It’s been just over 100 days since Mayor Michael Hancock started his third and final term on July 15, and his administration is still determining the batting order of issues for this last game. While Denver has enjoyed a healthy economy and the population has boomed in recent years, the city’s growing pains have led to very specific concerns, including a lack of affordable housing and an increase in homelessness — problems that Hancock’s challengers pinned on him and that are still far from being solved.
Shortly after Hancock’s re-election, we pointed out areas that would be especially challenging during the mayor’s last term and promised to keep an eye on them. While there’s been little movement on some of the issues, including the arts and Aerotropolis, Hancock has definitely been keeping busy. Here’s an update on some of the major challenges that Denver, and its mayor, face:
Until just a few weeks ago, one of the most important positions in the city, executive director of Community Planning and Development, had been vacant for over a year. On October 7, after the interim director left and was replaced by an interim interim director, Hancock announced that the city had finally filled the position. To no one’s great surprise, he did not pick his opponent, Jamie Giellis, the recommendation we threw out back in June.
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The new director is Laura Aldrete, previously the director of real estate at the airport, and before that a consultant for some of Denver’s biggest projects in the past two decades. She was raised in Denver and will be the first Latina to lead the department. She says she wants to focus on climate change, equity and finding ways to bring historical and cultural context into future Denver.
Community Planning and Development is in the midst of putting Denveright — a three-year citizen-engagement process that produced new vision documents for the city’s next two decades — into play. The results were made official by Hancock in a controversial move before the 2019 election.
In the first 100 days of his new term, the Loretto Heights Area Plan became the first to be approved under the new version of Blueprint Denver and Comprehensive Plan 2040; while some were dismayed that more Latinos didn’t participate in the visioning process for the redevelopment of the historic college campus, many of the stakeholders were excited about its future. Three other major area plans — the East Central Area Plan, the East Area Plan and the West Area Plan — are under way.
“We will not rest until those who are experiencing homelessness can themselves rest with a roof over their heads,” Hancock said emphatically during the inaugural speech of his third term. The advocacy group Denver Homeless Out Loud, which pushed Initiative 300 to repeal the camping ban, was not impressed. Hancock’s voice barely registered over the shouts of some members of the crowd who had taken part in Denver Homeless Out Loud’s “100 Days of Action,” protesting what they saw as the city’s criminalization of essential survival activities.
The mayor’s response to calls to repeal the camping ban has typically been that we can “do better” than allowing residents to live on the streets. He promised to expand shelter access and fund more housing vouchers.
In August, the city announced plans to purchase the Salvation Army’s Crossroads Shelter for $10.5 million. In September, the city officially settled a four-year class-action lawsuit with Denver’s homeless population, represented by attorneys Jason Flores-Williams and Andy McNulty, that primarily dealt with people on the streets’ rights to property and due process. In the settlement, the city agreed to give written notice before large-scale cleanups, as well as before confiscating individual property. It also agreed to put up more portable restrooms, trash cans and storage lockers, utilities that minimize the health and environmental problems the city finds in encampments.
In October, Hancock signed an executive order creating a new Department of Housing Stability, which brings the city’s programs addressing homelessness and housing together under one roof to more strategically address the crisis.
Many street activists say they will not rest until the camping ban is repealed. McNulty is now arguing in court that the camping ban itself is unconstitutional, and Denver Homeless Out Loud is pressuring Denver City Council to introduce a repeal.
The 8 percent spike in homelessness in Denver goes hand in hand with the city’s skyrocketing rent and affordable-housing shortage, something that the city is now formally recognizing with the Department of Housing Stability. When he signed it into existence on October 23, Hancock called the department “Denver’s first great step in the continuation of a journey to be that city that says we believe in compassion and inclusiveness in welcoming all people on the economic scale.” So far, it’s mostly been a bureaucratic shift, but housing advocates are optimistic that the new department will help the city develop a coordinated strategy to address the crisis and hold its own programs accountable.
The city’s draft plan to address affordable housing next year continues efforts outlined in 2018 with the “Housing an Inclusive Denver” program. This year, the city will use the $30 million annual dedicated housing fund to help build new affordable units, as well as programs that help low-income families stay in the housing they have.
Still, the approximately 1,130 new units the city plans to create or preserve, as well as the 9,710 households it plans to serve through assistance programs in 2020, amount to only a drop in the bucket, given that over 100,000 Denverites are considered “cost-burdened,” meaning they spend a large portion of their pay on housing. Despite being touted as a new step forward, the Department of Housing Stability gets one of the smallest slices of the general-fund budget.
As Denver grows, so does the fight to maintain its limited park space. But at least one dispute over green space is closer to being settled.
In early October, the city and Westside Investment Partners, the developer that purchased the Park Hill Golf Course from Clayton Trust, reached a settlement in a lawsuit over the city’s stormwater detention project on the course. Though details of the agreement haven’t been released, it stipulates that Westside must restore the land to a golf course, preserving a twenty-year-old conservation easement. Westside has expressed interest in developing the land, and could take the fight to Denver City Council, the only authority that can reverse the easement.
In a city-issued press release announcing the settlement, Hancock said: “We wanted a guarantee that Denver would have a right to provide input about the property’s future. We know the community values open space, and so do I.”
Indeed, the mayor’s 2020 budget includes $153 million for parks, trails and rec centers, an amount boosted by the $38 million raised by the parks and open space sales tax that Denver voters approved last November. “Our combined investments will dramatically expand access to our parks and recreation centers, improve our parks and recreation facilities, and advance our goal of each resident living within a ten-minute walk of a park,” promised a statement from the mayor’s office regarding the budget allocation.
Under pressure from a new, more progressive council and grassroots climate change activists, Hancock in August announced that the city’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will be united under a newOffice of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency
. In his 2020 budget, the mayor committed an additional $8 million in funding to his administration’s climate programs, but for many activists, that’s still far from enough.
Resilient Denver has successfully petitioned an energy tax to fund climate action onto the 2020 ballot, and if Hancock — who opposed a similar proposal by city council earlier this year — hopes to convince them to withdraw their measure, he’ll have to show that the city is making progress. His administration has launched a “formal process to examine Denver’s current climate work” and recommend changes, which will conclude by May 2020, possibly leading to a revised ballot question.
With scientists warning that deep emissions cuts of nearly 50 percent are needed by 2030, Hancock’s final years in office will be crucial to putting Denver on a trajectory toward achieving those goals. Thanks to state-level policy encouraging utilities like Xcel Energy to shift to renewable energy, the city’s electricity mix is cleaner than ever, but progress in sectors like transportation and buildings — over which the city has a lot more control — has been much slower. Getting Denverites out of gas-powered cars and into public transit and electric vehicles, and beginning the monumental task of shifting the city’s building stock from natural gas to electric heating systems, will be key to hitting emissions targets. And on this more than any other issue, the clock is ticking.
A new state law enacted in May gave local governments in Colorado the power to set their own minimum wage, and Hancock and other Denver leaders didn’t wait long to take full advantage of it. Their proposal would raise the city’s minimum wage to $13.80 an hour starting in January, and then to $15.87 in 2021 — two 15 percent hikes that are the maximum allowed by the new law. Beginning in 2022, the wage would continue to be adjusted every year based on the Consumer Price Index.
Residents long squeezed by flat wages and rising living costs have welcomed the news — though in a series of town halls held on the proposal in October, many stressed that it wasn’t nearly enough. But one group in particular came out swinging against Hancock’s plan: Denver restaurant owners argue that the state’s flawed “tip credit” calculation means that the wage hike will hurt their bottom lines while offering little benefit to tipped employees who often make more than minimum wage anyway.
They’ve asked for the proposal to be put on hold until the legislature can fix the tip credit — but for now, Hancock and city council appear to be forging ahead, with a vote expected sometime in November.
When Hancock appointedPatrick Firman
as sheriff in 2015, he was tasked with reforming the department after a number of high-profile in-custody injuries and deaths cost the city millions of dollars in legal settlements. But the lawsuits continued to pile up during Firman’s tenure, and the man whom Hancock hailed as a reformer turned out to be a dud.
The death knell may have been a lawsuit filed this August by Diana Sanchez, who gave birth unassisted while in a Denver jail. Shortly thereafter, Denver City Council approved a $1.55 million settlement between the city and female sheriff’s deputies who said they had been sexually harassed while working at a jail. Firman announced in September that he’d be stepping down.
The union that represents sheriff’s deputies welcomed Firman’s resignation, saying he had lost the support of the department’s rank-and-file. “We don’t know what our mission is anymore,” Michael Jackson, head of the union, said at an October 14 city council committee meeting about a proposal backed by Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca to make the sheriff an elected position. Hancock’s office has indicated that it opposes CdeBaca’s initiative.
Troy Riggs, executive director of the Department of Public Safety, chose Fran Gomez to take over as interim sheriff. Hancock and Riggs’s search for a permanent successor, whom they have indicated will be picked in the coming months, could be put on hold if CdeBaca’s proposal gains support from a majority on council and lands a spot on the 2020 ballot.
Denver International Airport
Maybe Martians really do live underDenver International Airport
. By this spring, anyone passing through the Great Hall at DIA could see that the renovation project there was not going well, but suggestions of more significant snafus lurking just below the surface — like those Martians — were not enough to derail Hancock’s bid for a third term. Still, while passenger traffic continued to grow, with July breaking all records, airport troubles also compounded.
With work on the Great Hall renovations already looking at a twenty-month delay and cost overruns of more than $400 million, on August 13 DIA CEO Kim Day announced that the city had decided to terminate the $1.8 billion Great Hall Partners’ public-private partnership agreement, which called for Spain-based Ferrovial to not only manage the Great Hall renovation that is moving security to the sixth floor, but also turning much of the newly open terminal space into a giant shopping mall...where Ferrovial would handle the concessionaires for more than three decades.
At that point, the partnership was only a year old, and it was clearly time to pull the plug. Still, Ferrovial shows all signs of being a poor loser, and the amount the city will have to pay to get out of the deal has yet to be determined.
But the news isn’t all bad at the airport.
The expansion projects on the concourses, which call for adding 39 new gates with an increased capacity of 30 percent, continue moving along. The Concourse B-West segment topped out earlier this month and is on track to be finished on time in 2021, Day points out, within the set $1.5 billion budget. That segment will add four gates; the east side of B is getting seven narrow-body gates; A is gaining twelve gates; and C, which had already been expanded for Southwest, is getting another sixteen gates. All three concourses will feature new amenities, including better bathrooms, more charging stations and outdoor patios with seating, fire pits and pet relief areas. (None of the airport’s Gate Expansion Project has been under Ferrovial; instead, the projects are managed by two joint ventures: Turner Construction and Flatiron Construction, and Holder Construction and FCI Constructors.)
On October 17, Day announced that the airport has come up with a new team for the Great Hall Project, with a goal of staying within the original $770 million budget. Stantec is the lead design firm, and Hensel Phelps the preferred construction manager/general contractor for Phase 1; neither are based in a foreign country, and both have strong local reputations. The proposed contracts will move to Denver City Council on November 6; expect councilmembers to read them more closely than they did the Ferrovial deal. Meanwhile, Stantec and Hensel Phelps will begin assessing the site on November 13, the day after Great Hall Partners vacates.
Back in June, we’d warned that Hancock’s third term could be haunted by the “slow drip of bad news about the project.” With the departure of Ferrovial, much of that drip could dry up. But not if the city continues to focus on a very particular leak: whoever shared information about the imminent contract revocation with CBS4 the day before Day’s press conference. Last week, CBS4 again broke news when it revealed that the Denver City Attorney’s Office is going through cell-phone and text records for certain employees on August 12.
That won’t fly.
Colorado Convention Center
Last December, when a city employee determined that certain aspects of the Colorado Convention Center expansion deal didn’t add up, that employee went not to the media, but a supervisor. And before the media could break the story, Denver officials revealed that they were booting both project manager Trammell Crow and Mortenson Construction off the project.
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Now the city is expected to select a design/build firm early in 2020, which puts the project a year behind, but back on sound footing. Among the finalists for the job? The Weitz Company, PCL Constructions Services...and the busy Hensel Phelps.
Read our first installment, “Eleven Big Challenges Hancock Will Face in His Third Term."