“Equity” is the key word as Denver City Council moves a $937 million bond program closer to the ballot

Denver city leaders are promising a 2017 bond program that will address long-standing inequalities between neighborhoods, but some ask: What about housing?

Construction on East Colfax Avenue. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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Construction on East Colfax Avenue. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) denver; colorado; kevinjbeaty; denverite; colfax; development; construction;
The 2017 GO Bond package, half of which goes to transportation and mobility, is heading onward and upward. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

That Denver’s 2017 general obligation bond will right long-standing wrongs and make this city a better place for all its residents is the promise held out by City Council members who voted unanimously Monday to move forward a $937 million bond program, half of which would go to roads, bus infrastructure, sidewalks and bike lanes.

“I am happy as a City Council member to be part of a bond that addresses equity,” said Councilman Paul López, who secured funding for key projects for his West Side district, including a Westwood Recreation Center and a remake of Morrison Road. “Equity is different than equality. Equity levels the playing field to let neighborhoods prove who they are.”

This, even as some community activists decried the lack of funding for housing needs in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. Without housing support, long-suffering residents won’t get to enjoy the fruits of the bond program, they said.

“I’m disappointed we don’t get a say in important dollars coming into our community,” said Rey Gallegos, a fourth generation Globeville resident who wants the city to put money toward a community land trust. “… People who have been here for generations won’t be able to stay in these communities where they have their roots.”

“I know we are going to face a lot of criticism,” López said. “We are already hearing from our critics. But look at the projects.”

Other Globeville and Elyria-Swansea residents urged the City Council to approve the bond package that contains money to redo Washington Street to be safer, to build a pedestrian and bike bridge over the railroad crossing at 47th and York and to complete sidewalks and add bus stops around the neighborhoods — all projects included in neighborhood plans developed with community input over a period of years.

“I come to ask you, please, put in this entire packet for zip code 80216,” said Oscar Gomez, who stayed late to testify with his young daughter, Arizu. “This is not only important for me. It’s important for all our children.”

The large majority of speakers were there to champion specific projects and urge adoption of the entire bond package.

There were the heads of Denver Health, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Denver Art Museum, the Denver Botanic Gardens and the Denver Zoo, whose institutions collectively will get $191 million from this package, 20 percent of all the spending, and whose fundraising capacity and political capital are expected to help carry the bond.

And there were teenagers from Westwood who described being stuck at home because the nearest rec center was too far away and their parents work and can’t shuttle them around town.

“With the rec center, I can go outside and meet other teens and make friends,” said 15-year-old Sayun Toribio. “It would be a place to study. I have two brothers and a sister at home, and I am the oldest, and there is not a lot of time and space to study. It would be the perfect place for me to go and achieve my dreams of going to college.”

Norma Brambila, a longtime Westwood resident and community leader, also used that word: equity.

“The moment has come for a GO Bond to pass a rec center for our community,” she said. “We want equity; we want equality. We don’t want jails or rehab centers for our youth anymore. No more discrimination for our neighborhood.”

A successful amendment from council members López and Rafael Espinoza took $9.8 million from transit infrastructure on Federal Boulevard from Evans to 38th and reallocated that money:

  • $4.2 million will go to Morrison Road improvements, bringing the total for that project to $12.2 million;
  • $850,000 will go to a Central Street Promenade in Highland;
  • $2.85 million will go to pedestrian improvements on Federal Boulevard;
  • and $1.9 million will go toward West Colfax transit enhancements.

Transit is important, but the thinking here is that the Federal transit project ultimately wouldn’t improve mobility along the corridor that much compared to the impact of sidewalk improvements.

“If we really want to make Federal Boulevard a transit corridor, it’s going to take a heck of a lot more than $9.8 million, and it needs to be programmed,” López said. “This is money that we don’t know if it’s for bus shelters, if it’s for dedicated lanes. We heard at one point it was for electric vehicle charging stations. They could not tell us what it was for. And then we had these four major projects that we could program right away.”

City officials said they had wanted to use these Federal transit investments to move buses better in the absence of a full bus-rapid-transit system on a corridor with some of the highest ridership in the system and a lot of pedestrian injuries and fatalities.

Councilman Christopher Herndon decided not to bring forward an amendment that would have added money for a teen center in the Denver Central Library, and Councilman Paul Kashmann decided to make do with the sidewalk funding levels in the recommended package. Council member after council member said the city needs to find more money to address massive needs outside the once-a-decade bond process.

Council President Albus Brooks said the lack of contention and strife during the public hearing — the last real chance for the public to change what’s in the bond package — showed that the process was done right.

Brooks said the decision to prioritize transportation in the bond, even at the expense of housing, was the only way to make sure the bond will have a real impact.

“You have to have a strategic vision,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s crumbs, and you sprinkle it.”

Nonetheless, there is a lingering dissatisfaction that housing needs are not being addressed.

The council voted on seven separate ballot items and an overarching ordinance that describes all the projects.

Each of these will be on the ballot as a separate item.

Transportation and mobility: $430 million
Cultural facilities, such as the Denver Art Museum, Denver Botanic Gardens and Denver Zoo: $116.9 million
Denver Health: $75 million
Public safety: $77 million
Library system: $69.3 million
Parks and rec: $151.6 million
Public facilities system: $16.5 million

The city is not asking for an increase in the tax rate, but property owners will be paying more for debt service than in the past because their property generally is worth more. The city’s financial analysis assumes interest rates between 4.4 percent and 5.8 percent. The city has a AAA bond rating.

You can see a full project list here.

There’s one more step before the bond package goes to the ballot. Denver City Council will hold a second vote on Aug. 14.

Herndon said all the hard decisions to reach this point were actually the easy part of the process.

“It’s all for naught if we can’t get it passed in November,” he said.

Erica Meltzer

Author: Erica Meltzer

Erica Meltzer covers government and politics. She's worked for newspapers in Colorado, Arizona and Illinois and once won a First Amendment Award by showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. She served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay and can swear fluently in Guarani. She gets emotional about public libraries. Contact Erica Meltzer at 303-502-2802, emeltzer@denverite.com or @meltzere.