“Science Deniers” on City Council Drag Denver Backward By Requiring More Parking

The "good old days" aren't coming back, despite the City Council's best efforts. Photo: Western History Collection, Denver Public Library
The "good old days" aren't coming back, despite the City Council's best efforts. Photo: Western History Collection, Denver Public Library

The Denver City Council voted 9 to 2 Monday to mandate more parking on small lots, fueling higher housing costs and more traffic. The decision ended a nine-month saga in which the council caved completely to residents who insist that city policy should prioritize their ability to park for free on the street in front of their homes, not broader public goals like affordability and walkability.

In policy circles, there is no serious dispute that parking mandates exert upward pressure on housing costs and undercut walkability. Those are the conclusions reached by the Obama administration, the Sightline Institute, and the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, among others.

Just try telling the City Council members who last night tried to knock down the arguments against parking minimums, citing only their own strawmen.

“This isn’t an issue about affordability, folks,” said City Councilman Paul Lopez, who voted for the bill. “Seattle, Portland… they still have an affordable housing crisis… This exemption has been around for 6.5 years. You think that’s made a dent in our affordable housing crisis? It hasn’t.”

But no one has ever claimed that the absence of parking minimums on a fraction of Denver’s lots is a cure-all for affordability. The argument against imposing new parking minimums is that they will make the current housing problem worse by forcing construction costs upward — that’s what happens when you start mandating parking stalls that each cost $26,000 to build.

City Councilman Rafael Espinoza, meanwhile, asserted that “the rental market isn’t being driven by parking.” He’s right — but again, no one is claiming otherwise. What is driving the market is the scarcity of homes relative to the number of people who want to live here. And requiring parking spaces on constrained lots of 6,250 square feet or less makes it physically and financially more difficult to meet that demand.

Akin to “Science Deniers”

Jo Barrios, a Curtis Park resident who opposes parking requirements, said when she emailed City Council members, they told her the link between parking requirements and affordability is a “false narrative.”

Not for her.

“Our costs, as families, as workers, go up,” said Barrios, who has a baby at home. “You cannot make this decision in a vacuum. So while some folks here are defending their right to park their car, I’m here defending my right for my family to be able to afford where we live. Those two shouldn’t be the same.”

When council members voted for more parking, they also chose to ignore advice from the citizen-led Planning Board and Community Planning and Development, the city’s planning department. CPD recommended against the zoning change Monday because parking requirements conflict with established city policies, including the council-approved Blueprint Denver transportation and land use plan, that prioritize places for people, not cars.

Senior City Planner Jeff Hirt told the Council that the bill represents a “tipping point.” Unintended consequences include “essentially mandating” inordinately expensive structured parking for taller buildings, he said, which could change the character of streets and neighborhoods.

Only two council members voted against the bill — Mary Beth Susman and Albus Brooks.

Arguing that parking mandates have no effect on affordability makes council members sound like “science deniers,” said Susman. “I think making decisions like this puts us on the wrong side of history. This bill moves us one step — a little step — backward… We have to keep pure to our ideas of what it’s going to take to really turn around this city and reduce the amount of single occupancy vehicles.”

  • Anthony

    This is the post I was writing for the Denver Post article. I can deal with dissent and constructive disagreement, but there are only so many red herrings, strawmen, and ad hominem attacks I can handle in a day. I think I’m done, though. I don’t think there’s any way I can’t not run for City Council in 2019 against Councilman New (just need to work through my social anxiety… if I can avoid small talk, I’ll be okay =). This issue’s vote… maybe I’m in a bubble of urbanists, but he really seems to be out of touch with the northern half of his district…

    1. Supporters of this measure are either hypocrites for not wanting other people to do what they’re already doing (storing private property in the public right of way), or they shouldn’t worry about it because they’ve got their own off-street parking space(s) so what do they care if it’s hard for others to find on-street parking?

    2. I surveyed the most recent twelve residential projects I found on Denver Infill which had parking spaces listed, and 11 of the 12 had more than one parking space per unit. The other had (I’m going off memory here) 230 spaces for 236 units, so darn near 1 space per unit. Yet, according to US Census Data, 22.7 percent of households within the 18 close-in census tracts don’t own a car. Frankly, if you want a home with a parking space there are plenty of options for you. It’s straight up socialist by definition (especially when the argument is for the ‘greater good’) to make people who don’t own a car pay for their neighbor’s parking space. Moreover, if we really want to get political, it’s an upward redistribution of wealth as people without cars typically (not always) are in a lower income bracket than that of those who do own cars. (I really try not to turn this into a political argument, but for the life of me I can’t understand how people who identify as conservative or argue for small government are typically the most represented in “pro minimum parking requirement” discourse. That’s the purpose of the socialist label.)

    3. I cannot stress this enough. Eliminating parking minimums does NOT eliminate parking. It eliminates the government regulation of requiring people to have parking. Many of the Downtown residential buildings are being constructed where there is no parking minimum, and yet they’re building at least 1:1. Whether you can imagine being car free is irrelevant, there are already about 1/4 of the households living in and around Downtown Denver who are car free, so it’s happening whether you can imagine it or not. Eliminating parking minimums does not tell you that you have to live car free. It doesn’t force anything on you. The thing minimum parking requirements does force, is developers to construct a certain number of parking spaces. This artificially inflates the supply of parking spaces. If an apartment building has 100 units, and 100 households, and 75 of those households have cars, that leaves 25 empty spaces. The apartment complex may try to rent those parking spaces out to their tenants, but the problem is that all the other apartment buildings in the area have the same problem, so they start to undercut prices. Eventually, it’s not worth charging outsiders $10/mo for a parking space so instead of charging their tenants for the actual cost of a parking space, they build the cost of the parking space into the rent and you get a “free” space with your apartment. Yay! Except, because I don’t own a car, my parking space literally sits unused but I’m still forced to pay $100 extra in rent to cover the cost of building and maintaining the parking space. The minimum parking requirement therefore forces me to pay for parking that I’ll never use, because government regulation says the builder had to put it in. For safety or something.

    3a. Sidebar, if parking is so freaking important to people, why are they so loathe to pay for it? Give it away for “free” long enough, people won’t assign a monetary value to it…

    4. For Councilman Lopez, or anyone else who argues that property managers are going to just going [over]charge for rent anyhow. Let’s say I manage an apartment building in Capitol Hill. I don’t have any parking to offer to potential residents, but a neighboring building does. Let’s say we have the exact same amenities and finishes except parking. They’re charging $1,500/mo for a one bedroom. Do you really think I can charge $1,500/mo in my building and remain competitive with my neighboring building? If I’m a renter, and those two buildings are my options, I’m taking the one with the parking for the same price because then when I have family or friends come visit, I have a parking space. But if my building cost $2.6 million less to build ($26k/space, 100 spaces), I can make the same or higher profit margins as my neighboring building but charge $1,400/mo. Then I, as a renter, have a choice to make to decide if $100/mo is worth having a parking space for others to use when they visit. The argument that rents are already high, so we shouldn’t work to lower them, is invalid if we’re having an honest discussion about affordable housing. “Meh, I already have asthma, why take antibiotics to fight off this pneumonia?” And if anyone is curious about why rents in Seattle continue to rise, it’s because they have the same issues we have here: Large single-family neighborhoods full of obstructionists, forcing development into a few select pockets of existing density (which, btw, then drives up land values, thereby driving up rents because developers won’t build until the rents reach a price point that actually supports their development expenses), and massive in migration of people.

    5. A common complaint I hear from neighbors in our close-in neighborhood is that traffic is unbearable. Additional parking spaces INCREASE the amount of traffic. Making the argument that you want more parking and less congestion is like asking for the ability to eat cake with every meal and lose weight. They’re contradicting ideals.

    6. Those of us who prefer to not require developers to provide a minimum number of automobile parking spaces are not, contrary to popular belief, anti-car zealots who never use a personal automobile. There are times when a car is the best tool for the job. Fortunately, the few times a car is actually needed, there are services like Lyft, Car2Go, and Zipcar to pick up your furniture or whatever. If I want to go to Vail, I can use the Vail Eagle Express. If you need to drive to Montana or South Dakota [for whatever reason] a rental car is easy enough to pick up, and weekly rates are relatively cheap compared to a monthly lease/car payment. We just understand that not using an $8,000/yr depreciating asset for 95% of the time is a waste of not only fiscal resources, but also spatial resources. We don’t expect the rest of y’all to drop your habit of driving 1/4 mile to the grocery store right away, but it gets really old having other people tell us how we should be or will be living our lives.

    7. Speaking of which, let’s hypothetically say all 22.7% of those non-auto owning households are rapscallion millennials. Let’s also hypothesize that ALL of them will eventually do what you say they should do when they start a family, move to the suburbs, buy a huge SUV and be beholden to their kid’s over-scheduled lives. Let’s just say that happens, since that’s a big reason why some people argue that no-parking housing is a waste, because *eventually* they’ll all want a different lifestyle. First, you’re ignoring your own mortality. In that scenario, the millennials take your place. When you die, they’ll have their choice of places to live with green grass and three car garages for miles. Second, you’re completely ignoring the needs of the youngest of their generation for at least the next decade. Why exactly don’t people matter if they’re between the ages of 20 and 29? Third, and again, let’s say the choice to live in the city or without a car is an age-related issue. There will always be 20-somethings. If change isn’t made in time to affect this generation’s choices and options, it will be available next year or next decade when someone else turns 25. And lastly, you boomers out there, have you not thought through the fact that many aging boomers and gen xers are entering a stage in their life where they no longer want to drive nearly as often and prefer to live in walkable neighborhoods? Think about the last time you went to a place you thought was pretty cool. South Pearl? Larimer Square? LoHi? How on earth are those places so darn cool without abundant parking?

    8. Let’s talk about social engineering for a minute. What do you think proponents of minimum parking requirements are doing? What do you think the automobile industry has been doing for the last 90 years? Do you really think minimum parking requirements are the natural order of things? Or that, all else being equal, we would’ve spent hundreds of trillions of dollars building out a road network that forces people to sit on a gridlocked highway commuting 25+ minutes each way to and from work on average? If freeways weren’t subsidized by the federal government at 90 cents on the dollar, do you really think states and cities would’ve ponied up the dough to build out these networks? If residents and cities in the 60’s would’ve had to pay the deferred maintenance bills we’re saddled with today, would they have started building roads and infrastructure as far and sprawling as they did? The built environment in which we live today is an entire social construct that’s been developed predominantly over the past 60 years. Of course it’s social engineering for urbanists to work to overcome decades of that. It’s just not what you want, so you try to force a derogatory term onto it to make our efforts sound nefarious.

    9. Lastly, we wouldn’t even really be having this discussion if the suburbs were actually desirable places to live. If the Greenwood Villages and Thornton’s of the world would incorporate dense, walkable communities with rich transit options into Downtown into their plans, dense development wouldn’t all have to concentrate in the close-in single-family neighborhoods. People who actually wanted to live car free would have options besides Downtown or close-in neighborhoods. I’d love to live closer than an 11 mile bike ride or 50 minute transit trip from work, but when I looked for housing near where I work, nothing I looked at was even remotely walkable, so I had to buy a place near Downtown. That scarcity jacks up demand in Downtown, and by extension prices. With a lack of real estate available, that means parking lots and decrepit single-family homes are going to go away, and owners of the single-family homes in my neighborhood decry the “loss of character” as the density of a neighborhood increases.

    • mckillio

      As I voted against New originally, he has voted the opposite of just about everything I would have and seems to bring nothing to the table, you would certainly have my vote.

      Side note: I have a lot of trouble with our district covering Capitol Hill and similar neighborhoods as well as Cherry Creek and Country Club.

      • George Mayl

        Evidently Councilman New has the majority of District 10 constituents in his corner and I for one(District 6) am pleased he listens to them. Parking issues are not a spigot that is turned of readily. Had City Council not passed the change, come June, all hell would have broken out with mini-microes all over with no parking requirements. I for one don’t wish this in my neighborhood nor anyone else. We are not going to give up our automobiles, buy a bicycle, hold hand and sing cumbya…..Get over it..

        • mckillio

          “Get over it”? Real nice. This exemption qualified for less than 1% of lots.

          • George Mayl

            I say again, the voters and their representatives who addressed City Council are echoing the sentiment that Council members heard LOUD and CLEAR. Unfettered development is NOT what Denver residents view as a good thing. The perception is that developers have the city’s ear….but we have the VOTE.

          • mckillio

            Okay

    • Ken Schroeppel

      Well written, Anthony!

    • John Riecke

      +1000000

    • ColoradoS14

      Well written but I think it is a mistake to take census data from large cities nationwide and apply them to Denver. It may well be the case that there are larger percentages of people living in places like Boston, Chicago or New York City that do not own cars. But that does not carry to Denver by and large due to the recreation opportunities that exist in our state. No, I don’t have data, but I am inclined to think that the rate of car ownership in Denver is higher than these cities because if you want to hike, ski, camp, fish or recreate in the mountains you pretty much have to and those are a large part of the reason people choose to live here. Now that is not to say that we should not strike a middle ground.

      • Anthony

        The census data I quoted is Denver-specific. 7,990 of the 35,572 households in the close-in census tracts are car free. An additional 17,090 (48%) own one vehicle.

      • George Mayl

        This is so true, being a mobile society with so much to offer outside of the city limits, draws new residents “WITH CARS” to get away to the natural beauties Colorado offers, like it or not, automobiles will not go the way of the dinosaurs anytime soon.

    • knicksfan33

      I would vote for you.

  • TakeFive

    I’m with those that see the affordability issue as a red herring argument. I’ll use one of my favorite Denver developers as an example. According to Amy Dipierro at BusinessDen: http://www.businessden.com/2017/04/17/s-broadway-landmark-get-micro-units/

    Zocalo Community Development has signed on to develop the boarded-up First Avenue Hotel on Broadway into more than 100 affordable housing units with ground-floor retail and an adjacent parking structure.

    Zocalo principal David Zucker said the design would restore the existing structure to something akin to its original use, as less-expensive downtown housing. “This was essentially affordable housing when it was built in 1906 in that it was a single-room occupant (hotel),” Zucker said. “Now it’s affordable, in part, because they’re smaller studios and one-bedrooms.”

    The project will go by its old name, Zucker said: 1st Avenue Hotel. Rent would cost between $850 and $900 per month, Zucker said, depending on whether it is a studio or a one-bedroom.

    BTW, The Urban Land Conservancy has selected Zocalo Community Development to develop a six-acre transit-oriented development near the intersection of 48th and Race streets in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood which is tabbed as a $200 million development.

    Zocalo Community Development was previously chosen to be the development partner for the Emily Griffith Foundation in the 18 hundred block of Lincoln Street. In addition to 200 affordable units there will also be a day care/early childhood education center as well as a workforce development center. Afaik, parking had nothing to do with these selections.

    • MT

      I’m not sure if I understand your point. You’re referencing “affordable housing” projects with limits on rent. The parking minimum policy is something that increases construction costs for all housing.

      • TakeFive

        projects with limits on rent

        The 1st Avenue Hotel is – many props to David for preserving a relic from the scrap heap and turning it into – market rate apartments.

        Construction costs don’t materially of directly relate to rents. They determine the feasibility and profit potential of a project. Rents are determined by the market as a result of Econ 101 demand/supply curve.

        BTW, as an advocate for affordable housing I salute Zocalo Community Development for wanting to be involved. They have quite a sterling reputation and were one of five named “good guy” developers by Westword. http://www.westword.com/news/developer-can-be-a-dirty-word-in-denver-meet-five-exceptions-to-the-rule-8234661

        • MT

          I’m pretty sure the 1st Ave Hotel is not going to be market rate. It looks like a great project and I’m really happy about it, by the way.

          I’m still not sure what that has to do with parking minimums.
          Sorry if I’m being dense and just missing what you’re trying to say.

          • TakeFive

            Parking minimums are a

            red herring argument

            Most developers are building waay more parking than the minimum anyway. If you want more affordable rents then build more affordable housing. If you want lower market rate rents then hope that supply soon exceeds demand and/or convince Millennials to move on to cheaper place.

          • MT

            Nobody said ending parking minimums are the cure for high prices. They are just one factor that makes those prices a little bit higher, and prevents some projects from ever happening.

            Parking minimums also lead to a lot more car ownership and driving, which is also not good. There are a lot of problems with them, contributing to high housing costs is just a part of it.

          • TakeFive

            prevents some projects from ever happening

            Balderdash – I’ve been around a long time and I’ve never seen so much residential construction in and around downtown. Are there projects that don’t get funded? Ofc, always has been and always will be and it’s highly unlikely it has anything to do with parking. BTW, if parking was so expensive then why do so many developers build waaay more than is required?

            Parking minimums also lead to a lot more car ownership

            Nonsense; that’s just silly and not even worth debating.

          • MT

            Cool, you don’t know the first thing about parking policy.
            Time to read books.

          • MT

            Just because things are getting built doesn’t mean other things that could be aren’t. Smaller projects would be hurt the most. Want to build a small apartment building or duplex? The parking required may make it out of reach. That’s less housing for the city.

            Parking minimums increase car ownership and increase driving. You’re right, that’s not worth debating, it a fact.

          • Anthony

            This is really not the best use of this space, but instead of using my words, I’ll quote an except from pages 141-143 of Dr. Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking regarding how parking costs are recouped, and how parking requirements inhibit housing construction. I’ll add before getting to the quote that Dr. Shoup is an economist by education and vocation, not a city planner:

            “Writing in Urban Land, parking consultant John Dorsett explains that the cost of parking is passed on to tenants and then to all customers:

            ‘There are real costs associated with providing parking, and they can significantly affect real estate projects and even block their development. When shopping centers, office buildings, and hotels do not charge for parking, there is a popular misconception that it is free; however, someone must pay for the parking facility – as well as for the land under it and the lighting, insurance, security, and maintenance needed to keep it functioning – and that money must be recouped. … If these costs are not covered by parking fees, they are passed on to the facility owner and ultimately to the facility users. For example, to cover parking costs at a shopping center, the owner charges tenants higher rents and common area maintenance fees. In turn, the tenants charge consumers higher prices for their services and merchandise. Hotels indirectly bill the cost of parking to their guests as part of the cost of overhead. In short, just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, there is no free parking.'”

            Dr. Shoup continues:

            “Planners long ago noticed that parking requirements restrict housing construction. In 1935, Los Angeles began to require one off-street parking space per dwelling unit for multifamily housing, and in a 1948 in the Journal of the American Institute of Planners noted a surprising result: “In many cases, the number of garage spaces actually controlled the number of dwelling units which could be accommodated on a lot.” The 1935 zoning ordinance required a garage building on the same lot as the main building, sufficient to accommodate one automobile for each apartment. … By restricting the supply of housing, parking requirements inevitably increased rents. It is difficult, however, to find data on how parking requirements increase the construction cost of housing. Because developers must provide the required parking to obtain a building permit, they usually don’t calculate the cost of the parking separately, just as they don’t separate out the cost of the walls or ceilings. The parking is an inescapable part of the building. Nevertheless, five studies that did separate the cost of parking from the cost of buildings show that parking requirements significantly raise housing prices, reduce land values, and encourage sprawl. The cost of structured parking sometimes exceeds the cost of the land for multifamily housing.”

            Obviously, this is the summary. The following 10 pages go into case studies and research backing up this argument.

            On Page 152, Dr. Shoup asserts (and I’m really trying not to quote the whole book here. It can be a dry read at times because there’s so much research, but frankly, this book has led to a career for me in many ways):

            “Parking requirements increase the price of housing not only by adding to the cost of constructing the housing, but also by restricting its supply. Parking requirements often reduce the number of dwelling units on a site below what the zoning allows because both the permitted dwelling units and the required parking spaces cannot be squeezed onto the same site. That is, the parking requirements, not the bulk limitation (such as the allowed number of dwelling units per acre or the FAR), is often zoning’s limiting constraint on density. In the Oakland case study, for example, a parking requirement of only one space per dwelling unit reduced housing density by 30 percent, and most cities now have higher parking requirements. …

            “Because all new dwelling units (and all other new buildings) come bundled with their full complement of required parking spaces, residents tend to buy more cars. …

            “If parking requirements substantially raise housing prices, building a small number of subsidized housing units – including all the required parking – will make only a small contribution to the supply of affordable housing. Reducing or removing off-street parking requirements, however, can increase the supply and reduce the price of all housing, without any subsidy. Planners everywhere are concerned about housing costs and urban sprqwl, but they have not attempted to evaluate how parking requirements affect either housing costs or urban density. The five case studies presented here show that parking requirements substantially increase development cost and reduce density. Scarce land and capital are shifted from housing for people to housing for cars. Zoning requires a home for every car but ignores homeless people. By increasing the cost of housing, parking requirements make the real homelessness problem even worse. People sleep in the streets, but cars park for free in their ample off-street quarters. In city planning, free parking has become more important than affordable housing.”

            While I’m not familiar with any existing studies comparing minimum parking requirements to automobile ownership (if someone else is, please let me know so I can save my time, but it looks like I have my next research project!), there have been studies that correlate parking abundance (and parking requirements) to the amount of driving performed. While I would hypothesize that a higher preponderance of automobile-based trips would result in a higher vehicle ownership rate, I’m not aware of any research that asserts as such. I just did a quick search of six cities between 40,000 and 60,000 residents. Five of six required two spaces per single family detached house and either 1.5 or 2 spaces per multifamily dwelling unit, with an average household vehicle ownership of 1.79. Altoona, PA has a minimum of one space per dwelling unit and auto ownership of 1.46 cars per household. I obviously need more data to come to a conclusion, by my hypothesis is that there is a relationship between minimum parking requirements and auto ownership. I’ll probably do a 100,000 to 500,000 range, then a 500,000 to 1,000,000 range subset as well. This’ll probably be my RMLUI presentation next spring, that should give me enough time to be thorough and have it reviewed, but I’ll let you know what I find.

          • TakeFive

            I read most of it so there’s that.

            At the risk of repeating myself, rents have forever and always will be a function of supply and demand. Landlords will charge whatever the market will bear. Reference: Econ 101. If you want lower market rents hope for excess supply.

          • Anthony

            Exactly. I thought the excepts highlighted pretty specifically how minimum parking requirements affect supply.

          • TakeFive

            Then why do most developers build waaay more parking than even required? At the risk of repeating myself “I’ve never seen so much residential development in and around downtown.”

            Look, I respect the thesis of the argument. It’s totally logical. Except it’s based on a static model and arbitrary parameters. We live in a dynamic world where we humans make emotional decisions and then rationalize them after the fact.

            Incidentally, if I had a dollar for every economist who has been wrong I’d be fabulously well off. That’s “Just the Way it Is.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOeKidp-iWo

  • JustJake

    This is less of an issue that actually impacts housing costs, and more of a symbolic issue that advocacy groups want to take a stand on. With so much grandstanding and extremism by opponents, the granule of credibility in their position is lost in the discussion.

    • MT

      It’s one factor in housing costs, not a solution to housing prices in Denver by any means. I think it’s a big issue to some because it’s moving the wrong direction, a small step, but in the wrong direction.

      • JustJake

        If you really wanted to further your end goal, perhaps focus on the war and not the battle. The tendency for advocacy groups to become sanctimonious, to preach, and to use hyperbole and extreme conclusions, frankly, work counter to your end goal.

        Might try being more reasonable, logical, and more understanding of other perspectives, and of the slow manner in which the tides of society turn. Or continue with the ranting and foot-stomping, it’s your choice.

        • MT

          I feel like you’re projecting.

          • JustJake

            That would be misdirected. I have no substantive issues with the status quo.

          • MT

            But you do all the things you complain about in defense of it.

          • JustJake

            I feel like you’re deflecting.

            “I feel like you’re projecting”

          • MT

            I feel like you ignored any debate on the original topic and decided to attack “advocacy groups” instead.

  • Robert T. Ives

    Ha.

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