Denver Mayor Michael Hancock on Monday delivered his second State of the City address, discussing plans for homeless and housing, as well as uplifting somewhat forgotten neighborhoods like Elyria-Swansea and Globeville. He also focused on poising Denver to be a globally connected city.
It was fitting that Hancock delivered his remarks surrounded by vintage cars at the Forney Museum of Transportation on Brighton Boulevard. The north Denver community became the focus of his revitalization remarks.
His sizable audience was comprised of many dignitaries including most of the City Council, Auditor Dennis Gallagher, Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson and District Attorney Mitch Morrissey.
Former Denver mayors Gov. John Hickenlooper, Wellington Webb and Bill Vidal also attended. The audience also included House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, and several other state lawmakers who represent districts in Denver, including Sen. Lucia Guzman, a reverend who offered the invocation.
When the Denver Municipal Band Brass Ensemble finished blowing notes through the expansive museum space and local safety agencies completed the presentation of colors, Hancock began his speech, promising that blighted neighborhoods like Elyria-Swansea and Globeville have not been forgotten. He said the city is focused on reconnecting the historic neighborhoods for a better future.
“With a coordinated push on six key projects we will vastly improve the health of the South Platte River; turn Brighton Boulevard into an inviting gateway to downtown; reconstruct I-70 in a way that reconnects these neighborhoods and businesses; deliver more accessibility with new commuter and light rail stations; implement neighborhood revitalization plans; and partner with the National Western Stock Show to create a year-round destination,” Hancock said.
He followed by thanking National Western Stock Show officials for committing to stay in the city after threatening to leave the north Denver neighborhood over concerns with an outdated facility.
As the mayor acknowledged the need for revitalization in the rundown neighborhood, protesters outside picketed against a proposal to reconstruct Interstate 70.
The Colorado Department of Transportation proposal calls for replacing the elevated portion of I-70 with a below-grade portion that would widen the highway to 10 express lanes, including four frontage lanes. Neighbors say the reconstruction would further isolate the neighborhoods from the rest of the city.
Instead, the communities would rather see an alternative plan that calls for rerouting traffic north of the current alignment onto Interstate 76 and Interstate 270. This would also include a surface boulevard along Brighton that would funnel traffic into downtown Denver. The neighborhoods believe this would make the route the gateway to the city.
But north Denver residents are furious. They held signs outside that expressed fears over pollution associated with the proposed I-70 reconstruction project. One protester wore a gas mask and held a sign that read, “I-70 is a gas!” A family outside held a sign that read, “Mayor Hancock fight for our children!”
“We have tried to meet with the mayor on four separate occasions, he only sends us his subordinates,” lamented Thad Tecza, who led the protest outside the State of the City address.
Following his remarks, Hancock told The Colorado Statesman that his administration has been listening carefully to the concerns of residents.
“I’ve been in the community, in neighborhood meetings over the past couple of years and we have had our neighborhood director, chief project officers and chief of staff in neighborhood meetings as well,” said the mayor. “It’s not about sending subordinates, it’s about serving the entire city while also addressing this very critical issue… we’ve had the most senior people in the administration in these neighborhoods over the past two years.”
Hancock does not believe that progress ends with revitalization of blighted Denver communities, though he highlighted how “30 FasTracks stations across the region are strengthening our neighborhoods and providing access to jobs, health care, parks, culture and healthy foods.”
But he said growth also includes becoming a global city, adding, “By strengthening our neighborhoods, we strengthen our city’s global connectivity.”
The FasTracks expansion project — which includes a line from Union Station to Denver International Airport, slated for completion in 2016 — is expected to encourage international travel to the Mile High City. A new nonstop flight to Tokyo is also expected to activate Denver as an international city that connects the Rocky Mountain region with business opportunities in Asia.
“I’m excited about the potential along this new line,” Hancock said of the East Rail Line. “I am even more excited about leveraging the biggest economic engine in the region to drive job creation and growth on a globally competitive scale.”
The mayor also announced a new initiative aimed at supporting international business, foreign visitors and immigrant residents with an International Welcome Center. Hancock said the center will “open the city’s arms and establish Denver as a global destination for commerce, trade and culture.”
“Denver is strong — poised to get stronger — and primed to compete in the global marketplace,” he declared.
Housing and homeless
But the mayor stressed that in order to become a globally connected city, Denver must also address issues that leave a black eye, such as available affordable housing and the homeless.
“Last year, when City Council passed the unauthorized camping ordinance, I signed it into law because we cannot as a civilized society — as a global city — allow men, women and children to sleep on the streets,” explained Hancock.
After supporting the ban on urban camping, homeless advocates have criticized the mayor for taking a less sympathetic approach to the city’s poorest citizens. Denver Homeless Out Loud says there are negative effects to the urban camping ordinance for those living in Denver without a house.
The organization has been calling for a formal working group to address the needs for safe spaces to sleep and to provide services instead of telling homeless individuals to simply “move along.”
But the mayor highlighted continued progress, including using recreation centers and other city buildings to provide shelter for an average 225 homeless men and women on cold winter nights. He also said the city has connected 1,200 homeless individuals and families with service providers and resources.
Hancock pointed to a proposal for a 24-hour Rest and Resource station that would offer basic services. And the city has also proposed a courtyard to also serve the homeless.
“We are taking critical steps forward in our plan to stem chronic homelessness and to address the changing face of homelessness that includes children, families and veterans,” said the mayor.
But housing still remains a problem, he acknowledged. Hancock said the city’s so-called Inclusionary Housing Ordinance has failed.
The ordinance requires developers to provide affordable housing units. But issues have arisen in which developers are hesitant about building because of the mandate, and sellers have found depleting property values and restrictions on listing prices have devalued the initiative.
The mayor pointed out that the city needs 25,000 more affordable housing units. He encouraged nonprofits, businesses and banks to volunteer their support.
“Denver’s Inclusionary Housing Ordinance has failed,” said the mayor. “Its unbalanced requirement of developers to provide affordable units is plagued with loopholes and inconsistencies.
“We have begun to overhaul this broken ordinance, in partnership with the Denver Housing Authority and City Council,” Hancock continued.
Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz, the only Republican who sits on the nonpartisan Council, was encouraged to hear the mayor acknowledge the failing ordinance.
“I have been saying this is one of the worst laws on the books,” she said. “It’s based on a fundamentally flawed concept. And for him to say that it is broken is a real step in the right direction. Whether it can truly be fixed is a matter of opinion.”
Faatz, however, sees it from the business side. She said a mandate to build a percentage of affordable housing discourages development, which only exacerbates the city’s housing dilemma.
“We’re telling people they can’t lawfully do business unless we are able to extort money from them, or extort value there,” opined Faatz.
Faatz, however, does believe that the mayor’s global initiative will help to encourage businesses and development in the city.
“I do like the idea of the global outreach to the extent we can create more economic development, that way the better it’s going to be for everyone,” she said.
Faatz was also pleased to hear the mayor announce plans for an online tool that will allow citizens to see exactly how much the city is spending. The program is being called “Transparent Denver,” which will offer residents real-time access to the city’s checkbook. It was officially rolled out on Wednesday.
“Having that transparency program is something that I have been wanting for some time,” said Faatz, a self-proclaimed fiscal conservative. “I am very glad that is going to be up and going.”
See the July 19 print edition for full photo coverage.