Antiquated to Elevated: Building a Bond Project
This is part eight of the Streetsblog Denver series covering the Elevate Denver General Obligation bond. Every week, we’ll dissect biking, walking, and transit upgrades across the city. We’ll explore the planning aspects behind key projects in addition to considering how these changes will affect the lives of people in the communities where they are located. Read parts one, two, three, and four, five, six, and seven.
Over the last few months, this series has focused on a number of specific projects funded by the Elevate Denver General Obligation (GO) bond. As part of the nearly billion dollar package, most of these projects already have their preliminary designs complete, feasibility studies done, and a rough estimate of their budgets so that the City has an idea of how much money to issue at a time. In selecting these projects, a goal of the GO bond process was to ensure that these projects came to City officials from concerned residents who wanted to make a change in their own backyards, not just what the City thought people wanted done. But how does that process actually work? How does a mobility problem faced by residents eventually become an element of a massive, municipal bond? Here’s a hint: it’s a long process filled with continuous effort, strategic planning and a little creativity.
Starting in the spring of 2017, the City began the process of narrowing down the list of proposed transportation and mobility projects. In order to do this, a GO Bond stakeholder committee made up of local leaders, city staff and members of the public who volunteered was formed to deliberate and select the final projects for City Council’s approval. The transportation committee members were given a binder full of proposed projects located around the city to hear public comment on and discuss. After three months of meetings, the committee divided the selected projects into three different tiers based on importance. Once the final proposal was set, the committee sent off the Elevate Denver bond package for City Council to approve and for Denver residents to vote on in November of 2017.
In the Overland Park neighborhood, Mara Owen, co-president of the Neighborhood Association (OPNA), and other concerned residents had been advocating for a safer crossing over Santa Fe Drive than what currently existed at Evans Avenue, with many suggesting a new bike and pedestrian bridge at Jewell Ave. During Denver Days in 2014, the OPNA organized a March for Safety across the bridge at Evans to demonstrate that pedestrians and cyclists rely on the bridge and that safety improvements were needed. Additionally, using money from the City of Denver Urban Arts Fund, community members came together to create a mural on the bridge to make it more a pleasant space for people walking and biking and to draw attention to the number of people, outside of their cars, that use this crossing every day.
Volunteers painting the mural on the Evans Avenue bridge. Courtesy of Mara Owen
Though these events were exciting ways to bring people together, advocating for change also required long hours of difficult and time-consuming work. Owen mentions that “while getting people to rally around the fun is important, understanding that the not-fun things need to be done in order for your goal to be accomplished is equally important. Going to City Council meetings and waiting hours to speak your three minutes is not fun.” She adds, “Not everything is going to be exciting, but it’s what we need to do to make something happen.”
In August of 2015, the West Colfax Business Improvement District put on the “Re-imagine Colfax” event with local partners. For just a day, the BID used potted plants and chalk to transform a block of Colfax Avenue into a place that better served people and cyclists instead of cars. Between Tennyson and Utica streets, they installed a protected bike lane, colorful striped crossings, and wider sidewalks. Not only was this event a pleasant way to bring local residents together, it was a chance to get information on the current and future pedestrian experience. “We were able to get a ton of data by surveying the attendants, both qualitative and quantitative,” explains Dan Shah, West Colfax BID Executive Director. “After the event, they wanted to see these changes permanently for West Colfax.” Using this data, the West Colfax BID then drafted a report to explore possible designs with planners and engineers at the City. Many of these changes became part of what is now the pedestrian improvements for Colfax in the Elevate Denver Bond.
Chalkboards set up for input at the Re-imagine Colfax Event. Courtesy of West Colfax BID
Shah also noted the importance of keeping in contact with elected representatives and city staff from early stages of a project—like a community event—to its funding and through until completion. “The project doesn’t just end once you have the bond funding,” he says. “It requires persistence and diligence in order to see a project through to its completion in a way that meets the goals you set out for it when you first started advocating for it.” For West Colfax, that meant constant communication with the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure and the City Councilors who represent their districts.
After years of advocating to reclaim urban space back for bicyclists and pedestrians in their communities, both Owen and Shah saw their hard work start to pay off, with the Jewell Avenue Bridge in Overland Park and the West Colfax pedestrian improvements being included in the Elevate Denver bond. Both of these wins for residents tell a story about how, with some clever ideas and a whole lot of gusto, neighbors can come together to make positive change where they live, even when it seems impossible. “The neighborhood had struggled for a long time with how normal people could get something of that size done,” says Owen. “Getting something built just seemed so out of the range of what we could do, but we just tried it anyways.”
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