Denver Nirvana for Transit, Housing

By John Dorschner
    Denver's housing director described on Thursday night something close to nirvana for a standing-room-only crowd of Miamians concerned with solving the county's two overwhelming problems -- nightmare traffic and severe lack of affordable housing.
    Ismael Guerrero, director of the Denver Housing Authority, told how stops on Denver's ambitious light rail lines were serving as locations for desperately needed public and affordable housing.

    As all government policy geeks know, such arrangements not only provide needed housing, but reduce street traffic by giving residents ready access to travel by rail.
    Denver has become a go-to place for Miami-Dade leaders. Several dozen of them traveled to the Mile High City last year, to study how the area had created a complex rail system -- something that Dade leaders have been talking about for decades without taking action.
    Using geek-speak to an audience the downtown Miami Center for Architecture and Design, Guerrero said, "TOD has been an amazing economic driver in the region."
    TOD is transit-oriented development -- the idea that developers like to build near mass transit because it gives office workers and apartment residents easy access to travel, which increases the value of their properties.
    In Denver's case, housing authorities began planning developments around proposed rail corridors long before they were built.
    Guerrero noted that one of the areas, in West Denver, was ranked by the American Planning Association as one of 10 "Great Neighborhoods" in the country.
    Denver, which is a combination city-county government, also has been a leader in passing inclusionary zoning, in which large developers are required to contribute to an affordable housing fund -- a concept that has been embraced by more than 500 local governments nationwide, but has gone nowhere in Miami-Dade.

                                   "Show Me the Money" 

     On Thursday, after Guerrero spoke, a panel discussed whether Miami could adapt any of Denver the ideas. 
Terry Murphy
    Many local committees have been meeting to discuss expanding mass transit and finding affordable housing, but there's no money to fund the ideas.
    Terry Murphy, senior policy advisor for County Commission Chairman Jean Monestime, told the audience that the inclusionary housing issue now "has traction" locally because at present there's a "progressive commission."

    Last year, Commissioners Xavier Suarez and Barbara Jordan both discussed the possibility of requiring developers to contribute an affordable housing fund, but Truly Burton, a spokeswoman for South Florida developers, responded that builders heatedly opposed any required contributions.
    Neither commissioner has yet to introduce a resolution, and Suarez said some weeks ago that the concept might not be able to through the commission.
    A major problem for both transit and housing is that local residents are prone to blocking action -- "not in my backyard." Guerrero said that Denver had been able to work around NIMBI sentiments, but Miami-Dade  activists worry that it will continue to be a problem as many county commissioners demand what their own district voters want and don't care about any other district.
    Fernando Arencibia, a real-estate broker, told the audience Thursday that there needed to be a "paradigm shift" in thinking away from the NIMBI philosophy. "It requires a certain amount of sacrifice."
    While transit committees have been discussing various corridors for rail or rapid bus lanes, several commissioners, including Dennis Moss and Suarez, have insisted that all the corridors must go forward at the same time -- even though there is no funding for any of them, and finding funding for all simultaneously is a daunting task, to say the least.
    On Thursday, Alice Bravo, Miami-Dade's transit director, said, "There's going to be a big debate in the next few months on which corridor comes next." 
Alice Bravo

     In previous statements, she has pointed out that Denver moved forward by prioritizing its lines based on ridership estimates.
    Bravo has been working for months on a new transit plan to be presented by County Mayor Carlos Gimenez. The mayor's spokesman said first the plan would be released by the end of January, then he said by the end of February. On Thursday, Bravo said it would be by the end of this month.
    One possible source of transit funding, now working its way through the Legislature is using dollars from the toll-rich Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, which has been criticized by transit activists for supporting half-billion-dollar flyovers and a "Signature Bridge" rather than focusing on desperately needed mass transit.
    Murphy noted in an interview that all MDX building must be approved by the little-known Metropolitan Planning Organization, a body that has been repeatedly criticized by activists for doing little for many years.
    Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine has blasted the MPO because it's "very difficult to get anything done.”

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