Fearful of rising crime and vagrancy, Denver-area business owners are increasingly patrolling their property or hiring expensive private security.
Chris Waggett manages 70 acres at the corner of Broadway and Alameda, with a Safeway and Sam’s Club and a new apartment project that just opened. The site, known as Broadway Park, is a couple miles south of downtown, but Waggett said he always knows when the city breaks up a homeless encampment there.
“The big issue I’ve got is that when we do sweeps downtown or do pushes at Union Station, all it causes are people to push down the light rail corridors,” he said. “All we’re doing is playing Whack-A-Mole.”
Waggett said he’s lost three retail tenants, including an Ace Hardware store, because of crime and vagrancy. Employees are too scared to come to work, he said.
Waggett is now paying $500,000 a year for private security to patrol the property and try to deter vagrancy. But he said he regularly sees excrement, prostitution and open drug use. And his hired security is sometimes too frightened to confront drug dealers.
“We’ve had a very laissez-faire, permissive attitude and people don’t understand the economic consequence to the city,” Waggett said.
“We need leadership with a capital L: We need leadership not only in enforcing the law and addressing the three-pronged problem of homeless and drug use and mental health,” he said.
Walter Isenberg’s Sage Hospitality Group manages three prominent downtown projects — Union Station, McGregor Square and Dairy Block — in addition to operating other hotels in the city.
He said his annual security bill is now $3 million to staff the three projects with armed security 24 hours a day. When Union Station opened almost 10 years ago, the security bill was $250,000, he said. Dairy Block had about the same cost to patrol until recently.
Isenberg said Union Station has lost one tenant because of crime, but the tenants at all three projects don’t pay any additional costs for the security.
“The tenants can only absorb so much rent,” he said.
Isenberg’s guards police the properties and remove disruptive people outside the property boundaries.
“We pay a lot of taxes and we’re not getting services,” Isenberg said.
The crisis isn’t just downtown.
Jamie Harris owns 12 shopping centers around the region, in Thornton, Aurora, Lakewood, and Wheat Ridge along with Denver. He said he gets calls three times a week from tenants alarmed by homelessness.
“At some centers it leads to theft,” Harris said. “At others it’s just a nuisance with trash and drug paraphernalia, or people sleeping on doorsteps. It’s unbelievable.
“Our tenants are so frustrated.”
Harris said he hasn’t lost any retail tenants, but the homelessness crisis makes operating a business far more stressful and dangerous.
He said a homeless man moved into a utility room at one property in Aurora and was discovered only because he was grilling food inside and the smoke wafted within view of Harris’ maintenance staff. Other property owners report similar problems with vacant buildings poised for development: squatters move in and other burglars strip the property of anything valuable, like copper.
Fires are also a common threat that can destroy an entire property and nearby ones, too, as BusinessDen has previously reported. Other business owners interviewed by BusinessDen watch security cameras and rush to their buildings when they see fires set outside their properties.
Harris said he pays $160,000 for unarmed security to patrol seven of his shopping centers, a cost he passes on to the tenants.
“If I ever ask if they want it taken away, they say no. They are willing to pay to keep property cleaner and fewer vagrants,” Harris said.
He patrols other properties himself armed with bear spray.
Harris said he checks in on one vacant property he’s owned for decades at the corner of Colfax and Wadsworth once a week, and needs to call Lakewood police each time.
“The police can’t really do anything except push people off my property and have them leave,” Harris said.
“For a while I really tried to have a conversation and say, ‘hey, this is private property you need to move out,’ but the nice-guy approach didn’t work. It does not work … A lot of these people are very, very troubled, addicted to drugs or mentally ill,” Harris said.
“When you look at San Francisco or Portland, the method of being nice and trying to be helpful is not working.”
Indeed, over the last 10 years, homelessness and crime has skyrocketed in Denver and other large cities.
Car break-ins, for example, doubled from 2020 to 2022 while car theft tripled. Assaults rose 30 percent. Arson and murder rates also rose. The Denver Police Department was unable to provide statistics on how often Denverites call about homelessness.
Denver has a ban on unauthorized camping, resoundingly supported by Denver voters during an attempted repeal in 2019, but it’s inconsistently enforced. Impromptu campsites proliferate all over the region, including RVs parked in industrial neighborhoods and tent encampments under bridges or on sidewalks in the downtown core.
Denver’s 2023 budget to combat homelessness is now around $250 million, and the city has been funding the purchase of hotels to house the homeless. But a dozen business owners interviewed by BusinessDen report no improvement in homelessness.
And so each business is having to tackle security on its own, unable to rely on the local police departments to keep customers, employees and property safe. Banks are adding private security so no one uses drugs in branch bathrooms, while construction companies are adding security at night to prevent homeless from breaking in and destroy property or injuring themselves.
Waggett, the developer with 70 acres in Baker, said the crisis must be fixed by government leaders.
“It’s impossible for the private sector to solve these problems if the public sector isn’t setting the tone and direction … It’s a challenge for the incoming mayor and council: If they think it’s business as usual, they’re delusional,” he said.
This story was reported by our partner BusinessDen.
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