Did Susman and Robb Capitulate to The Mob?
Or, Did They Buy Time for Better Design? Denver City Council President Mary Beth Susman and Council member Jeanne Robb recently issued a joint press release saying they won’t vote for public financing for the Fuqua development proposed for 9th and Colorado. This certainly gives the developer time to do something, but whether that something will produce a better or more popular design is still an open question. In his own press release Jeff Fuqua says that he “fully intends to proceed with the development” and has a “number of options available to reconfigure the financial structure and composition of the development plan.” This implies that he’ll look for money to replace what would have been gained through Tax Increment Financing (TIF) and, if successful, proceed to build the current plan that the neighbors love to hate. Or, he’ll change the composition in a way that could be better—or a whole lot worse—and proceed to build that modified version. Or, he’ll substantially revise the plan and present it, presumably without a Walmart, to the City Council with a request for TIF financing. I suppose we’ll find out soon enough.
It seems more accurate to conclude that the councilwomen capitulated to The Mob. Here’s the crux of the argument from their press release:
Plans for redevelopment of the former Health Sciences Center site owned by the University of Colorado (CU) have been in progress since 2003. In that time, different developers offered site plans that evolved with the developer and the economy. The initial balanced, mixed-use project became more retail-oriented through the years. The proposed insertion of Wal-Mart as anchor tenant created a tipping point for new scrutiny of the project that needs a greater mix of uses if it is to generate increases in retail sales for the area. We are concerned that the project as proposed is more likely to draw from other retail in the area, thus not producing a true tax increment. Our constituents have made their concerns about the current proposal known, and we respect their views. We intend to continue working with our communities, CU, this developer or a future developer, the CBHCD [Colorado Boulevard Healthcare District], and the City administration to find a viable alternative.
All of this strikes me as just a tad disingenuous. The councilwomen must have known that (1) a plan incorporating a “greater mix of uses” and having a much bigger residential component (over three times as much housing, some of it “affordable”) was on the table when Shea Properties bailed on the project in February 2011; (2) financing for this “initial, balanced, mixed use project” proved difficult for Shea to secure; (3) Sembler, when they took over the project in April 2011, was well-known for producing developments with a big box element; (4) candidates to occupy the big box would include Walmart, given that the company has been gearing up for an urban entry for a few years; and (5) selection of Walmart as the anchor tenant would produce a citizen backlash, albeit one that you could reasonably predict would be knee-jerk and poorly informed. Given what we citizens might expect our city councilwomen to know, why didn’t Councilwomen Susman and Robb do what they could to establish—when the actual “tipping point” was reached more than a year ago—the basic parameters of the plan that they now claim to favor? A plan that all parties could have subsequently discussed in the interests of arriving at a “viable alternative”? In other words, where was their civic leadership?
Some citizens have been applauding the Susman-Robb decision as a sign that democracy works, presumably because the councilwomen couldn’t ignore many expressions of opposition in the form of email messages (Councilwoman Susman said she received 423, of which 408 were against the Walmart), petition signatures (the number is unknown), the placing of red yard signs, and the wearing of red shirts. In the Denver Post account of their decision the councilwomen described the constituents from whom they’ve heard as “overwhelmingly against Walmart.” I’m sure they are, but there are over 25,000 residents in the three immediately adjacent neighborhoods. Thus, it would be good to know what “overwhelming” really means. I also can’t help but recall James Madison who, in his Federalist Paper No. 10, noted the threat posed to community by “majority factions,” i.e., “a superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.” For Madison, the best corrective to the majoritarian threat was to enlarge the scope of community, i.e., the number of interests represented at the table of democracy. Minority interests–if not readily apparent from a reconnaissance of front yards in the Congress Park, Hale, or Mayfair neighborhoods–are detectable in social media. It’s not clear that they’ve been fully respected in official circles. They’ve certainly been swamped or, more likely, effectively silenced in the public meetings that I’ve attended because the Redshirts have been so “overbearing.” Councilwoman Susman pretty much confirms as much in her Denver Post interview where she says that:
“The rhetoric had gotten a little heavy. Jeanne and I wanted to calm things down, to say yes, we’re hearing you, we want to think a little harder about the project.”
It’s good that the councilwomen care enough about their constituents’ delicate constitutions to put them into timeout when they think it’s necessary. However, because of their decision public meetings of the CBHD Board have been cancelled until further notice. That’s too bad, because some of these meetings showed signs of breaking out into real exercises in participatory design and negotiated development. At least they did until the project’s anchor tenant was identified. At that point no one—including the councilwomen—demonstrated the kind of curiosity, commitment to research, imagination, creativity, maturity of civic vision, and leadership that’s required to work through the thorny issues (my request of the main players for data that would help clarify some of these key issues remains unanswered). If the rhetoric got heated, then I think our city leaders need to accept most of the blame. When (or if) we meet again it will be interesting to see where Jeff Fuqua’s work on project financing has taken him, and where the councilwomen’s “new scrutiny” and hard thought about what’s best for us at 9th and Colorado will have taken them.