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Not everyone crazy about soaring metro Denver growth

December 31, 2017 Updated: December 31, 2017 at 2:11 pm

Jack Keener is a Denver native who feels like he's being robbed of his city, and he's not alone. The 51-year-old McDonald's manager walked out of the public library in Lincoln Park, lit a cigarette and made his way past a new apartment complex being built just across the parking lot. The new construction cuts the view of downtown Denver.

Cranes slice into Colorado's iconic blue sky as construction workers in yellow vests craft yet another multilevel contemporary building with straight lines and efficient use of space.

"This makes no sense," Keener said, waving a hand at the work site. "My housing costs have already increased, and I don't make squat. The prices just keep going up, they keep raising the costs on everything and nobody can afford to live."

Keener wants the old Colorado back, the one where he was born and raised.

"Now I'm poor because of this," he said. "I'm living in the ghetto. I don't know if you've ever been in the ghetto, but you don't want to live there like me and my boy. We have to live where there's gangbangers, it's totally out of control."

No end in sight

Surrounded by new construction, pedestrians walk through tunneled sidewalks in Cherry Creek's bustling shopping district. Motorists honk as they try to navigate almost constant congestion. Jessica Machetta, Colorado Politics 

Keener is addressing the city's growth, its ever-changing skyline and rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. Many months, the city's population grows by more than 1,000 residents and is now approaching 700,000 people, with the metro population swelling to almost 3 million.

The end of growth isn't in sight, but it did slow a bit during the past year, according to state demographer Elizabeth Garner. She said Denver and the metro area experienced an annual growth rate of around 1.5 percent, the first time it has dipped below 2 percent in the past decade. But people continue to flow in.

Colorado's population, meanwhile, grew by 1.4 percent from July 1, 2016, to July 1, 2017, the seventh-fastest growth rate in the country, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates released this past week. By total population, Colorado grew from 5,530,105 to 5,607,154 during the one-year period.

Garner said her office is forecasting the Denver metro area to increase to about 4 million people in the next 20 years. Panning out from Denver, Colorado could be home to 8.5 million people by 2050 - an increase of 54 percent in a little more than three decades, the Census Bureau projects.

While state and city leaders praise the Front Range's vibrant economy, others are urging caution.

At a recent forum addressing the possibility of Amazon building a second national headquarters in metro Denver, bringing $5 billion in construction and 50,000 employees and their families in the process, former Gov. Richard Lamm warned the impact would "leave us toothless and blind."

A young man at the forum who said he moved to Denver for the arts and culture asked what an Amazon hub would do to "the soul of Denver."

After a long pause, Lamm said, "I don't know, but you're asking the right question."

Lamm, as a state representative, famously led a 1972 state referendum that rejected the 1976 Winter Olympics, an initiative that propelled him into three terms as governor and one that he says he doesn't regret.

Then, as now, the question asks if pell-mell growth is a battle for Colorado's heart and soul? And so what if it is?

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock recently found himself on the defensive in a Denver Post interview for being too amenable to developers and development. He pushed back against the assertion, as he has in the past.

But he successfully led the campaign to pass a $1 billion bond issue in November, much of which will be used to fund infrastructure upgrades and address mobility and accessibility issues to accommodate growth.

"I want to make sure we respond with proper management to the growth that's occurred in this city and doing those things that are necessary to keep us sustainable, to keep us environmentally sustainable, that allows us to be the city that responds appropriately to growth going forward," Hancock said in an earlier interview with Colorado Politics. "If we don't, we can end up like some of these other cities that did not think about it."

When Hancock took office in 2011, he said, growth was flat, there was no vision for the business environment in the city and things were at a stalemate.

"We could not have planned for this," he said of the dynamic development being experienced.

Watching the change

Those same Denver voters who approved public spending are witness to their neighborhoods rapidly changing. In Highland Park, new apartments rise up alongside mid-century bungalows and corner taco shops.

New construction in an already crowded Cherry Creek leaves commuters wondering how much worse traffic jams can become. Residents of Five Points say it's almost unrecognizable from a decidedly grittier but more authentic neighborhood just five years ago.

Ink! Coffee, a fairly new business in Five Points, threw a match into the powder keg by posting a sign recently that said, "Happily Gentrifying The Neighborhood Since 2014."

Neighborhood residents took umbrage at that sentiment and responded by spray painting "White Coffee" on the building and protesting outside. Ink! managers have since apologized, but the sting remains.

"Ink! made a mistake," said Cary Kennedy, former Colorado state treasurer, also former deputy mayor and chief financial officer of Denver. "They should have never made that statement. There are people living in communities who grew up there, whose parents grew up there, families who've lived there for generations and they can't afford to stay there because they're getting priced out of their neighborhoods. We all have to be sensitive to how that can tear communities apart."

Kennedy, who is also running for governor, said gentrification can add to social inequities that are already present. She's proposing a statewide program that would offer financial help to would-be homebuyers who struggle to come up with a down payment.

"Diverse communities are important in terms of socio-economic status, racial diversity, and we value that," Kennedy said. "We don't want anyone to feel like they're forced out of the neighborhoods they grew up in."

Her plan to get people into permanent homes speaks to another concern, that the hundreds of new apartments coming online are rentals, rather than condos, where access to ownership would be available.

The Legislature sought to address the issue last session.

Lawmakers passed a bill to help abate lawsuits against condo developers, but industry professionals say that's not enough to spur the kind of growth that increases condo ownership.

Jack Tate, R-Centennial, who co-sponsored the bill, said the bill is "an important step in the right direction."

Colorado Politics reported at the time that the share of condos in the Denver market slid from 20 percent in 2005 to just 2 percent, according to the Colorado Homeownership Opportunity Alliance. The median price for a condo in metro Denver was $260,000 compared to $400,000 for a house, according to the Colorado Association of Realtors.

Next generation worries

Construction near the Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales Branch Library on West Colfax and Federal clutters what used to be an unobstructed view of Downtown Denver. Jessica Machetta, Colorado Politics 

Denver growth trends might have set off the ink! Coffee controversy, but politicians, protesters and the media weren't the only ones taking note. It became part of a larger project for geography students at East High School at Colfax and Esplanade, nestled right next to City Park.

Geography and history teacher Dylan Fehrman's students used census data from 2000 and 2010 to map out changes in and around East, which Fehrman said has one of the most diverse student populations in Denver.

"Kids are starting to talk about things happening in their own neighborhoods, changes in terms of diversity," he said, but they're also thinking about how Denver can grow with a sustainable amount of development, including making the city more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly.

Five Points is one of the neighborhoods they looked at "so, they could understand what that sign was speaking to," Fehrman said. The project "asked them to think about mixed development, mixed use, but also asked them to consider what some of the unintended consequences are, especially in shaping who can afford to live in those neighborhoods."

Essentially, everyone from those living in shelters to those in the city's most expensive homes are asking the same question about growth: How much is too much?

"We certainly do not want to see stagnation," said Jeff Wasden, president of the Colorado Business Roundtable. "I think there's several points to consider when you're dealing with the impact of growth and how its being used as a tool to curb certain industries and developments and some of the challenges that come with that. I think that's really a failure of leadership."

Though he declined to point fingers, Wasden said state and community leaders need to sit down together to address current challenges responsibly.

"Economic growth is critical for job creation," he said. "It raises the standard of living, allows the community to make investments in education, technology and infrastructure, it reduces income inequality, lowers unemployment rates, raises tax revenue ... leads to start-ups. The vibrancy of growing communities can spur innovation. Good public policy will drive that meaningful and lasting economic growth."

City Park West resident and outspoken activist Tony Pigford is blaming city leaders for development that he said is spiraling out of control.

"My concerns are really all about equity and equal access for people in Denver," he said. "I think that gentrification can be impeded. Growth and development are going to occur but displacement doesn't necessarily have to occur. We can still have a vibrant, thriving, sustainable community as we grow but I think we've been headed in the opposite direction.

"We need to hold our elected officials accountable when they promote rhetoric about equity and equal access," he said, "and if they can't follow through, we need new city leaders."

Pigford said he is following the money.

"I think that's done by looking at our budget and seeing where the money has been spent and who has most benefited," he said. "I think there needs to be an awakening of the Denver electorate. In 2016, Mayor Hancock had a high percentage of campaign contributions from real estate developers, bankers and lobbying firms, a lot of those corporations end up getting contracts with the city. What we have happening here is billions of dollars in projects happening and corporations are benefiting."

Dialogue expanding

Pigford credits the media attention paid to the ink! Coffee controversy for helping expand dialogue over the city's future.

"I think there's a lot of levers we can pull and a lot is happening," he said. "We need to bring more people to the table and say, 'This is where we are and how we got here.' That would be a good starting point.

"The way we're headed there won't be any part of Denver that's truly affordable for anyone who doesn't come from an affluent background," Pigford said. "You can look at Union Station - it's a wonderful development, but people from lower socio-economic statuses, they can't buy a sandwich at any of those shops or any of that."

For Jack Keener, the fast-food manager, eating out isn't in the budget. So much of his income goes to rent, barely leaving enough to pay the rest of his bills. His day starts at 5:30 a.m. He walks his son to school, then catches the bus to work, which he said gets more crowded every day.

"I see more homeless people every day with kids," he said. "There's no way to get back on your feet when you can't afford to live anymore. There is no American dream here anymore."

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