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Mayor Michael Hancock Talks About Cops, Pot and "Growing Smart"

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With a million-dollar war chest, the deadline past for any new candidates and a lack of strong opposition, Michael B. Hancock is a shoo-in for re-election as Denver’s mayor on May 5. Over the past four years he’s presided over a roaring economy, the rollout of recreational marijuana sales, and a string of high-ticket, sometimes contentious redevelopment projects along what he calls “the Corridor of Opportunity,” from Union Station to the National Western Complex to Denver International Airport. Just how does Hancock, whose favorite words may well be “activate,” “grow smart” and “reconnectivity,” appraise his own efforts in dealing with the city’s red-hot growth, and what projects are dear to his heart for a second term? We caught up with the once-and-future mayor at his office last week to find out.

Alan Prendergast: You’re running for a second term as mayor after four very eventful years, with very few challengers. What do you consider the most significant accomplishment of your first term?

Mayor Michael Hancock: I think turning around the financial structure of the city was the biggest priority that we had. Coming in, we knew we had a problem, and the financial task force that was enacted by Mayor [Bill] Vidal indicated we had to move to fix the structural problem. It wasn’t just a recessionary problem. Our costs were growing faster than our revenues; we had TABOR as a cap, and it was creating bigger challenges for us. The biggest accomplishment was being able to communicate those complex financial challenges to the public — that if we make this tough decision to de-Bruce the city, we can get the city moving again. The renaissance the city has since experienced is a direct result of the public and my administration working together to make that change. That vote was pretty significant.

What was your greatest frustration of the past four years?

I wouldn’t say there was one particular great frustration. Every day you walk in, there are different types of challenges that occur. We are growing exponentially as a city. But whether it’s police issues or an issue that occurs in north Denver or south Denver, a zoning matter, we always have some challenge that presents itself. I’ve always directed my team that it’s not so much the challenge as how we respond to it, how we turn it into an opportunity. It might get rockier before it gets better, but at least we deal with the problem and not the symptom.

The comprehensive plan for redevelopment of the National Western Complex calls for a commitment from the city of close to $700 million — and probably more at buildout. How do you persuade voters (who will have to approve the extension of tourism-related taxes, if not new taxes) that this is a good deal for all of Denver?

I think that’s really the crux of it. It’s a taxing tool that we have already deployed — and is really paid for mostly by those who visit our city and rent cars in our city. So it’s without a tax increase to the people of Denver. It’s redeploying those resources in a different direction. One, expanding our convention center; two, creating overall opportunity for a convention center and repurposing a critical area of our city. Creating new jobs, creating reconnectivity with four communities that, quite frankly, have been underserved for a long time. And creating a new destination for us; the amenities that are part of this plan create a huge new asset for the people of Denver. It makes us more globally competitive on the tourism front, the convention front, as well as the entertainment and agricultural fronts.

There are lots of moving parts to this — environmental cleanup, a riverfront park, a new arena, transit stations, new shops, infrastructure. How do you anticipate keeping it moving forward without the kind of cost overruns that we’re seeing in the hotel and station project at DIA?

Obviously, you want to try to control the costs as much as possible. The really exciting thing about the diversity of projects and elements that we’ve outlined for the National Western Center is that it creates the opportunity for a lot of different types of financing. Not all of this will be borne by the public. This will be, clearly, a public-private partnership. The arena is an example of a project that can be monetized by the private sector. Colorado State University coming in, building their own facilities — not borne by the taxpayers of Denver or part of our financing elements. The National Western owns some of that land that can be put under this project, leveraging that land to help develop it. I like to call it lasagna financing; financial people call it financial stacking. But it’s similar to what we did at Union Station. When we started that project and had a big hole in the ground, the City of Denver didn’t have a strategy, didn’t know where the dollars were going to come from. But based on the elements themselves, once you start to break them out, you begin to find a diversity of potential funding opportunities.

Let’s talk about development elsewhere. Neighborhood groups are saying they’re feeling overwhelmed by the pace of new construction, the increasing traffic and congestion. Your planning board has been gung-ho about high-density projects in a number of areas — including Sloan’s Lake, Cherry Creek North, the Buckley Annex — that many longtime residents regard as destabilizing and out of character with the neighborhood. What are you doing to address their concerns?

When we came into office, we were in the depths of the greatest economic recession we’ve seen in this city — in this nation’s history, for that matter. As a result of some changes with regard to the promotion of industries and previous investment in our infrastructure and amenities in this city, we are a destination. We grew by about 100,000 people in the last census. When you grow at this rate, which we have not seen in the history of this city since the turn of the century, you must step back and say, “What must we do to accommodate this growth?”

We have completed innumerable transportation plans that allow us to implement wider sidewalks, new roads, reconnectivity of roads; I-70 is part of that thinking as well. Understanding where density ought to be in the city, TODs [transit-oriented development] become an opportunity, while at the same time focusing on affordable housing. So when you ask what we’re doing, there isn’t anything that we’ve worked on harder since we’ve been here. How do we make sure our infrastructure can accommodate growth? How do we grow smart and develop even smarter? And how do we also honor the really historic and special places our neighborhoods provide?

This is about being neighborhood-driven. There isn’t a city in this nation that has as robust of a community engagement process around development and zoning as the City of Denver. I’ve not seen it anywhere. I’ve been all over this country, I’ve worked with mayors who look at Denver and say, “How do you engage so many people?”

While there may be people who disagree with what’s being proposed, we still must move within the spirit of the law. There are limits to how much the city can impede on a developer’s right to develop where the law says you can do so. I believe a balance between growth and good development has to occur, and that the city council and my administration have to play their roles in doing that. That’s also why we have a planning board of community members who have to measure that.

I think it’s working. In poll after poll that we’ve seen and done, 75 percent of the people believe the city is going in the right direction.

Do you think it’s a conflict for members of your planning board to be working directly with developers who are seeking planning-board approval for zoning changes?

That is a case-by-case basis. If there are planning-board members who are directly related to, or engaged in, or can benefit from a development, then absolutely, there should be a recusal on that project itself. It’s not been brought to my attention, but if I was aware of that, it’s one of the things we would encourage.

A few days ago you broke ground for 64 acres of new parks. But some park advocates have been highly critical of your administration over the Hentzell Park deal [which traded open space to Denver Public Schools in exchange for an office building downtown] and the plan to install a “regional attraction” called City Loop in City Park, a proposal that was abandoned after community protests. How would you respond to those critics, including former Mayor Wellington Webb, who have questioned your stewardship of the parks?

My administration has moved quickly to dedicate more parks than — quite frankly, there were parks under Mayor Webb’s administration that weren’t dedicated. We’ve dedicated quite a few acres of parks. With regard to Hentzell, you’re alluding to the letter that went out — it was a politically deceptive letter. It was wrong. We did not turn the land over to developers. In fact, we built a school there, a sorely needed school. More of that space has been dedicated as a result of that project; it was just open space, and we dedicated it as a park. And DPS has done a wonderful job of honoring the open-space characteristics of the area by making it a part of the campus and keeping the natural habitat that was there.

The reality is, it turns out to be a tremendous asset. We listened to that community, and they said we needed schools. There were kids taking classes in trailers over there. We had a chance to not only dedicate park space, but to build a great school and alleviate some of the crowding.

We are standing firm on building more and more acreage of parks. I am a big guardian and promoter of parks. While I was on city council in northeast Denver, I built the second-largest park in the city’s inventory. I understand their impact on the quality of life in neighborhoods and the quality of life in our city. That’s also why I’m co-chair of the national Mayors for Parks; we’re working with Congress to keep funding available to cities to continue to build these types of amenities.

You mentioned policing earlier. In the wake of huge damage awards over excessive force and disturbing videos from inside the city’s detention facilities, what’s your sense of the progress being made to reform the police department and the sheriff’s department?

I’m waiting on the final report from our consultants who are working on the sheriff’s. If you asked me what was the second-biggest opportunity/challenge when I came in, I would say the police department. We had a chance to reconstruct the leadership and begin to move this department forward in a different direction. I can tell you I’m proud of what Chief White and his leadership team have done. We’ve had some challenges recently with regards to protests and some challenges with individual officers — not unlike some other cities. We will deal with them effectively, and I trust Chief White and his administration to do that.

But this goes back to what I said to you earlier. While I’m here, we’re not going to just address symptoms. We want to go down to the cause of the problem. We came in, and there was a serious cultural challenge within the police department. So we dove deeper, and we’re getting to the heart of it, and we’re trying to change it. Some of the pushbacks and concerns by officers and others, that’s not unexpected. You are tapping into a culture that’s been there for decades, and we’re making changes to that.

It’s going to be the same thing with the sheriff’s department. We are here for the people, by the people, of the people. If our processes and our culture are not of the greatest benefit to the people, then we’ve got to make that change. I believe the vast majority of the men and women who wear the badge believe that as well.

Do you believe that body cameras and swifter disciplinary procedures are a significant part of the solution?

Absolutely. We have made body cameras part of the change in our 2015 budget. We’re going to deploy them throughout our patrol operations. And I helped develop the discipline matrix as a task-force member when I was on city council. I wholeheartedly support expeditiously moving discipline forward — not just for the public, but for the police officer.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you at least one question about Denver’s marijuana industry. You opposed Amendment 64 and supported an ordinance that would have made it illegal to smoke pot in your own back yard. What’s your sense of how the arrival of recreational marijuana has affected the city’s image and its tourism business?

That’s where we probably see the biggest concern. We have conventioneers who come in, and they ask about marijuana. How their delegates might come into contact with it, how it might impact their delegates’ ability to participate. The jury is still out on how it’s going to impact tourism. As you know, conventions book years in advance. I haven’t received any indication from Visit Denver that it’s impacted their ability to book tourists or conventions at this point in time. It’s so minimal, the number of tourists who come here because of marijuana, that it doesn’t even measure on our scale of sales tax and hotel rooms.

In general, I have been pleased to work with the industry very closely. They’ve worked with my administration as well as city council to craft these policies, to make sure the regulatory frameworks are in place, and that we are enforcing the laws. They don’t want to see this industry go bad any more than you or I want it to go bad. They are legitimate businessmen and -women who work hard for their resources. They have invested their hard-earned money, and they want to make sure this business continues to do well. I get it.

You have high hopes for a commercially viable “aerotropolis” surrounding DIA. But the project has been delayed by disagreements with Adams County officials over how to share the revenue. Can you tell me what the status of those negotiations is now?

The aerotropolis is not delayed. If you drive between downtown and DIA, you see the aerotropolis in formation as we speak. Stapleton is part of the “Corridor of Opportunity.” National Western is part of it. That whole area between Stapleton and DIA — absolutely under development right now. You see new commercial buildings going in, housing’s going in, hotels are being built. There are cranes there just like there are in downtown Denver. The issue of contention is the airport city, which is in the fence of DIA. We have been in discussions for probably a year now, outside of the public spotlight — which is great, we can get to the meat and bones of it. I’m still under a confidentiality agreement; I can’t talk about the specifics. But I can tell you I’m optimistic that it’s going to get done.

What’s high on your to-do list for a second term?

The second term provides us an opportunity to dig in deeper in terms of our city operations, to become more efficient, more 21st-century-like in our technology and our structure. We’ll continue our efforts around the public-safety department; we knew it was going to be a journey, not a sprint. At the same time, we want to continue to focus on the quality of life in our neighborhoods — continue to build parks, continue to invest in trails and bicycle lanes and wider sidewalks to encourage people to be more active. This is going to be a very active second term. You’re going to see a lot of bold initiatives that are as much about tightening the belt of the city as they are about growing the city.

Is there something important that you wanted to talk about that you think we’ve missed?

When we came in, we had kids, jobs and safety as our first tier of priorities. Kids, in particular — that’s been one of the more enjoyable issues to work on in the city. It’s about bringing all the resources together to impact the quality of life and the healthiness of our children. We have been data-driven in the decisions we’ve made; we know where our most vulnerable children live. As a result of that, we’ve been able to do a couple of things.

With [2012 de-Brucing initiative] 2A, we’ve been able to remove the barrier to our kids getting into our rec centers. We created the My Denver card, and every kid now has free access to our rec-center programs, our pools. They also use it as their library card. They also use it for our museums and cultural facilities. As a result, we see thousands of kids who are in our rec centers, who are getting tutorial services, who are getting meals after school. We are also transforming where our most vulnerable kids live, the ones who are most at risk. We’re transforming places like liquor stores into daycare centers.

At the same time, we’re seeing less incidents of crime among our young people. We’re seeing our graduation rates increase exponentially. Teen pregnancy is down by 60 percent in the city of Denver. Those are the things that we’re looking at and can say we’re making an impact. But we’re doing it with a whole plethora of parts.

The other piece is, as mayor, one of the most important things to me was not to lose contact. It’s easy to get isolated in this office and in the role of mayor. So we went about constructing a community-affairs team that would be my face, my representatives in the community. Obviously, I couldn’t personally be there all the time. Cabinet in the Community is a concept I picked up somewhere from another mayor. I said, what if we went to a neighborhood once a quarter, set up shop, bring the whole cabinet and spend half a day there? Just let people come and touch their director of public works, their police chief, their planning director.

We’ve done fifteen or sixteen of them now. The first time we did it, we probably had 100, 150 residents show up. Now we’re seeing 350, 500 residents show up. People are appreciative that their government is there. I’m there, I have a booth, and people can walk up to me. I do regular neighborhood tours, once every other month, spending a day in the community — going into businesses, schools, rec centers.

The Denver Days [in early August] is part of that, too. How do we celebrate our community-based heritage? How do we get people out to meet their neighbors, to do block parties, to communicate with their police officers? Denver Days has gotten to the point where we now have 200 events all over the city. I probably do thirty of them a year. I’m out in those neighborhoods at barbecues and block parties.

No one has accused you of hiding in your office.

No, they can’t do it. I’m looking at our car. We seldom get on the highway, but we have almost 200,000 miles on this vehicle. It’s all city miles. I want to be the mayor of the community, the mayor that people feel they can approach, they can touch, they know. I want to be like the mayor in Boston who passed away, Mayor [Thomas] Menino, who served for twenty years and a survey said that 98 percent of the people said they’d met the mayor one time. I said, “Now, that’s what I’m talking about.” I won’t be here twenty years, but I want people to know they can touch their mayor.

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