Cheers! to Denver voters for coming in #3 on our Denver’s Top 10 Urbanism Achievements of the Aughts countdown. Frankly, Denver voters should probably come in #1 for not just this past decade, but for all 15 of Denver’s decades, considering their record of voting for civic projects of every kind.
The reasons for Denver’s enthusiasm for approving civic projects are complicated but discernible. Part of it has to do with Denver’s inferiority complex. Since our city’s founding (relatively late as big cities go—the late 1850s), we’ve tried to overcome our new-kid-on-the-block, dusty-outpost-in-the-middle-of-nowhere insecurities (the “cowtown syndrome”) by proving to the world that we can do all the stuff bigger and older cities do—and then bragging about it. When that fails to earn us the respect we believe we deserve, we try even harder. Next, Denver seems to draw people who are seeking a better place to live or who are looking to make a fresh start; so upon moving here, many newcomers are predisposed toward community improvement. Denverites are also known to be an optimistic bunch (due to the ubiquitous sunshine and stunning mountain vistas, no doubt), so one way people here express that optimism is through investing in their city. Finally, Denver has been fortunate over its history to have had a municipal government that has been relatively competent and corruption-free and that generally delivers civic projects as promised. Along with our strong-mayor system and the dynamic, effective leaders it has produced, a sense of trust exists between the citizens and the city that perpetuates an environment of collective civic ambition. That’s my take on it, anyway. Now, back to the voters:
- November 1999 (just a few weeks from the start of the new decade): Denver voters approved (55%) an increase of the city’s lodging and car-rental taxes to raise $261.5 million toward the expansion of the Colorado Convention Center, a $62.5 million general obligation bond for expansion of the Denver Art Museum (61%), and a $62.5 million bond for upgrades at the Denver Zoo (66%). Denverites also voted in favor (66%) of the state’s TRANS proposal which authorized the $1.7 billion T-REX light rail and highway reconstruction project. Denver voters also approved TABOR exemptions for both RTD and Denver Public Schools.
- November 2002: Denver voters approved (68%) general obligation bonds totaling $25 million for the renovation of the Denver Auditorium (creating what is now the Ellie Caulkins Opera House at the Denver Performing Arts Complex).
- May 2003: Denver voters approved (65%) general obligation bonds in the amount of $148 million for the expansion of the Denver Health Medical Center.
- November 2004: Denver voters approved (65%) an increase in the sales tax of 0.4% for RTD’s FasTracks program. Also, Denverites voted in favor (74%) to extend the 0.1% Scientific & Cultural Facilities District sales tax for another 14 years.
- May 2005: Denver voters approved (56%) the issuance of $378 million in general obligation bonds for the construction of the new Denver Justice Center courthouse and detention facility in Downtown and other improvements at the existing County Jail on Smith Road.
- November 2005: Denver voters approved (66%) increasing the city’s lodging tax by 1% to pay for Denver tourism and convention marketing programs, and a 10-year exemption from TABOR for the City & County of Denver (64%). Also, Denver voted in favor (63%) of Referendum D, which would have authorized the state to spend $2.1 billion for transportation and other capital improvements. Referendum D failed, however, statewide.
- November 2007: Denver voters approved all eight of the Better Denver bond issues by margins ranging from 52% to 67% for a total of $550 million in capital improvements for health and human service facilities, libraries, transportation/public works projects, parks and recreation projects, public office buildings, public safety facilities, existing cultural facilities, and new cultural facilities (expansion at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and the reconstruction of Boettcher Concert Hall). Denver voters also approved (55%) a permanent 2.5 mill property tax increase for regular capital improvements and infrastructure investments.
- November 2008: Denver voters approved (68%) general obligation bonds in the amount of $454 million for renovations and new construction for Denver Public Schools.
The only Denver ballot item for a civic project that I could recall that failed during the decade was in November 2001 for the Denver Justice Center—then planned to be built at I-25 and 6th Avenue—which was controversial mostly due to the location and was approved a few years later after the switch to the Downtown site.
Denver’s legacy of supporting civic projects and investments in the city’s infrastructure continued to flourish this past decade, which is why I’m including it in our list of Denver’s Top 10 Urbanism Achievements of the Aughts.