Denver District 1 Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval was elected in June and took office, replacing her former boss, Councilman Rafael Espinoza, in July. She sat down with the North Star to talk about what she’s accomplished and learned thus far.
Sandoval said her former experience as a council aide to both Councilwoman Judy Montero and Espinoza has provided her with invaluable knowledge of the city. “Having a good solid foundation and base having worked out of a council office has given me an advantage over my new colleagues in our cohort who look at and ask me for advice on how to navigate the system and best practices,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to help them solve problems.”
She said she knows she doesn’t have all the answers, but said she wants to operate differently than her predecessors. “I don’t want to be the council person who forces my ideas on others. I really want to be working together,” she said. “It felt real top-down instead of bottom-up, and I want to have a different approach to bring people along.”
Moving the District 1 Office into North Denver
She also said she thinks her office is different because she is “getting the bureaucrats out of their comfort zone and into my district,” she said.
During the campaign, many residents asked candidates to look into moving the District 1 office out of the City and County building downtown into North Denver so it would be more accessible — and Sandoval did just that. She said it has consumed a considerable amount of her time, but she was able to move the office into the Platte River Rowing Company building at 18th and Platte on Nov. 20.
“It was a lengthy, extensive process,” she said, adding that she was able to win a unanimous vote of approval by her council colleagues in their operations meeting. “I had to find the money and a location and then bring a supplemental budget request to the mayor and my colleagues. … It was way more work than I ever anticipated but I got it accomplished.”
She said she chose the Lower Highlands location — which is closer to residents than the city and county building but cut off from the rest of the district by I-25 — based on staff needs for space and parking availability. “A lot of the locations I looked at were … really small square footage for the price,” she said. The new office location costs $30,000 per year. “I found this location and it was a good price for being in the central business district, and had amenities for my staff.” Plus, she said she didn’t have any budget to do tenant improvements, and this space didn’t need any.
Addressing Land Use and Development
Sandoval said she’s proud of work she is doing with the Chaffee Park community to consider allowing accessory dwelling units (ADUs) throughout the neighborhood without additional approvals (see the November-December issue of the North Star for a detailed article on this). She is also working on zoning overlays in both Sunnyside and Harkness Heights that would add a level of design detail requirements above and beyond the zoning for the area.
Sandoval said she is also pushing for more street level activation, meaning multi-story buildings in areas like on Tennyson Street should have commercial businesses on the ground floor and residential on upper floors. She said that business districts that used to have street cars were usually zoned for commercial use. However, she said that a lot of the development going in now is residential, like in areas on Tennyson, and “people don’t want it,” she said. “They want ground floor retail. So, I’m looking at how to require that going forward.” She noted that Berkeley Regis United Neighbors’ zoning and planning committee and Heather Noyes of Studio CPG are assisting the effort.
Sandoval said she’s also assisting several University of Colorado-Denver master’s students with their capstone project about the 41st and Fox street transit and adjacent area. “What’s happening in development is that a lot of the primary streets are getting the most streetscape improvements,” she said. She said she wants to look at how to ensure secondary streets get better streetscape treatments to draw people’s attention toward transit area developments to encourage them to discover and use transit.
Sandoval was appointed by council to sit on the Affordable Housing Zoning Incentive Task Force beginning in January. The task force will review transit corridors and station area plans to determine how to improve affordable housing options in those areas. She said that 41st and Fox street is the only transit area in North Denver, but that she also wants to be looking at other primary transit corridors like Colfax, Federal and Sheridan.
Sandoval said she comes to most decisions based on the feedback she gets from people. “I get a lot of emails,” she said. “And public testimony really does make an impact. Sitting on those hard pews late into the night; that’s democracy at its finest.”
While many of City Council’s votes have been unanimous, a few stand out as more contentious, including the vote to end contacts with a private company that ran halfway houses and also (unrelated to the city contracts) has ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) facilities. Sandoval sided with ringleader and fellow freshman Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca and a majority of council on the initial vote. Afterward, many questions arose about where people housed in those facilities would go and whether the only option was back to prison. A few weeks later, council reversed themselves and unanimously approved shorter term contracts with the companies. Sandoval said it was a hard issue for many on council. Regarding council quickly getting on the contract cancelation bandwagon and then reversing, Sandoval said, “I don’t think [Councilwoman CdeBaca] quite understood about the moratorium that had been in place,” noting it’s hard to expand the number of beds in any group living facility.
Another late night for council resulted from a rezoning proposal at 17th and Sheridan, where a group of homeowners were hoping to collectively sell their property with higher zoning, but didn’t have a buyer in place yet. Ultimately, the rezoning request failed, with Sandoval opposing. Neighboring Councilwoman Jamie Torres voted in favor. Sandoval said one of the reasons she opposed the rezoning was because city staff gave bad recommendations on the appropriate zoning.
“I don’t think main street zoning is appropriate for Sheridan. The landowners haven’t formed a coalition to all sell at the same time. The covenant was null and void. There were many factors in that rezoning. Everyone kept saying I was going to support it because Rafael was going to because of the sidewalks; I’m not just going to make a decision because Rafael was going to,” Sandoval said, noting her opinion was also heavily swayed by the public comments in opposition.
2020 Work Plans, Listening Sessions
Sandoval said the office move and land use work have consumed all her time, so she hasn’t “taken a lot of time to look at our 2020 work plan.” She said the things she has underway will require six to 10 months to complete before she is able to focus on other projects.
Asked about her campaign promise to hold a “congresso”-style community meeting to gather input on her office’s priorities, she said she still hopes to do something like that toward the end of the first quarter of 2020. She said she wants to get people together in different groups and “go a few layers deeper than RNOs” (registered neighborhood organizations) to get input, but she feels there are too many meetings happening right now. “We want to be more thoughtful about the approach to listening sessions so I can hear what people feel is missing in Northwest Denver.”
One thing she has done to hear from residents was to continue former Councilman Espinoza’s existing “coffee in the community” idea, meeting people in coffee shops in different neighborhoods. She extended them by an hour and moved them an hour later. Currently, the sessions are from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. She said it was “unexpected and cool” to find so many people coming in to meet with her during their lunch hour. She hopes to expand the meetings to Saturdays once a month in 2020, as all times are currently during normal weekday work hours and inaccessible to many.
She said she is also working with school principals and other local elected officials to jump in on existing meetings, and she’s working to reach out to senior centers so she can go meet with residents there instead of them having to go to her.
Finally, she said her City Council website has the ability to submit comments to her online and she hopes that helps younger people reach out as well, noting that one North High School student had already used it to contact her. The website is denvergov.org/content/denvergov/en/denver-city-council/council-members/district-1.html.
Councilwoman Sandoval’s new office is located at 1810 Platte St. She and her staff can also be reached at 720-337-7701 or firstname.lastname@example.org.