Op-Ed: As a City, We Are Truly at a Crossroads

Mayor Michael Hancock celebrating his victory at an election-night watch party.
Mayor Michael Hancock celebrating his victory at an election-night watch party. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
The future is now, Denver. The stakes are high for our city. Tomorrow, we install Mayor Michael B. Hancock as our mayor for a third and final term. The power of the incumbency, and some very deep pockets, swept him into City Hall for another four years. If the last six weeks are any indication of how the Hancock administration will attempt to wield its power to shape Denver, we have a fight on our hands.

This inauguration day clearly did not bring with it the outcome that I, and many other Denverites, had hoped. We can, however, seize this opportunity to ask for accountability, to push the Mayor to view his legacy as one of crafting a city for the people during this critical moment in its evolution, rather than continuing to focus on development and growth. At this fork in the road, which way will he take us? Only the close counsel of his broad and diverse constituency can lead to the right choice.

Michael Hancock told us on election night — June 4, 2019 — that while he relished the win, he recognized it came with requests from the voters. He recognized, he said, that he had much more work to do to truly engage community in determining Denver’s direction. He committed to utilizing the freedom that comes with a third and final term to do all the hard things for Denver’s people that he had not been able to do before.

And yet, in the last six weeks, we’ve seen evidence to the contrary. Park Hill Golf Course has been fast-tracked for development. The retail development at our airport is mired in conflict and scrutiny while the administration simultaneously asks for millions more to invest in it. A vote was held, just two weeks after the election, to widen Peña Boulevard; this is ostensibly for better airport access, but many recognize it as a conduit for the massive, so-called Aerotropolis development. And still, we have no clarity on solutions to the biggest issues that arose during the campaign: addressing growth in a strategic way, bringing affordability back to our housing stock, tackling our increasingly insufficient transportation networks, finally starting to address homelessness in a nuanced and compassionate way, easing the burden on small business, and — most important — inspiring a cohesive vision for what sort of Denver we actually care about becoming.
Going, going...gone. - PARK HILL GOLF CLUB
Going, going...gone.
Park Hill Golf Club
Post-election, I’ve had much time to think. I’ve thought about the thousands of you who have written me, stopped me on the street, and told me you have felt at a loss as to what we do next. And on their behalf, it’s time to send a message — loud and clear — to Michael Hancock. Even though the power players and the big money brokers helped you win this election, if you give a damn about the people of this city, Mayor, we have a few requests.

Let’s start with committing to a government that is transparent, accountable, and that bends to the will of the people. We hope that you will commit to seeing the city through our eyes. That you will not retreat into City Hall. That you will engage more deeply with the communities of our great city to listen to their priorities. We ask that you change the culture of the mayor’s office to no longer be an echo chamber where the voices of the moneyed and powerful few are insulated from the voices of the many. We call on you to unlatch the front doors of city hall and return the will of the people to the centers of power.

After a brutal election, we ask that you recognize the divides that this election created and work — in partnership with myself and others — to join hands as a community and heal. You must decide that the voices and priorities of those that didn’t support you still matter under your administration. We call on you to create your own Team of Rivals, recognizing there is strength in leadership when consensus is not automatic — and that by looking at the tough issues from all angles, we can get to solutions that stick, and work.

We ask you to remember that the key to our vitality is lifting up the small businesses, the non-profits, the community organizations and the people of Denver. From Berkeley to Southmoor Park and Bear Valley to Montbello, I met with neighbors in all of Denver’s 78 neighborhoods throughout my campaign, and what I heard over and over is that our residents want quality of life, and balance. Enough of the NIMBYs versus the YIMBYs. Enough of pitting natives against newcomers. We all love Denver because it has the opportunity to offer something special in its quality of life. Isn’t that the most important component? Aren’t we all seeking a city government that seeks first the welfare of its diverse communities and isn’t focused on protecting the interest of corporate donors?

Mayor, legacy projects, and monuments, and big corporate deals must be measured by how they improve the lives or our neighbors, and not pursued as goals unto themselves. The mayor is the chief civil servant, not the chief servant of special interests. The mayor’s office cannot be for sale.

Development should be sensitive to historic homes, and density must be adjacent to ample green space, trees and parks where people can walk their dogs or rest on a bench and watch the world go by. This isn’t about the false choice between growth everywhere or no growth at all. It’s about plotting out a city that can grow incrementally, comfortably, and it’s about ensuring that growth and development contributes positively to our landscape and gives back to our communities. Developers make money off the backs of our city; shouldn’t they be required to be part of solving growth challenges?

You must ensure that this is a city for all — young or old, starting out or building a family. There MUST be housing that fills every need and every void. No, the market left to its own devices will not just take care of us all. It must be steered by and balanced against good policy. The city can demand, for example, that if developers are given opportunity beyond their existing zoning rights, they give back to the city via affordable units, community benefit agreements or dedicated open space. Further, we can partner creatively with for-profits and non-profits and other metro communities and work together to solve the complex challenges of housing affordability together. We have to start by wanting to solve it — not throwing our hands up and saying it’s beyond our control.
Mayoral candidate Penfield Tate joined Jamie Giellis in a Team of Rivals announcement on the steps of City Hall after the May 7 election. - MICHAEL ROBERTS
Mayoral candidate Penfield Tate joined Jamie Giellis in a Team of Rivals announcement on the steps of City Hall after the May 7 election.
Michael Roberts
We must stop treating our homeless people with contempt and start treating them with compassion. Homelessness is now a regional crisis. Four cities in the metro region, including Denver, have camping bans, and more are considering them. There is no coordinated approach between any of these municipalities to address the regional homeless crisis beyond moving people around to ensure they aren’t camping on our public spaces. Non-profits invested in homeless work are so busy competing for their own resources that looking at a bigger picture is a challenge. As the largest city in the region, Denver must initiate compassionate, regional solutions and create meaningful partnerships with our neighbors to implement them. You, Mayor, are the one to lead the charge. Let’s stop working in silos and start working in coordination. Those experiencing homelessness must be provided shelter, services and housing. The mental health dollars we voted for last November should be used strategically and leveraged to build facilities that can serve missing needs. Financial resources should be coordinated and delivered strategically to intervene where impact is greatest.

First- and last-mile transportation needs to come with a commitment to efficiency and affordability. The dedicated transportation department you are asking the voters to approve in November is a good step. But what is the plan to deliver transit? Our city is approaching gridlock, and we are out of time. The voters need to see urgency on your part. They need to hear how, and when, you will deliver real, affordable, intra-city transit.

Our air cannot be further polluted by congestion, fracking and refineries. It must be clean and safe to breathe for us and our kids. We have to identify the particulates in our air and create a step-by-step plan to clean them up. We must push for stronger building requirements that alleviate development impacts to the environment as we grow. We must value the limitations of our water supply and the importance of a clean South Platte River, one of our city’s greatest natural assets. And you must engage us all to lead on fighting climate change, as city leaders around the world are doing.

We need to improve our schools by implementing robust after-school programs, offering inter-generational mentorships to connect seniors and students, encouraging a restorative justice system of discipline, and paying our teachers more. Our kids and our families are critical to our city’s future, and yet little has been done to fight for their welfare from within City Hall.

Perhaps the most common sentiment I heard on the campaign trail is that we need a leader who will help rebuild and reconnect our community. Our residents need it even more so after a campaign that went extraordinarily negative. Strengthen the Registered Neighborhood Organization program, better engage the Inter Neighborhood Cooperation, and show up in our communities on a regular basis.

As Jane Jacobs, the legendary urban studies scholar wrote, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” So please, Mayor Hancock, let’s reignite the city’s conversation around building up and amplifying the voices of Denver’s communities of color. To our Latino, African American, refugee and immigrant communities who have been stifled in their own pursuit of a high quality of life by historical oppression and institutional barriers like low wages, overuse of jails and incarceration, struggling schools and lack of housing and health care: The city must stand ready to reinvest in your communities, stem the tide of displacement, and magnify the reach of your grassroots organizations. I hope the Mayor will commit to listening closely to learn more about your lived experiences, and will represent your needs not only in policy, but also in personnel. Because our leaders only succeed when they can see the city through the eyes of the people who work and play and struggle and thrive here every day.

Finally, Mayor, I hope you will commit to creating a culture where all city employees feel safe in the workplace — where ethical behavior, transparent decision-making and accountability are paramount in every corner of city government.

A new era is upon us, and it must be for the people. Mayor Michael B. Hancock, welcome to your third term as our mayor. As a city, we are truly at a crossroads. Please don’t sell our soul.

Mayoral challenger Jamie Giellis faced Michael Hancock in the June 4 runoff.

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