Driving the streets of northwest Denver, Jessica Dominguez sees the new and the old.
There are the physical changes: the angular, plywood forms of new homes under construction, the Victorian houses splashed in a new coat of bright purple.
And then there’s the invisible side: She parks in Sunnyside in front of her first house, near the tree she planted with her father. She’d never be able to afford it today on a teacher’s salary, and now she sees her colleagues in education forced out of the area.
“The neighborhood is prospering economically. Buildings are going up. But inside the classroom …,” says Dominguez, an elementary school teacher of 17 years, letting her sentence trail off. In one recent first-grade classroom, she said, two of 18 kids were homeless.
It has driven her to a new kind of engagement — one that’s happening throughout the neighborhood. She’s advocating for affordable housing and, recently, paying much closer attention to local politics. District 1 has one of the most contentious council races this year, a political scramble with seven candidates on the ballot.
To some, Northwest Denver is an urbanist success — new buildings densely clustered tightly near shops not far from downtown. To others, it’s a failure of design with its notorious “slot homes.” And beneath it all there’s the erosion of the community that stayed here through decades of disinvestment.
The candidates — at least so far — have been dancing a careful routine, some flirting with or even embracing the benefits of construction, others promising to give residents more power. It’s the race that represents the future of Denver, and the results will be revealing.
This is the third election in a row that will bring a new council member to District 1. In 2015, incumbent Susan Shepherd lost to upstart Rafael Espinoza in a race dominated by questions about the pace and appearance of development.
“Nothing was being done to sort of temper the character of development,” Espinoza said recently. In four years bulldogging developers and city government, he won new requirements to keep neighbors informed about development, and he fought to contain “slot homes,” the style that lines up dense “sideways” residences on lots among older homes.
This year, though, Espinoza is skipping the election, saying he would be more effective as a citizen. He’s still involved in the race: His former aide, Amanda Sandoval, is the second-highest fundraiser, and he has strongly supported her.
Some of the city’s most intense redevelopment has hit District 1. For example, Jefferson Park and Sunnyside both have absorbed about 700 new residential units since 2015, resulting in whole blocks of residential redevelopment, according to a Denver Post analysis.
“In 2015, I feel like we were just starting to recover,” said Cole Huling, 35. “In the last few years, a lot of things have exploded.”
The new construction has “really divided the neighborhood,” said Kalle Anderson, an eight-year resident living near Sloan’s Lake. He and his neighbors are fighting a proposed apartment building on the block behind theirs.
“I look at them and get this bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. How am I going to live with 50 windows looking down?” he said.
Redevelopment can bring new wealth and amenities, but that surge of interest also brings aesthetic concerns and higher tax bills. And there’s a sense of cultural change, too. Espinoza says that some new residents have failed to integrate, instead complaining about St. Rocco’s Feast and other community events.
But, despite the district’s rapid growth, the election hasn’t turned into an all-out fight over development. Instead, the candidates are scrapping for an edge as they chase similar transit and housing priorities.
Where they stand
In order of ballot appearance:
Praj Kulkarni, 37, is running on the “YIMBY” — yes-in-my-backyard — platform. “More than anything else, here in Denver, we need more homes – more homes of all shapes and sizes. We need more granny flats. We need more duplexes and triplexes,” he said.
Kulkarni, an IT systems architect, is still open to tightening aesthetic standards on development.
He’s also more skeptical than others about calls to boost the minimum wage, saying a large increase could inadvertently hurt the working class.
Victoria Aguilar, 36, works for Denver Human Services and co-chairs the city’s Immigrant and Refugee Commission.
Her run was prompted in part by the changes sweeping the neighborhood, focusing on mental health, housing and other services.
”I’m running for office because as a lifelong resident, just like you, I’ve seen the changes in our neighborhood. I’ve seen buildings coming down – I’ve seen lifelong friends displaced from their homes,” Aguilar said at a recent forum.
Sabrina D’Agosta, 41, argues that her political experience in John Hickenlooper’s state and city administrations will be key in getting sidewalks and other priorities.
She also contends that the city has failed to anticipate the side effects of its growth policies — for example, she said, the ban on slot homes has made it harder to build dense homes in general.
“I don’t think we can stop growth in Denver, and frankly I don’t want to,” she said. “We need to be smarter and more responsible for the growth – and a big part of that is having community voice in the planning process.”
David Sabados, 36, is a longtime presence in Democratic political circles. He has centered his campaign on renters’ rights and transit improvements.
He said that Minneapolis’ recent move to forbid single-family zoning is something “to watch,” but he doesn’t think Denver’s ready for that change.
“Housing hasn’t kept up with growth. Transportation hasn’t kept up with density. Wages haven’t kept up with the cost of living,” he says in his stump speech.
Mike Somma, 64, is a Denver Fire Department lieutenant running on a public service platform. In a candidate questionnaire, he said council has become “a group of mayors-in-waiting.”
He wants to build an electric streetcar network, saying it would more fairly distribute the effects of development.
He’s also skeptical of new development, saying that some new three-story residences don’t fit their surroundings.
Amanda Sandoval, 40, is a former aide to Espinoza and Councilwoman Judy Montero and a current legislative liaison for the Denver Fire Department.
Acknowledging that the candidates share similar priorities, she argues that her previous council work and deep local roots will make her the most effective.
“How are we negotiating that? How are we getting outcomes for all of you when we’re talking about (a change from) two stories to five stories?” she said at a recent forum.
Scott Durrah, 54, is a restaurateur and cannabis entrepreneur. He traces many of the district’s problems to residents’ confusion about development. He would allow residents to “dictate the growth of their neighborhoods” but still wants to see “responsible density.”
“They just felt like no one’s listening to them and they’re being shut out completely,” he said in an interview. “It’s really opening that line of communication.”
He also has called for the city to create “flex transit” lanes that can accommodate light electric vehicles.
For more information, refer to The Denver Post’s candidate questions and answers.