Michael Hancocks legacy as Denver mayor is coming into focus

Michael Hancock has been the mayor of Denver since before a train connected downtown’s Union Station with Denver International Airport.

He was mayor before the first legal recreational marijuana purchase was made in the city.

When he first took office, there was real concern the National Western Stock Show would pull up stakes and move to Aurora. Now the National Western Center campus in Denver is the site of one of the most significant capital improvement projects in the city’s history, even if voters in 2021 rejected Hancock’s request for bond money to build a new arena there.

Hancock was mayor before older neighborhoods were widely remade with boxy apartment buildings. Before tents became much more common sights at parks and along public rights-of-way, despite his support of a camping ban more than a decade ago. Before Denver’s rents and housing prices hit the stratosphere.

When one person holds power for three terms, unfolding over 12 years, his legacy and impact on a city takes many forms, some more outwardly visible than others. The Hancock chapter of Denver’s history weaves together an explosion in the city’s national prominence and population, alongside expanding gentrification, displacement and street homelessness. It features personal blunders, bold initiatives — some of which succeeded wildly, while others fell flat — and the city’s response to a world-reshaping public health crisis well beyond any mayor’s control.

Some of Hancock’s legacy is only beginning to come into view. He’s talked since he took office in 2011 about plans to attract an “aerotropolis” of commercial development around the burgeoning DIA, and it’s a vision that’s just begun to become a reality as he leaves office. Efforts at police reform have made progress — but he acknowledges that much more hard work remains.

With the pandemic and several years of upheaval still fresh in residents’ minds, judging Hancock’s success is a fraught question.

“Twelve years is a long time as a mayor,” said Paul Teske, the dean of the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Public Affairs.

Teske sees widespread frustration and fatigue with Hancock despite the mayor’s trademark upbeat demeanor. Four years after Hancock successfully beat back a runoff challenger, he’s not riding as high now as he leaves office — a measure of the toll of a COVID pandemic that derailed much of his agenda, along with increases in crime, homelessness and housing costs in recent years.

It may take the benefit of time and distance for the full impact of Hancock’s time in office to be digested and weighed after the bitterness of the last four years has faded.

“Most of it, I think, was pretty successful for Michael and the city,” Teske said. “Unfortunately for him, the last couple of years were probably the least successful. … History, I think, will perceive his term pretty positively. But it takes a while to get away from some of the unsolved problems of 2023.”

Looking back on his time in office, Hancock talks about leading Denver both as a job that was deeply gratifying and one that could humble him on any given day.

He celebrates successes such as a recreation center system that is expanding into previously unserved neighborhoods while also giving the city’s young people free admission on his watch.

He started from the bottom: With the city still reeling from the Great Recession and a housing crash, his first task as mayor in July 2011 was shaving $25 million off the municipal budget to balance the books.

Within a few years, the local economy bounced back — and then blasted off.

Denver became one of the most desirable places to live in the country and grew by almost 100,000 people. It was a magnet for young, college-educated professionals — an enviable position that quickly contributed to the city’s growing housing unaffordability problem as developers struggled to build enough new apartments.

Under Hancock, the city ramped up its spending on housing and got more involved in the market than ever. But were his responses sufficient — or did they fall woefully short? That is a question that divides Denver.

“One of the things you learn in this office: You can’t get too low with the lows, you can’t get too high with the highs,” Hancock reflected in an interview. “This is a wonderful, wonderful job, but it does come with a rollercoaster-like journey.

“You know, one day you wake up on top of the world. The next day, you wake up and the world’s on top of you.”

In 2011, Hancock said: “I will not give up on Denver”

Hancock wasn’t a political unknown when he surged past former state Sen. Chris Romer to win the runoff race for mayor in 2011.

He was a two-term city councilman who had represented far-northeast neighborhoods, including his newer subdivision in Green Valley Ranch, and he’d served two years as the council president. Before that, Hancock led metro Denver’s Urban League affiliate.

He captured voters’ attention and imagination, overcoming his better-financed opponent, by centering his campaign on a compelling life story and a message of perseverance and survival. Along with a twin sister, Hancock was the youngest of 10 children raised by a single mom in Denver. Part of that childhood was spent in public housing and homeless. He suffered through family tragedies that claimed the lives of two of his siblings.

The core message of his campaign, as he put it during his inaugural address, was that the city never gave up on him — and “I will not give up on Denver.”

He’s achieved or made headway on many notable campaign planks, from cementing a plan that kept the Stock Show in the city to hiring an outsider as police chief who initiated significant reforms, even as police have faced recurring criticism and legal scrutiny for use of force and tactics. He closed the city’s budget gaps, then won city voters’ approval to release Denver from property tax spending caps under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, a move that, coupled with surging sales tax revenue, allowed for a significant expansion of local government.

Even some lesser campaign focuses, such as moving the city to the pay-as-you-throw trash collection fee model, eventually came to pass. In that case, the City Council voted to enact the program in 2022, and it took effect earlier this year — though not without ongoing delays and hiccups for some components.

Hancock and his administration have launched a slate of large city projects — the $1 billion-plus National Western Center that has a lot of work to go, a Colorado Convention Center expansion that’s nearing the finish line, an overhaul of the 16th Street Mall that’s underway, several big expansions and renovations at DIA, and two voter-approved bond programs totaling $1.3 billion in capital projects.

Not all of those went off without a hitch. At DIA, the Great Hall terminal renovation devolved into major disputes that resulted in Hancock and the city terminating the original partnership contract and hiring new lead contractors who will be at work for another five years on an expanded $2.1 billion project.

He’s got a mixed record on other initiatives. Vision Zero, a plan to eliminate traffic deaths on Denver’s streets by 2030, has seen traffic fatality rates rise to 20-year highs instead, Denverite recently reported.

Hancock also has faced personal scrutiny, including when a police officer in 2018 released a series of text messages from six years earlier, when she was on his security detail, that she said amounted to sexual harassment. He apologized, acknowledging they were “inappropriate” but disputing they were harassment — and had to explain them again during the 2019 election.

He also had to apologize for a bad decision during the pandemic. For Thanksgiving 2020, he asked people not to travel because of the health risks. Then he boarded a flight to Mississippi to spend the holiday with his then-wife, Mary Louise Lee, and daughter.

“I regret it to this day,” Hancock says of that trip.

Looking back on his tenure, Hancock said the best piece of advice he received when he moved into the mayor’s office was not to let the job change him.

“I think the role, the demands of the role, the expectations of the role — you know, you’ve got to stay within yourself to do it,” he said in an interview in his office in December, well before voters picked Mike Johnston as his successor. “And never forget who you represent. You are here representing the city and the 700,000 people who call the city home.”

In the eyes of some of his critics, Hancock let the office change him plenty.

Jeff Fard, a Five Points activist known as Brother Jeff, grew up in working-class northeast Denver, like Hancock. He credits Hancock for rising “from humble origins and making it to those highest levels — and maybe being one of the best who has been able to do that.”

But as Denver grew so rapidly over the last dozen years, the city failed to create the same level of opportunities that benefited Hancock, he said. Instead, it’s become more unaffordable — akin to a larger version of Colorado’s high-priced resort communities, Fard said, with some neighborhoods turning into development “investment zones.”

The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city rose from $796 per month in 2011 to $1,480 per month last year, according to federal data. Most new apartments in the city cost much more than that.

“The average person can’t afford to live here. We call this the mile-high income city now,” Fard said, adding later in an interview: “Every day he has to look in the mirror and remember the calls he didn’t take, the places he didn’t visit, the levers of power he didn’t wield for the people in his own community.”

Even political observers with more centrist viewpoints, like longtime Denver political analyst Eric Sondermann, identify Hancock more with monied interests like developers over the workaday people who voted him into office.

“My overall read of Michael Hancock’s tenure as mayor is he was a fundamentally good man, certainly with some personal challenges, who did not quite meet the moment,” Sondermann said.

Facing unprecedented challenges

But supporters cut Hancock more slack, portraying him as a mayor who faced unprecedented challenges and marshaled city government as best he could to respond to the downsides of all the economic growth.

Janice Sinden, who served as Hancock’s chief of staff for his first five years, recounted moments that she said showed his humanity and his toughness. They included his impassioned drive to beef up and reform the city’s child-welfare system following the abuse death of a 23-month-old boy and his convening of a meeting with gang leaders, amid a sharp increase in killings of teens, to enlist their help in calming tensions.

“He made mistakes, but he’s a beautiful, kind-hearted person — and I just don’t want people to forget that,” said Sinden, now the president and CEO of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

Several years after leaving the administration, she rattled off the mayor’s mission statement from memory: “We will deliver a world-class city where everyone matters.” She thinks he lived up to that mission, and “I think that speaks to his heart and why he chose to spend 20 years in City Hall.”

Current and outgoing City Council members showered Hancock with similar praise last week when they honored him with a proclamation.

Charlie Brown, a former colleague on the council who served his last term during Hancock’s first as mayor, said in an interview that he appreciated that Hancock wasn’t afraid to support the growth and development that transformed Denver — making it more vibrant — even if it created pressures for neighborhoods.

“I like the fact that he’s a good listener, I like his wit and he understands the art of compromise,” Brown said. “I hope the new mayor will embrace all of that.”

Denver’s business community has given Hancock mixed reviews: Lauding his boosterism for the city, helping attract new business investment, while criticizing the way bureaucracy still hampered development and economic growth during the Hancock administration. That includes recurring understaffing in the city’s permitting offices, which has resulted in significant review delays for home renovations up to major new projects.

But J.J. Ament, the president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, said that despite some criticisms, Hancock’s intense focus and support of DIA has been pivotal — even if those expansion projects created hassles for passengers.

“The generational impact of what he’s done with United and Southwest and the physical structure of the airport … I think will be his kind of legacy contribution to our region’s economy,” Ament said. “It was a big deal to build that airport (in the 1990s), but it’s an even bigger deal to have that airport be as connected as it is now.”

During Hancock’s terms, the city has attracted more than a dozen new international flights, adding 10 countries to DIA’s roster of foreign destinations — from Japan to Switzerland. Last year, after one of the world’s fastest airport recoveries from the pandemic, DIA was the world’s third-busiest airport in terms of passenger traffic.

Finding purpose in pandemic response

All the growth and development that defined most of Hancock’s tenure was overtaken in early 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic. Denver was one of the first cities in the nation to take that once-unfathomable step of enacting a stay-at-home order.

Sondermann’s impression of Hancock’s third term was that the mayor was no longer fully engaged in his work. He’s not alone in that critique.

Hancock himself has publicly said he did not have as focused an agenda for his third term as he had for the two that came before it.

But when COVID hit, he saw where he was needed.

“I just shudder to think what it would have been like had an inexperienced administration been faced with the challenges of COVID,” Hancock said at a public forum in the Park Hill neighborhood last fall.

Lakewood Mayor Adam Paul was, at points, on calls with Hancock almost daily during the pandemic. He described his counterpart as always optimistic, kind and generous with his time.

Terrance Carroll, a former Colorado House speaker from Denver who supported Hancock’s candidacy in 2011, believes the lens of time will be kinder to the departing leader.

“I think he’ll be appreciated for the manner in which he handled the last 12 years — especially having initially dealt with an economic crisis,” Carroll said. “He had a very steady hand. And with COVID, he had a very steady hand.”

Hancock expanded city’s role in housing, but was it enough?

Housing and homelessness were the central issues of the crowded 2023 race to succeed Hancock, underlining how much work remains on those issues after Hancock leaves office.

Average home values increased 166.7% during the 12 years Hancock was in office, according to data from Zillow. That astronomical growth, to a nearly $570,000 average, put a mortgage well outside the price range of many average Denverites. Meanwhile, the number of people living unsheltered on the city’s streets more than doubled between 2015 and 2022, according to point-in-time counts performed in those two years.

Critics of Hancock in large part pin those numbers on him. .

But Hancock touted numbers of his own during the waning days of his administration. By his count, his administration played at least some part in the construction of 10,000 units of income-qualified housing and helped an estimated 15,000 people who were unhoused move into more stable housing, more than any administration before him. He established the Department of Housing Stability, or HOST, the city’s first department dedicated solely to housing and homeless resolution, via executive order in 2019.

He rejects the notion that he and his administration reacted too slowly.

When he took office, the city spent no dedicated local money on affordable housing annually and served mostly as a pass-through organization for federal funding, he said. This year, the city’s budget called for more than $250 million in spending on housing and homelessness — a figure made possible by a voter-supported homelessness resolution sales tax and one-time federal stimulus dollars.

“I appreciate people’s reflection. But I think from my seat, I remember the chronology of the city’s engagement on housing,” Hancock said last week in his office on the third floor of the City and County Building, with the walls now bare as he packed up. “We had no infrastructure in the city of Denver whatsoever to begin to make that investment.

“We were building the plane as we were flying it.”

Robin Kniech, whose 12 years as an at-large City Councilwoman overlapped with Hancock’s three terms, credited Hancock with coming around to the idea that the city would have to play a role in housing. But she said he had to be brought along on things like creating a permanent city housing fund.

“It was an evolution to get him comfortable with permanent dedicated funding,” she said. “It was an evolution to get him comfortable with a dedicated (housing) agency.”

Kniech spearheaded a lot of the legislative work that made the city’s expanded role in housing possible, including the 2022 passage of the city’s affordable housing mandate for new development. She worked closely with Hancock’s planning and housing departments on that effort but emphasized that many of the more progressive developments of the Hancock years — including climate action efforts and the establishment of a city-wide minimum wage –were “City Council-catalyzed.”

Hancock’s legacy on homelessness is complicated. He both made unprecedented investments in housing and services but also backed a camping ban that service providers and advocates believe does nothing but move people around and makes it harder to assist them.

John Parvensky led the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless for more than 35 years, working with five different mayoral administrations. He recently retired.

“Unfortunately, part of his legacy is going to be there was a massive explosion in street homelessness,” Parvensky said of Hancock, acknowledging that Denver’s situation was not unique among other high-cost cities.

Though he described Hancock’s engagement on homelessness as coming about reluctantly, Parvensky credits the mayor with eventually getting behind some creative solutions. Those included a social impact bond program that used money from lenders to provide 250 chronically homeless people with stable housing and support services.

But Parvenksy is still critical of the city’s level of investment.

“They can spend hundreds of millions of dollars on convention centers and other public improvement projects,” Parvensky said, “but when it comes to housing and homelessness, the numbers always paled in comparison to the need.”

Unfinished business, but Hancock expresses pride

As the Hancock era ends, the economic impact of COVID has created a sort of mirrored bookend.

The gaping hole in the city’s revenue that existed when Hancock took office is long gone. The city had a record-breaking budget for 2023.

But the emptying out of offices downtown as more employees work from home or on hybrid schedules raises questions about the long-term stability of the city’s tax base. Hancock is optimistic that the city’s big investment in the ongoing overhaul of the 16th Street Mall, while painful now, will pay dividends in the long term — including helping resolve public safety concerns downtown by activating more storefronts.

The city’s public safety departments are in a similar place. When Hancock took over in 2011, the police and sheriff’s departments were beset by controversy and needed to regain the public’s trust. Hancock’s work included hiring Robert White as chief of the Denver Police Department, the first outsider to lead the DPD in decades. White led reforms including efforts to re-write the department’s use-of-force policies before his retirement in 2018. The department also mandated body-worn cameras for officers.

Lisa Calderón, a public safety reform advocate who became one of Hancock’s harshest critics and one of his opponents in his 2019 re-election campaign, said she had high hopes when a Black councilman with a reputation for being accessible to the community was elected mayor.

Instead, she said he made problems with over-policing worse during his tenure.

A jury last year rendered a $14 million judgment against the city for the way police handled the George Floyd racial justice protests in 2020, the highest profile of a slate of more recent police controversies. The city is appealing that verdict.

But progress is being made, according to Robert Davis, a former pastor and leadership coach who has been a top advocate in Denver for public safety reform. He’s served as project coordinator for the Task Force to Reimagine Policing and Public Safety, a community-led effort in which Calderón was also involved. It was convened after the Floyd protests in 2020.

“I have been surprised that we have been able to make the progress that we have, to be honest with you — pleasantly surprised,” Davis said. “The city has been intentional about working with the task force,” even if he thinks Hancock should have made a point of meeting with the group once or twice to forge a common agenda.

Davis’s wider view of Hancock is a “mixed bag” assessment that includes credit for helping foster the city’s economic boom while critiquing his approaches on homelessness, development and management of the police department. The city has paid out record sums in settlements stemming from injuries or deaths in the city’s jails and at the hands of police.

Rising crime and concerns about safety, particularly in schools, have weighed on Hancock as he prepares to leave city hall for the last time.

That includes the killing of East High School student Luis Garcia, who died two weeks after being shot in his car while parked just off school grounds in February.

“We feel sometimes helpless, sitting here knowing what our vision is and recognizing that if we don’t have a whole community moving toward a healthy environment for our young people, then we’re going to all continue to have regrets about incidents in our community,” Hancock said in an interview days after Garcia died.

When asked what achievement he was most proud of from his time in office, Hancock didn’t hesitate: It’s the creation of the MY Denver Card during his first term.

The card grants children and teens 18 and younger free access to the city’s recreation centers, pools and more. “Opening up the city to young people,” as Hancock puts it. He emphasized he never stopped working on ways to boost education, opportunities and stability for young people in Denver.

“One of the things that I want to do, and I said this coming in, is I want this to be one of the top cities for children to develop and grow and be nurtured,” the father of three said last week.

As for what comes next for him, Hancock says he doesn’t know yet. Or at least he’s not saying. But it likely won’t be in government.

“I’ve been successful and blessed in the nonprofit arena. I’ve been successful and blessed in the government arena,” he said. “I’m going to try my hand out in the private sector.”

He’s newly single, after agreeing with his wife to separate and seek a divorce in 2021. Right now, he’s planning to take some time to breathe, to travel and to prep for football season. The soon-to-be-former mayor at one time was a Denver Broncos’ mascot, and he’s often been the city’s sports fan-in-chief.

During his waning days in office, Hancock’s team has been handing out copies of a glossy, 71-page magazine titled “Denver Rising” summarizing the mayor and his administration’s work and contributions to the city. A feature-length documentary film of the same name recently ran on the city’s Channel 8, prompting one last controversy of sorts over the expenditure of city resources on something for which Hancock himself holds the copyright.

Brown, the former councilman, said he hoped more Denverites would develop a positive view of Hancock, a local kid who made good.

“A couple of years — maybe longer — down the road, people are going to appreciate more of what Mike did for our city,” Brown said. “He went to Manual High, he was a waiter at Wellshire (in the golf course’s restaurant), he’s come a long way. But third terms are tough. I think it’s going to take a little time for him to be appreciated, if ever, by some people.”


How Denver changed during Hancock’s time in office

Denver’s many changes between 2011, when Mayor Michael Hancock took office, and now are evident in the numbers below. In some cases, comparable figures weren’t available for all 12 years of his tenure.

93,023: Growth in the city’s population, through mid-2022, according to U.S. Census estimates and the Colorado State Demography Office. Denver grew by nearly 15%, to 713,352 residents last year.

52.9%: Growth in real gross domestic product, an inflation-adjusted measure of economic activity, within the city and county of Denver, through 2021. That is the most recent year available from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

84.3%: Increase in per-capita personal income through 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. The increase in average income, from $53,797 to $99,133, reflects both salary increases as well as a higher share of high-income earners moving into Denver.

167%: Increase in the average estimated home value, from about $213,700 to nearly $570,000, from 2011 through June, according to the Zillow Home Value Index.

86%: Increase in the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment or other home through 2022, from $796 to $1,480 per month, according to the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development. Rents for two-bedroom units increased by nearly 79%, while studio rents went up nearly 92%.

1,057: Growth in the number of people experiencing homelessness in the city from 2015 to 2022, according to the Metro Denver Homelessness Initiative’s point-in-time counts each year. The 2022 count was 4,794, with 27% considered “unsheltered,” or living on the street — a higher proportion than the 16% who were unsheltered in the 2015 count.

187 stores: Number of recreational marijuana shops opened, up from zero when Hancock took office, according to the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses. The city also has 14 stores selling only medical marijuana. But the combined total of 201 storefronts is actually a decrease from the roughly 250 medical marijuana dispensaries Denver had when Hancock took office.

17 flights: New international direct flights added at Denver International Airport, including Tokyo; Paris; Zurich, Switzerland; and a handful of Central American countries. DIA lost some past foreign destinations, but the international roster has grown to 27 destinations in 15 countries, up from just five countries in 2011, according to DIA.

1,918 acres: Parks and open space added by Denver Parks and Recreation, according to the department. More than 1,400 acres of new and existing city-owned open space were legally designated as parkland, which requires voter approval to remove. That’s more than double the acreage designated in the prior half-century.

Stay up-to-date with Colorado Politics by signing up for our weekly newsletter, The Spot.

Source: Read Full Article