YIMBYs, NIMBYs, a golf course and cars: 3 takeaways from a forum for Denver mayor

5 min. read
Penfield Tate speaks during the Denver Post’s mayoral candidate forum at FIELDHOUSE on Federal Boulevard, April 1, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Some candidates for Denver mayor drew sharper lines between one another with their stances on development and open space during a forum Monday, but not every subject divided them.

Penfield Tate, Lisa Calderón, Mayor Michael Hancock and Jamie Giellis touted personal experience and wagered their appeal on verbal commitments to make Denver better, because that's what forums -- this one was hosted by the Denver Post -- are for. Kalyn Rose Heffernan and Stephen "Chairman Seku" Evans did not make the cut to participate, which was decided by fundraising prowess.

Candidates' voices may go hoarse talking about housing, homelessness, development and transportation, which reign as the election's top issues. At Monday's event, they drilled down into more specifics. Let's unpack.

Are any of the candidates NIMBYs or YIMBYs?

Denver Post reporter and Denverite alum Andy Kenney, the moderator, asked the candidates how much influence individual neighborhoods should have over development, particularly if their stance conflicts with larger, citywide goals.

No candidate pigeonholes themselves as a not-in-my-backyarder or a yes-in-my-backyarder, but their answers placed them on a spectrum.

Calderón and Tate both stressed that private-sector development should be driven by the public -- people who live nearby -- not the landowners and not city hall.

"This city's brand of community engagement would not pass many of our tests in the organizing community," said Calderón, a professor and criminal justice advocate. "First of all, you start where the people are and ask them what process they want, you don't push the plans out from City Hall, so I'm a proponent of resident-led development."

Tate, an attorney, said residents should control development, and accused the current administration of cutting deals in backrooms before asking the public for input. Hancock's process has played a "significant role" in "over-development," he said.

Hancock, meanwhile, claimed Denver has "the most robust ordinance" for neighborhood governance. Registered neighborhood organizations, which are often wealthy and white, have the power to make or break projects, whether through public campaigns or petitions that change the definition of a majority vote.

Cranes and a November evening. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

"I would always tell (developers) that the most important thing to me as a councilman -- and it continues today as a mayor -- is whether or not the community has been consulted. ... It doesn't have to be overwhelming support, but we want to know that the community's input has been sought, and you work with them as part of the project," Hancock said.

Giellis, who headed the RiNo Arts District and played a key role in developing today's River North section of Five Points, seems to fall in between the two camps. She said "neighborhoods should be protected" and mocked Hancock's assertion that "overwhelming support" was unnecessary.

Density makes sense in some places, but not everywhere, she said, adding that good transit and other infrastructure had to come first. She also claimed that her work developing RiNo did not displace anyone.

"There are tremendous places in this city that can still accommodate density, that don't tear apart the character and fabric of our neighborhoods," Giellis said. "River North was one of those places. The old industrial area around Brighton Boulevard was right for development because nobody got pushed out. We just repurposed old buildings."

Candidates painted their pictures of what they'd do with 155 acres known now as the Park Hill Golf Club.

It's a valuable swath of land in northeast Denver that the Hancock administration wanted to buy for housing developments and parkland, but the deal was tabled amid lawsuits. That conversation sparked anger from locals who want to see the green space stay completely green.

A flag at the Park Hill Golf Club. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Giellis would turn the entire course into a park with recreational trails and "a habitat that fits the climate of Denver," she said.

Calderón, too, said she would preserve the green space in total.

"Increasingly in a city that's being overrun and overtaken by development, we are forgetting what made Denver beautiful in the first place and that is our beautiful surroundings," she said.

Tate went a step further and said his preference is that it remain a golf course.

Hancock, meanwhile, said that preserving open space was the entire reason the city stepped in -- though homes to deal with Denver's housing shortage were also part of the plan.

No candidate would commit to disincentivizing driving -- say, with higher parking meter costs.

Kenney asked whether candidates would use a stick to get people using sustainable transportation modes, but no candidate bit.

Giellis offered up charging ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft a fee to fund better transit, however. Calderón and Tate joined her in calling for a larger carrot -- better transit, bike lanes, sidewalks and other incentives -- before using a stick.

Hancock also focused on a bigger, better carrot, but did not address discouraging driving.

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