Questions loom about implementing Denver’s sidewalk initiative

In a city strewn with cracked, crumbling and even nonexistent sidewalks, a huge influx of cash is on the way to address the problem courtesy of Denver voters who supported Initiated Ordinance 307 in the Nov. 8 election.

But pedestrians and wheelchair users should continue to watch where they walk and roll. Depending on which estimated timeline one chooses to believe, it could take anywhere from nine years to almost three decades for that money to bring new, accessible walkways to every nook and cranny of the city. Cost estimates swing between the proponents’ $850 million and north of $8.5 billion according to the city public works officials.

Denver’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure says there are 300 miles of missing sidewalks in Denver and 830 miles of sidewalks that are too narrow for wheelchair users or parents pushing strollers. City officials don’t have a full inventory of damaged sidewalks yet. Creating a sidewalk master plan is one of the first steps Ordinance 307 requires.

Given the scope of the problem and the wide gulf in how much time and money it is expected to take to create a complete city-wide sidewalk network, critics like District 2 City Councilman Kevin Flynn argue that 307 isn’t even a workable program as written.

As was the case with another ambitious voter-approved measure, 2017’s green roofs ordinance, backers of 307 say they are ready and willing to work with city leaders to make sure the sidewalk fees deliver. Revisions, including City Council amendments, are possible if not outright likely.

The next 13 months will be telling as financial frameworks and other specifics are worked out. Don’t expect to see tons of concrete being poured in Capitol Hill, Villa Park or any other Denver neighborhood where sidewalks heave, jut or end abruptly.

“There are so many broken sidewalks in the city and everyone wants their sidewalks to be fixed first,” said Jill Locantore, executive director of the Denver Streets Partnership, which led the 307 campaign. “We’re going to learn a lot over the next year as we start digging into the details of exactly how we are going to implement this.”

Locantore’s advice for property owners with sidewalks in urgent need of repair: Wait. The city still has to work out its priorities for sidewalk projects, though a rough framework was laid out in the city’s 2019 Denver Moves: Pedestrians & Trails plan. That plan called for prioritizing work on streets with high rates of traffic deaths.

In the meantime, she urges all Denverites to report damaged sidewalks to the city via the 311 customer service phone line or the website.

“That is useful data that the city can incorporate … when coming up with a plan of attack,” Locantore said.

It was the closest race on the Denver ballot in 2022, but Ordinance 307 still passed by more than 31,000 votes, according to unofficial results.

It replaces Denver’s longtime system of making sidewalk repairs and installation the sole responsibility of individual property owners with a fee structure. Homeowners and commercial property owners will now be charged annually based on how much sidewalk frontage they have and the type of sidewalk recommend for the streets along which their property is located. The estimated average cost for a property with 50 feet of sidewalk along a residential street was around $107 a year but bills will vary significantly.

The city estimates that the fees will bring in close to $40 million a year over the next five years and more after that.

Among the chief criticisms lobbed at the ordinance in the leadup to the election was that it would be inequitable for people who live on corners or have unique properties that might have sidewalks on three sides. Flynn found homes that could pay more than $1,000 a year, while his own house, on a cul-de-sac, would only face an annual bill of $75.

Supporters heard those arguments and are willing to look for workarounds.

“I think there are some amendments we can make to try to smooth out those rough edges,” Locantore said, though she did not offer specifics.

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The measure has also been criticized for not giving breaks to people who recently paid for repairs and now face fees despite having sidewalks that should be in good shape for years to come. The ordinance’s authors tinkered with ideas around that but with variables such as when the repairs were made and how property owners paid for the work to consider, they steered clear of that, Locantore said. She would not be opposed to the council tackling those concerns.

While the ordinance language clears the way for 20% discounts for homeowners living in neighborhoods the city has deemed vulnerable to gentrification and displacement, Locantore is open to expanding that. She noted that the City Council approved a new pay-as-you-throw trash collection program earlier this year that offers discounts to people making below 60% of the area median income. The sidewalk fees could piggyback off of that, also providing breaks to people who qualify for discounted trash collection.

City officials are in the early stages of putting together a working group that would involve City Council members, the mayor’s office and the transportation and infrastructure department to take a closer look at the ordinance. Under the city charter, the City Council can’t amend a voter-approved ordinance until six months after its final passage. Any amendments — or attempts at repeal — require a public hearing and nine out of the 13 council members to vote in favor.

District 6 Councilman Paul Kashmann is poised to be part of that working group.

Kashmann voted for Ordinance 307 but he said he didn’t endorse it in the lead-up to Election Day because he had misgivings about the fee structure format and felt the timeline proponents campaigned on was “more than optimistic.” Still, he feels the measure is an overdue step in the right direction in a city where many people are faced with the prospect of having to use the street because sidewalks are too narrow or treacherous.

He’s not advocating for any amendments yet, but Kashmann thinks pivoting to more of a user fee as opposed to what is essentially an extra property tax may be appropriate.

“I think all residential property owners on like street types should pay the same amount,” Kashmann said. “I’m not just paying this fee so my sidewalks are in good shape but when I walk by your house, your sidewalk is as well.”

He believes that the transportation department’s 25-30 year time estimate is much more realistic than what proponents have talked about so far.

“That’s based on what they think the industry could provide in terms of labor and materials,” he said of the city’s projections.

In the near term, city staff will be focused on the nuts and bolts of the measure. That means developing a financial framework and setting up an enterprise fund to receive the sidewalk fees once they are collected.

“What the November election showed us is that the majority of voters are willing to take a personal financial interest in building a better sidewalk network for Denver,” the transportation and infrastructure department said in a statement. “Timeline and revenue assumptions in the ordinance will be further analyzed, refined and communicated as we move into next steps and educate the public on the master plan and proposed implementation plan.”

The creation of an enterprise fund is key to accelerating the timeline. The city can issue bonds against the fund’s income. The Denver Streets Partnership estimated that if the city issued $850 million worth of bonds, that could pay for the entire buildout in nine years, though Locantore acknowledged that “as we get into the weeds of implementation and figure out what all the challenges are that timeline might need to be adjusted.”

As opposed to recent large bond packages that went to voters citywide, enterprise fund bonds can be issued with just City Council approval. That might be a tough sell when Councilman Flynn already believes that figure is far too low to achieve the work promised.

“We vote on slogans but we have to implement the details,” Flynn said.

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