Denver's sidewalk repair initiative could face big changes before it's implemented

Posted at 3:43 PM, Nov 25, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-25 19:34:12-05

DENVER — It was a clear mandate from Denver voters, a mandate for city council to repair and improve sidewalks.

In November, residents voted 56% to 44% to move the burden for sidewalk repairs away from homeowners and to the city itself.

“This was an opportunity for the voters to take it in their own hands and tell city leaders this is something that's important to us, and we want the city to take action.,” said Jill Locantore, the executive director of the Denver Streets Partnership.

The projects will be paid for through a fee on property owners that the city would then leverage into bonds to pay for the projects. The fees would be based on how much of a person’s land faces a street, as well as the type of street.

Denver Streets Partnership has said it would cost homeowners an average of $107 per year and that low-income households would get a discount, with the hopes the project could be done in nine years. But the city estimates it would actually take more than 27 years to make all the improvements.

Denver's sidewalk repair initiative could face big changes before it's implemented

First, though, it will be up to the Denver Department of Transportation to work with a citizen oversight board on an implementation plan. They will then present their final plan to city council for approval.

Before any construction can begin to get underway, however, changes could already be on the way for the initiative.

The creators of Denver’s green roof initiative know all about changes to a ballot initiative. After voters passed the ballot measure in 2017, city council and an advisory board made significant changes to the ordinance.

The group met nine times and made a series of recommendations to city council in 2018.

“I think those changes were significant, and gave people options for making changes, for opting in for green roofs compared to a cool roof or solar panels. I think in the end, we got a pretty good ordinance,” said Ean Thomas Tafoya, the deputy campaign director of the Denver green roof initiative.

One of the challenges for Tafoya was making sure that the spirit of the ordinance and the will of the voters remained throughout the changes.

“I think the biggest thing that's worrisome often is that the big moneyed interests who lost at the ballot box will have an influence, and a much greater influence in a space that only has 25 people who are voting to make changes, as compared to the hundreds of thousands of Denverites who voted,” Tafoya said.

The changes made it so that buildings not only had the option of adding solar panels or vegetation onto their roofs, but also to transition to white roofs to reflect heat instead of absorbing it or having a green space off-site.

The changes also called for more energy efficiency from the buildings themselves.

In the end, Tafoya says the changes mean there are fewer green roofs themselves, but more accommodations to help cool off the city’s urban heat island.

He’s happy with the outcome, however, because technical experts were able to come in and point out some of the downfalls with the initiative, like the fact than an analysis found that 95% of buildings in the city couldn’t support the weight of a green roof.

Tafoya believes the collaboration made for a better, more workable outcome for building owners while maintaining the heart of the initiative. However, he said because companies have a big interest in these city changes, whether it’s for buildings or sidewalks, it’s important for the community to stay involved and to continue to give their input.

This year, Tafoya worked on the Waste No More Denver initiative to require more recycling in the city. He also expects that ballot question to be reviewed and adjusted by councilmembers.

The city council is not able to make changes to either initiative, though, until a six-month review period has expired with a two-thirds majority.

Back with the Denver Streets Partnership, Lacontore says some city council members have already been talking about changes even before the ballot initiative passed.

She says the group spent a lot of time crafting a thoughtful ordinance that is based in the city’s previous research and work, but she’s happy to work with the city council on modifications.

“We feel like we're 95% of the way there and it's really just making fine refinements to make sure the program achieves what it's intended to do,” Locantore said.

In an email to Denver7, city councilman Kevin Flynn outlined some of his concerns with the initiative, saying the fee structure reads like a provider fee, affecting homeowners who have more sidewalks around their home.

“Imagine if we charged for street paving based on how much street is in front of your house. The reason we don't is the street is part of the public right of way. So is the sidewalk,” the email said.

In addition, Flynn expressed concerns with the funding of the initiative, saying a city analysis before the election estimated that the fees imposed on homeowners will fall $7.3 billion short of being able to cover the costs of all the repairs, replacements and expansions.

“Nothing is perfect the first time that you do it, and we're not so arrogant to think that we came up with the absolute perfect program,” Locantore said. “There's some weird outliers of Denver properties that have very unusual characteristics that resulted in them having exceptionally high fees, you know, and I think we'd be very willing to look at some modifications to the fee structures.”

In the end, she says there will likely be some changes, but the important thing is that improvements are finally going to be made to city sidewalks after years of neglect. She’s hoping construction will begin by 2024.