As metro Denver continues to expand at a rapid clip, issues like transportation, affordable housing and development are front-of-mind for five city mayors.
Many residents are pushing back on the notion of adding more developments even as rail lines get delayed, housing becomes more expensive and roads are left unmaintained.
And those growing pains mean a need for both money and assistance from state leaders to improve citizen access to those systems, which is critical to healthy, sustained growth in the future, said the mayors from Aurora, Denver, Greenwood Village, Lakewood and Northglenn.
The five mayors spoke at the Denver Business Journal’s annual “State of the Cities: Mayor’s Economic Forum.” The event, sponsored by the City of Aurora, drew business and political leaders to the Westin Denver Downtown hotel Jan. 11.
The mayors did applaud the economic vitality of the region, somethingDenver Mayor Michael Hancock said would ensure that metro Denver continued being competitive.
“This region has a lot to celebrate — we’ve seen phenomenal economic growth in the last several years,” he said. “We’ve seen tens of thousands of jobs created, companies coming to the region — we have a lot to celebrate."
But, like the other mayors, he said that same prosperity has exposed problems.
“With tremendous growth, and Denver’s economic renaissance, the issues of housing and mobility and managing growth really become the agenda. That’s where we’re going to focus,” he said.
Hancock said the region owes more to the individuals that are getting left behind — the same individuals who helped shape the new economy — as they deserve an opportunity to participate in what he referred to as an economic renaissance.
“We all have challenges — as good as we have it, it can get better,” said Steve Hogan, who’s been mayor of Aurora since 2011, of extending prosperity to all.
‘We’re not all the same’
The metro area has seen a tremendous influx of population in the past few years. The growth rate of Colorado is almost twice the national population increase, according to a December 2017 report from the U.S. Census Bureau.
“There are people continually moving in — there’s just a lot happening,” Hogan said.
Lakewood Mayor Adam Paul, elected in 2015, said his community has started to feel the pressures of both a population and development influx, and it even has created some anti-growth sentiment.
“It’s been of great concern to me as mayor,” Paul said. “It’s important to me that we keep our community moving forward.”
In Lakewood, a plan that could potentially add an extra approval measure for residential buildings over 40 units could be passed later this year. A recent city council vote gave slow-growth supporters a one vote majority on the council.
Greenwood Village citizens appear to share that sentiment. Residents rejected a plan that would have allowed the construction of amixed-use development around the Orchard Station light-rail stop last summer. The special election, which concluded June 6,sent a strong message against increasing the density of development.
“[The] vote of the people was loud and clear that they didn’t want to see comprehensive plan change,” said Ron Rakowsky, who became mayor of Greenwood Village following the 2010 resignation of then-Mayor Nancy Sharpe. “The culture of our city is one of open space.”
Rakowsky said that density, like beauty, was “in the eye of the beholder.” He said Greenwood Village residents support Denver’s dense downtown area, but they do not want the same thing.
“Other areas support us, and we support them,” he said. “We’re not all the same, we don’t want to all be the same. We want individuality — that’s our key to success.”
Asked if rejecting greater growth pushes it out to other areas, Rakowsky said no. But Paul said in some areas that have isolated themselves with growth restrictions, the sprawl does push out.
And that means a conversation about managing growth developed into one of sustainability and smart growth is necessary, the mayors agreed.
In November of 2017, the green roof initiative passed, though the official version of the plan is subject to change. The initiative will require any new building that’s 25,000 square feet or larger to include a green roof or combination of green roof and solar energy collection. The initiative’s website says that it will not increase taxes, but rather put the cost on developers and building owners. In November’s general election, voters passed the ordinance. It’s a push that affirmed the culture of environmental friendliness among metro cities.
Hancock said that while many are still trying to figure out what the impact of the initiative will be on Denver, green-friendly designs have been a part of the conversation for a while. Hogan added that they’re just not loudly broadcast.
“The city of Aurora has won a national challenge on water conservation three years in a row — that’s the ultimate sustainability in terms of our lifestyle,” he said. “We all do it, we just don’t see a need to blow our individual horns about it. It’s part of the culture.”
Citing the success of Denver Water’s “use only what you need” campaign, Hancock agreed with Hogan, noting that Denver water usage in the city continues to stay at a reasonable rate.
“Sustainability is not something we are reacting to today, these are things we started working on years ago,” he said.
Rakowsky agreed, adding that it’s “built into the culture.”
Lakewood has a comprehensive sustainability plan, Paul said. Passed by its city council in 2015, the plan includes goals to lessen water and energy use, reduce waste and for the city to minimize its greenhouse gases. He said regions should be more vocal about the pre-construction precautions taken by developers.
“Developers pay for a lot upfront; they pay for infrastructure, and sustainability is a big part of those plans,” he said. “Next year we’d like to get out in front of the community and talk a lot more about these things to educate residents.”
Carol Dodge, elected as Northglenn mayor in 2017, said the city looks to larger communities as an example in the hopes it can devote more resources to sustainability in the future. Northglenn has a population of about 35,000 people, whereas Denver has almost 700,000 people and Aurora has about 361,710 residents.
‘Approaching crisis level’
The statewide transportation issue is approaching crisis level, according to Hogan.
He said Aurora is $18 million-a-year short on what they need just to maintain city streets — not to build, but simply to manage. The bickering at the Legislature has brought no answers, he added.
“For the last couple years, metro mayors and the Denver chamber have talked about how we can address the issue of transportation, but nothing has happened at our level or the Legislature. It becomes a problem for all of us,” Hogan said.
Hogan told those in attendance to urge state leaders to act and make decisions that will help allocate more money to transportation both citywide and statewide.
“We ought to be talking about a sales tax increase for a defined period of time, and some of that money needs to go into mobility,” he said.
Hancock, when speaking about Denver, said lanes have been installed for bikes and buses, though the majority of the population still drives. He said that the transition of culture takes time.
Mobility action plans are about choices — giving residents the choice to bus, bike, walk or drive somewhere, he said.
“We’re not widening, adding, or building new streets — it’s about being smarter with our streets,” Hancock said.
The other mayors agreed.
Rakowsky added that metro Denver needs to expand the Regional Transportation District’s (RTD) commuter- rail routes in the northern suburbs as much as it has in the southern.
“We want to get as many people on the light rail as we have in cars,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you take away the car option. It means you balance it.”
He said that for the billions taxpayers have invested in RTD, they need to get the return on it — particularly in speeding the train up. He said stops take too long on the way to Union Station.
Dodge said that RTD is a “sore point” in the north area, because it doesn’t have stations that connect to Denver. RTD has delayed plans to expand the commuter rail tracks through north Denver, Commerce City, Northglenn, Thornton and north Adams County.
“RTD has pushed the opening that was supposed to be in 2018 to early 2020,” Dodge said. “And that’s a concern for us. We would love to see the north area get [commuter] rail.”
To improve transportation, Dodge said Northglenn hopes to partner with businesses and developers, as well as CDOT and RTD to get projects done quicker.
‘Let’s get something done’
All the mayors agreed on one major point — for there to be impactful change on everything from affordable housing to greater resources for health, there needs to be greater legislative action.
“Whether it’s transportation, mental health, growth concerns — whether it’s any other set of issues — urge your state leaders to act,” Hogan said. “Push on your legislators and everyone on the state level to take actions that need to be taken.”
Hancock cited public and private partnerships as a means of getting projects done. Though it is a departure from the traditional design-bid-build model, it has proven successful — especially in the case of Union Station, which involved a public-private partnership between RTD, the city and private companies.
“Let’s get something done,” Hogan said.
2017 Denver-Area Zip Codes with the Highest Median Income
Ranked by 2017 Median Household Income
Rank ZIP Code 2017 Median Household Income 1 80454 $104,820 2 80127 $104,763 3 80481 $103,801 View This List
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