanes and prioritizing transit operations lure people from their cars — Denver, at present, has one of the highest rates in the nation of people driving alone to work — or just make congestion worse?
Even if 2A passes, the Hancock administration will still be casting about for the funds to implement the complete MAP, which carries a price tag of $2 billion, to be spent over the next twelve years. At least $365 million of that total has no funding identified yet. — Alan Prendergast
On a warm fall day, the lawn in front of the Denver Art Museum is full of schoolchildren on field trips. They sit quietly or play tag; you need to part a sea of them to get to the museum’s North Building.
When the Denver Art Museum started admitting children for free in 2015, school-group visits doubled in that year alone. Now 500 to 600 children visit daily — which has created nothing short of a logistical nightmare. Without a proper pick-up and drop-off point, school buses have turned the busy stretch in front of the North Building — West 14th Avenue between Bannock Street and Broadway — into a bus lane. That’s just one of the problems that museum officials hope to address with bond money.
Should the cultural-facilities portion of GO pass, Red Rocks and every “tier-one” cultural organization in town will get money for improvements and additions. But detractors of the cultural bond bring up a question frequently asked of tier-one facilities: Why do they get the lion’s share of the city’s money and attention while smaller museums and theaters go virtually ignored?
Designed by famed Italian architect Gio Ponti, the Denver Art Museum’s North Building is lauded for its intricate geometrical details and its status as one of the first high-rise museums. While the 210,000-square-foot building is notable for its form, and for the exterior gray geometric glass tiles that cast intricate shadows when the sun is angled just right, its function is precarious at best.
When it opened to the public in 1971, the North Building saw about 100,000 visitors a year; that number has since increased to 750,000. The added foot traffic has stressed nearly every aspect of the building, much of which has been maintained but not updated. For example, a lack of insulation and an old HVAC system have created issues with condensation, putting the artwork at risk of degradation, says Andrea Kalivas Fulton, the museum’s deputy director and chief marketing officer. If 2B passes, the North Building would get $35,000,000, the largest sum in the cultural-facilities bond, for renovations and improvements to transportation, such as implementing a proper bus lane.
As Denver City Council hammered out the details of the bond package over the summer, councilmen Rafael Espinoza and Paul Kashmann abstained from voting on the cultural-facilities portion.
Thinking back on his vote, Espinoza argues that cultural facilities aren’t a necessity, like, say, roads. “I’d rather be putting that money into transit,” he says.
Espinoza, whose district encompasses older, more established parts of Denver, like Highland, would like to see more cultural facilities spread across Denver instead of clustered near downtown. “I don’t have a problem funding arts and culture...but we should be building [cultural] facilities in Globeville or Elyria-Swansea,” he says. “I get the fact that people say that these [tier-one] facilities are regional, but they have other means to grow.”
The museum has already raised private money to support the North Building’s renovation plans and will match funds from the GO Bond by more than three to one.
As part of the renovations, museum officials say they would also reconfigure exhibits that haven’t been touched in years, and reopen the North Building’s now-defunct “tube” entrance, leading out to a current dead zone that would be redone as a gathering place for school groups.
As the perfect fall day winds down, children line up behind teachers to board buses bound for Douglas County or other school districts. Museum staffers wince every time the children congregate around the bus area on West 14th; it would be easy for a small child to slip through the makeshift barrier of adults and school buses and head straight into oncoming traffic. — Ana Campbell
This is the first in a series of stories on GO Bond measures on Denver's November 7 ballot. Find more on 2C and 2D here, and 2E and 2F here.