Denver City Council District 1, a Hotbed of Development, Weighs Approaches

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Jon Murray with The Denver Post writes:

Although Kim Wood and her family landed in northwest Denver by chance, they’ve grown to love living in one of the city’s most dynamic areas.

The recent transplants from rural Pennsylvania aren’t alone. From their newly thriving and family-friendly Sunnyside neighborhood to Jefferson Park, Sloan’s Lake and the Highland neighborhoods that also make up Denver City Council District 1, the area is vibrant. It’s walkable. It has energetic corners and urban districts teeming with restaurants, coffee shops, yoga studios and breweries.

But the Woods, who have rented a friend’s investment house since August, also have adapted to paying “the highest rent we’ve ever had, in the smallest house we’ve ever had,” said Kim Wood, 36.

And buying a place of their own? Prices in the area — and in much of Denver — seem ever out of reach.

Housing costs are the common drawback in northwest Denver, although Wood, who was enjoying the patio Monday outside Huckleberry Roasters with her friend Megan Kabakjian, takes it in stride.

She and her husband, Jake, found good public schools for their four children. Their house is an easy drive to the church they started, called Storyline Church, in Five Points.

But the pace of change in northwest Denver has been unsettling to others.

The dynamic sets the stage for the most competitive challenge of an incumbent in Denver’s May 5 election. First-term Councilwoman Susan K. Shepherd, a former labor organizer who lives in the Witter-Cofield Historic District, faces passionate neighborhood activist Rafael Espinoza, a Jefferson Park architect.

Development — including the gap in affordable housing, its effect on neighborhoods’ historic character and even the aesthetics of new structures — is the resounding issue in the race.

Espinoza has seized on the unease, criticizing Shepherd’s votes and support for some projects in a development climate he calls destabilizing. Other critics have pointed to Shepherd’s acceptance of campaign contributions from developers active in the district.

But Shepherd has defended her record. She says she’s trying to focus developers’ unstoppable interest into projects that work better for neighborhoods.

Click here to go to the Denver City Council Candidate Q&A page

Community activist Nita Gonzales supports Shepherd’s re-election, calling her a conscientious affordable-housing advocate who has confronted tough issues well.

But she says the development boom has priced out many longtime residents, especially Latinos, and the problem can’t be ignored.

“We have a strong Chicano/Latino population here in northwest Denver, which has been pretty much decimated,” said Gonzales, who lives in Chaffee Park. “My concern is: What is our plan from the city? What vision do we have?”

Jane Parker-Ambrose, president of the Sloan’s Lake Neighborhood Association, argues that Shepherd has lacked the leadership needed on development issues; she supports Espinoza. She and the association last week filed a lawsuit challenging a recent council rezoning decision allowing 12-story condos near the park.

“History should be honored and respected, and people should have a sense of living within nature — not contained by a stacked, harsh, urban space,” Parker-Ambrose said, adding: “If vertical growth is necessary to accommodate the increase of population,” then the council should influence developers to make their buildings blend in better with their surroundings and to protect neighbors’ views by requiring terraced structures with set-back heights.

Other challenges cited by District 1’s community leaders and the candidates include a need for more sidewalks, programs to address pockets of poverty, creative solutions to ease traffic backups on major streets, and efforts to encourage more biking and walking.

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