Denver: A city trying to find balance (Long Form)


On the surface, Denver is a typical burgeoning metropolis with the suite of common urban challenges.

The home of Bronco nation is known for sleek infrastructure, majestic mountains, and has become a millennial magnet with its flourishing job market, a booming tech hub, notable eatery and brewery options, and now legal budding bud scene.

But urban amenities such as these often arrive with the usual growing pains attached to high development regions: problematic traffic, rising home prices, racial income inequality, and the eventual gentrification.

Initially, these issues were my core focus during my week visit to the city nestled on the western edge of the High Plains.

But the more topical story to highlight is that the Mile-High city is a case study in the enormous difficulty a well-intentioned town faces when attempting to provide economic opportunity parity in the 21st century.

A City with a Plan

Denver is, without question, cognizant of its societal inadequacies.

To altruistically modernize the 19th most populous city, Denver’s civil servants are utilizing high tech initiatives to address key problems.

Denver’s “Smart City Vision” claims to, “Create a replicable, scalable, world-class Smart City Program that provides ALL users flexible, affordable, and accessible multimodal options.”

Its mission is to, “Provide the bridge between the people, services, goods, travel choices, information, and technology, allowing for engagement, accessibility, adoptability, and adaptability while being flexible enough to continually evolve, learn” align with the cities desire to transform into a ‘smart city’.

In regards to housing, the city has put forth a 10-year $150 million housing plan supporting the construction of new affordable mixed-income units. Additionally, in late 2017, the city launched a temporary rental assistance program aimed at ensuring people can reside in their homes for half a year in the face of unforeseen financial turmoil.

The city is also working to vigorously connect people with jobs, including the homeless, in upcoming areas along with including a Community College of Denver program to establish a digital employment platform highlighting opportunities with local businesses.

Just three weeks ago, the city’s mayor, Michael Hancock, hosted a Facebook Live event that examined gentrification’s impact on his town. (The mayor was joined by a self-proclaimed “elite panel” on various housing issues.)

And this past election cycle, Denverites, by an overwhelming majority, voted for the city’s costliest-ever collection of capital projects. The $937 million bond package includes financing for re-pavement work, additional funds for work on transportation and mobility, Denver’s Health and Hospital Authority’s outpatient Ambulatory Care Center, public safety projects, the city’s library system, parks and recreation center, and an expansion of public facilities.

More Growth, More Problems

Yet, amidst the sweet clean crisp air of the Rocky Mountains, there is a justifiable scent of discontent centered around the impact of the town’s growth.

One afternoon I meet Amir, a graduate school friend who is a computer engineer transplant from LA that now works for a tech start-up in Denver, and his friends. We lounge at Habit Doughnut Dispensary, a colorful café that serves cannabis-infused as well as regular donuts, artisan coffee, and the standard set of alcoholic beverages.

The place is emblematic of the intersection of Denver’s urbanization: Millennials are sipping on cortados and silently pecking away at their laptops on bar facing high tables, while older customers are collectively reviewing printed out PowerPoints charts over craft beers in the back room. The walls are plastered with poems, ironic artwork, and quotes from 20th century white American authors. Patrons can jot down their thoughts on the bathroom walls. (Some comments for viewing were, “Democracy is the tyranny of many”, “Individual is an idea, one is a reality.” and “You are all the reason why Donald Trump won.”).

Amir, and other patrons willing to chat about their home, welcomed civic initiatives attempting to tackle Denver’s chronic challenges, but reticently believed it will counter the source of all the area’s issues — the city’s precipitous growth.

Amir admits,“I, and many others, came here hoping to escape the crowded corridors of California. But, the way things are going, I think we may have made a mistake choosing Denver.”

Their trepidation has merit. Despite a slight decline in its growth rate last year, Denver has opened its door to a swell of newcomers over the past few decades. From 1990 to 2013, Denver’s population increased 39 percent and in 2016 Denver was the fastest growing large city in America. The home of John Elway now boasts the 3rd most cranes among major metropolises in America.

The antipathy is not targeted towards the newcomers (anecdotally, Denverites are quite friendly), but the development of unaffordable housing concerns many.

Since 2000, houses in the backyard of the Colorado Avalanche have risen from an average of $100,000 to $450,000. Denver rental prices spiked 5.9 percent in 2017; among major cities, only Seattle and Portland experienced more pronounced increases in rents.

Denver’s Mass Exodus OF POC

None of this is lost on the mayor. In a recent interview, Mr. Hancock explains, “Now, it (economic and population growth) took off — it took off in a way that none of us could have imagined. I’m proud of how we’ve been able to recover and thrive since the recession. Growth jumped on us faster than ever in our history.”

To address the issue of housing and gentrification, the mayor is presiding over a slew of urban renewal projects, grouped together under the moniker North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative (NDCC). The efforts are decoupled into six separate initiatives: new neighborhood plans for the areas Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, the redevelopment of Brighton Boulevard (another neighborhood), the River North (RiNo) district and the National Western Stock Show.

And Denver isn’t done expanding. An additional development of transit is also underway, and after 14 years of stalled efforts, the construction of the controversial I-70 Project: a sinking and widening a section of the highway, creating a park on top of it, with an intent to connect lower income communities to core business districts will finally be built.

But many feel these efforts are too late, minimal, and overall disappointing. The one area already in the works of being revitalized, the RiNo district, has already been socially engineered as an art district engulfed with posh restaurants and co-working spaces for tech entrepreneurs.

For years, locals have claimed that the city neglected improving north-eastern neighborhoods and communities of color. A paltry amount of the enormous economic gains Denver has made in the past decade has gone to minorities and lower income communities.

Recently, Denver has experienced a visible exodus of black and brown folk. Over the past 18 years, Northside — a predominantly Latino community — has seen its Latino population dwindle from 70 percent to 35 percent. Five Points, a historically African American community once filled with Jazz clubs and black owned businesses, has seen its share of black residents diminish to 20 percent. In the last year, the majority of those who left the city where individuals of color.

The failures of the city’s Black mayor

In my discussion with many local minorities, their despair stems from initially viewing Mayor Hancock’s administration as a beacon of hope — a visibility into the forgotten and under-represented members of the community (overall Denver’s population is only 10 percent black and, historically and never hovered above 12 percent).

During the 1986 Denver Broncos Super Bowl season, Michael Hancock was the Broncos mascot, “Huddles”, making $25 an hour. At 29 years old, Hancock was the youngest leader of an Urban League chapter anywhere in America. He was national recognized for creating a successful job training program and built private sector partnerships with companies like Qwest, Comcast and AT&T. Aside from Wellington Webb, Denver’s Mayor from 1991–2003, Hancock is the other African American to have they keys to the Mile-High city. Among major cities, Mayor Hancock is one of six black mayors in America and the only one in a predominantly Caucasian region.

As Mr. Hancock gears up to run for a third-term, critics lambast his perceived coziness with developers. Of the $1.3 million raised for this election, roughly $159,000 came from real estate professionals or developers. Hancock’s Chief of Staff, Janice Sinden, was head of Colorado Concern, a group of high powered business moguls. During his previous mayoral bid, Hancock threw a Mardi Gras fundraiser (masks were heavily encouraged) that prominently included big name developers (Two guests, developers Cal Fulenwider and Pat Hamill, developed large chunks of land near Denver International Airport and have maintained strong ties to Hancock).

Hancock denounces this perception. In an interview with the Denver Post, the mayor argues, “So it is off-base — and actually, it lacks academic sense — to say the mayor is influencing this development or is too development-friendly, when in reality it’s the market that’s driving the development. I think that’s what’s been missing. It’s hard to explain that when you’re in a public setting and people think you’re responsible for all the growth.”

One afternoon in late January, a few employees from the mayor’s office are kind enough to walk and talk with me around Cherry Creek, another neighbor with an eclectic mix of new and old residents and businesses. I ask them if they feel the mayor had an extra burden on his shoulder to usher in broader prosperity to communities of color or if he is disappointed that there hasn’t been a ‘rising tide’ effect economically lifting all demographics of Denver.

With a typical polite Denver demeanor, they largely avoid answering both questions. Instead, they point to the overall macro growth gains and emphasize the opportunity the infusion of technology can bring to all Denverites. They gleefully and frequently bring up the cities plan to be a smart city.

Denver’s “smart” future

In a public-private partnership that will surely be a sign of things to come for burgeoning metropolises, Denver recently teamed up with Panasonic to build “smart city” infrastructure around the city’s airport.

The project, called CityNow, is developing the blueprint digital highway, autonomous vehicles. Panasonic and the city have already installed LED street lighting. As part of their Smart Streets initiative this includes public safety cameras, environmental sensing, parking management, interactive kiosks and community-wide Wi-Fi.

In addition to a completed microgrid and a plethora of IoT (Internet of Things) connected devices, the smart city center includes the funding of a $72 million contract with the U.S. Department of Transportation to create infrastructure and technology for connected vehicles. The project is built to prove the efficacy of high capacity batteries in a microgrid and will tuck into a broader enterprise that includes a 1.3-Megawatt AC canopy solar installation to serve the grid and generate backup power.

No one can deny the sizeable benefits a large-scale project like this will potentially carry: a lower carbon footprint for the region, a modern community hub that can connect businesses, additional revenue for the city, and a potential blueprint for other cities who wish to incorporate the latest innovations into city planning.

But one must remember industrial dynamism doesn’t necessarily translate into economic inclusiveness.

Opportunity and not accessibility, in Denver, has always been the main hurdle for low income communities in their quest for social mobility. As other high-tech hubs have proven, a potential mecca of engineers that can work on microgrid projects, autonomous vehicles, and other digital enterprises only entice more top brass white collar workers to move to the area. Historically, mass high-skilled migration often pushes up housing prices, displaces natives, and further widens income inequality.

And as the Mayor inadvertently admits, markets have a larger impact, than government, in dictating economic winners and losers.

In my week in Denver I spoke to over 200 individuals. The main theme that weaved throughout all my discussions were “we know there are problems, we’d like to fix them, we don’t how, but I wish I had the time to figure it out”.

As individuals keep migrating to the capital of Colorado, it will remain to be seen if its leaders plan for a futures that strikes the crucial medium between robust growth and universal prosperity. Because for many Denver citizens, the time for figuring out that balance has long passed.

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