Carolyn Chavez has called Denver’s Sun Valley neighborhood home for 66 years.
It’s where she raised six children, and eventually, five of her 10 grandchildren. For decades, she watched friends and family move elsewhere; neighborhood children go off to college or fall into the grips of addiction. She was there when the new Mile High Stadium opened in Sun Valley in 2001 and when the last nearby grocery store closed in 2011. Twice, she moved away, but always felt pulled to come back.
“I’ve been through the good, the bad and the ugly,” Chavez said, as she sat in a metal chair outside her home in a 10-block area of subsidized public housing.
As millions of development dollars flood into Denver’s poorest neighborhood, Chavez and other Sun Valley residents are about to witness the neighborhood’s most profound transformation yet.
A six-phase public housing initiative is slated to redevelop 333 existing units as well as add 417 new, mixed-income ones. And that’s just for starters. Not far away, Meow Wolf, a 90,000-square-foot interactive art exhibit, is planned to open in 2020 and is expected to attract an estimated 1.5 million visitors annually. And perhaps more significant, a $351 million, 52-acre entertainment district has been proposed on the outskirts of Broncos Stadium at Mile High, less than half a mile from Chavez’s doorstep.
“It’s going to be a big change for me,” Chavez said. “I have a feeling I’m gonna kick the bucket when all this stuff is done.”
Since the Denver Housing Authority owns most of the neighborhood’s housing, city officials said Sun Valley could be the model for development without displacement. However, some experts and residents, like Chavez, remain wary that gentrification is on the horizon.
“To me, it’s just moneymaking. That’s all,” said Chavez, who served on the Sun Valley Resident Council for three terms in the late 1970s. “They’re not thinking of the people. It’s all about them getting their property, their money.”
Denver is seventh in the country in terms of extent of gentrification, according to a 2016 ranking from the city’s Office of Economic Development. They defined the extent of gentrification as neighborhood transformation driven by an influx of wealthy and affluent newcomers, which escalates property values and rents and prices out long-time residents. In the same report, Sun Valley was identified as one of Denver’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.
Walled off on all sides from Denver’s bustling downtown, Sun Valley residents have long felt the slow and steady sting of isolation. Filled with more minors than adults, the neighborhood is home to a population of about 1,500 residents, with 79 percent living below the poverty line — a rate six times higher than the city as a whole.
Ninety-four percent of residents live in subsidized public housing, called the Sun Valley Homes.
“We have an opportunity to actually create a neighborhood and create development that respects the integrity of the neighborhood,” said Denver City Councilman Paul Lopez, who represents Sun Valley.
“That creates opportunity for people that are existing in that neighborhood. And that builds a local economy. We have the opportunity to do it right this time.”
As Denver’s population and housing prices continue to escalate, developers are finding new pockets of the city to mine for profits.
The development brings wealthier newcomers to historically low-income neighborhoods, causing housing and rental prices to swell and making it difficult for long-term residents to keep up with the hikes.
Denver city officials say they are working to minimize the negative effects of rapid growth and to halt the narrative of displacement that has rattled through the city and country for decades. At his State of the City address in July, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock talked about growth, the affordable housing crisis and gentrification.
“Denver is on the rise,” he said. “There is a responsibility that comes with change.”
The mayor announced his latest effort to mitigate gentrification: the Neighborhood Equity and Stabilization Team, or NEST, which aims to connect existing resources to help support residents and businesses facing significant changes to their neighborhoods. In August, the mayor announced he will expand the city’s affordable housing fund to $30 million annually from $15 million and extend the lifespan of affordable units in Denver to 60 years from 20 years.
“Many neighborhoods today are facing what Five Points has faced for decades,” Hancock said. “We should never stop investing in our neighborhoods or making the improvements that raise residents’ quality of life. But we should also have strategies to keep families who want to stay in their neighborhoods from being displaced.”
For Yvette Freeman and her beloved Five Points neighborhood, the critical point when Hancock’s efforts could have had an impact came and went a long time ago.
“Once it’s done, there is no going back,” said Freeman, who works as a Senior Strategist for the Progressive Urban Management Associates in downtown Denver.
Five Points’ struggle with gentrification made national headlines in 2017 when the owner of ink! Coffee placed a sign on the sidewalk that read, “Happily gentrifying the neighborhood since 2014.”
The controversial statement sparked street protests and led to widespread outrage on social media and in the news.
“Our country is still rife with racism, and while these new white neighbors are mostly harmless, many of them also seem benign to our existence, our history and what the neighborhood represents for us,” Freeman said.
Today, like many other historically low-income neighborhoods throughout Denver, Five Points looks and feels very different, with modern high-rise apartment complexes, multimillion-dollar homes and new businesses on every corner. The once primarily black neighborhood has dwindled to 16 percent African-American.
From the 1920s to the 1950s, Five Points was the epicenter of Denver’s African-American community, called the “Harlem of the West” for its thriving jazz scene. Frequent visitors included Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole and many other famous musicians.
“They were allowed to perform for their white audiences in downtown, but since they were black, they were prohibited to stay in Denver’s downtown hotels,” Freeman said.
So after they played a show in downtown Denver, they made their way to Five Points for a late-night performance.
“As a result of redlining many years ago, my neighborhood was the only place that black folks were allowed to live,” Freeman said.
Redlining, the discriminatory housing practices enacted by the Federal Housing Administration in 1934, allowed banks and investors to deny loans or mortgages to individuals living in neighborhoods labeled risky or unfit for investment, often areas with high concentrations of African-Americans and immigrants.
The practice, formally outlawed in 1968 with the Fair Housing Act, starved low-income neighborhoods across the country from investment and further perpetuated racial and economic segregation and isolation.
From 1959 to 1974, Five Points’ population shriveled as financially-able families fled to the suburbs — a phenomenon seen across the country — with the population plummeting to 8,700 from 32,000. For decades, the neighborhood grappled with economic disparity, crime and seclusion.
In an attempt to rejuvenate the area, the city in 2002 named Five Points a historic cultural district. Millions of dollars from the private and public sectors poured into the neighborhood, bringing more housing options, businesses and new residents.
From 2000 to 2016, Five Points saw a 56.68 percent spike in average household income, to $81,992 from $35,518 — an indicator urban planners use to identify gentrification.
“Gentrification becomes a process where a range of folks begin to invest in a neighborhood. And begin to try and ‘clean it up’ so to speak,” said Kwame Holmes, assistant professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado.
The process of redeveloping historically low-income neighborhoods hinges on the underlying idea that in order for a neighborhood to be brought up to “standard,” the current population has to be replaced, Holmes explained.
“The negative impacts of gentrification are really just the same ones as poverty, but on steroids,” said Holmes, who has studied gentrifying neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
He said redevelopment of a neighborhood doesn’t address the real causes of strife within a community. The process is simply another version of it.
“It’s two sides of the same coin, which victimize the same population,” Holmes said.
“They’re trying to say, like, ‘How do we fix it?’ But they don’t really mean that,” he said. “They would ask questions about these individuals’ lives if they wanted to fix it, but they’re not asking those questions. They’re asking questions of how can we transform the space?”
Can Sun Valley be different?
When Lisa Saenz and her two children moved to Sun Valley in 2010, they were afraid to go outside.
“There was a lot of violence when I moved here, especially where I lived on 10th and Decatur,” she said. “It was best just to stay inside.”
As she was leaving her house one day, she picked up a flier wedged into her front door. The words “be a part of your neighborhood” and “see all the good things going on” caught her eye.
The flier was for a local resident council meeting.
“I don’t remember exactly what that one meeting was about, and I just kept going to those meetings and then I was nominated to be part of the board,” said Saenz, who is now the vice president of the Sun Valley Community Coalition and works as a community connector for the Denver Housing Authority.
She says the neighborhood has come a long way since she first moved to the area, and it’s only going to get better.
“I’m tired of people talking about Sun Valley in a bad way,” she said. “I don’t agree with what I hear in the media. I want someone to say something good about Sun Valley. That we are strong and united and we are going to be the next best neighborhood in the city.”
Saenz was there in 2013 when the Denver Housing Authority announced its six-phase, $240 million redevelopment plan for the Sun Valley Homes, which will replace the existing 333 units of subsidized housing, built in 1952, with 750 new, mixed-income units. The amount of public housing will remain the same, with the addition of 202 moderate-income housing units and 215 market-rate units, according to DHA’s website.
Throughout the process, Saenz said the DHA hosted open house meetings at the nearby elementary school for residents to be able to ask questions and see rendered photos of what the redevelopment would look like.
“Well I can tell you, not a lot of people went to these open houses. And even now when we do surveys, when we ask them about what they want to see, the things just aren’t realistic,” Saenz said.
“They can’t have townhomes, they can’t have a backyard. That’s just how housing works. In the ideal world, everyone would have a flat unit, or a house. But that’s not going to happen here.”
DHA’s announcement came shortly after the RTD West Rail Line opened in 2013. The new light rail station, part of the Decatur-Federal Station Area Plan, increased residents’ mobility immensely, connecting them to downtown Denver, Lakewood and Golden and boosting the area’s desirability for development.
Then in 2016, DHA and the City and County of Denver were awarded a $30 million Choice Neighborhood grant from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development office to revitalize the entire Sun Valley Neighborhood.
In addition to the redevelopment of the Sun Valley Homes, the grant outlines plans to “improve the neighborhood’s physical and economic landscape by redeveloping vacant land, investing in new commercial and retail spaces, and creating new open spaces.”
The plans also call for a realignment of the neighborhood’s street grid to make the neighborhood more accessible. Currently, the neighborhood is constrained by the South Platte River to the east, Federal Boulevard to the west, West Sixth Avenue to the south and West 20th Avenue on the north.
“Sun Valley’s redevelopment plan is aggressive, it’s really massive,” said Glenn Harper, owner of the Sun Valley Kitchen and Community Center, which opened in 2012.
AUDIO: Sun Valley Kitchen and Community Center
In this audio story by Shannon Mullane, hear Sun Valley residents talk about the Sun Valley Kitchen and Community Center, a fixture in the community that serves many functions.
But what makes Sun Valley special, Harper said, is that it’s primarily publicly owned. Out of the 80 acres of land that make up the neighborhood, the Denver Housing Authority, Xcel Energy and the Denver Metropolitan Stadium District own most of the land.
“Those qualities don’t really exist in other neighborhoods, especially on the scale that it’s going to happen here,” he said. “It’s what’s driving the possibility that Sun Valley could turn into a model of neighborhood transformation for other cities.”
But the rapid pace of development projects in the neighborhood is part of the challenge, said Sue Powers, a private developer with Urban Ventures LLC who sits on the Sun Valley EcoDistrict Board. EcoDistrict is the nonprofit master developer leading the way for the $240 million complete neighborhood makeover, which investors hope will spur even more attention from the private sector.
“I think the biggest challenge we have in Denver right now is figuring out how to bring prosperity to everyone when we have this kind of growth going on in the city,” she said. “It’s very challenging.”
Powers led the Steam on the Platte development, which opened in Sun Valley in 2017. The $65 million, mixed-use office space in a renovated industrial warehouse provides workspaces for tech companies and currently houses Lyft’s service center.
In January 2018, Meow Wolf, an interactive art collective started in Santa Fe, New Mexico, announced plans to build a $50 million, four-story, 90,000-square-foot exhibit space at the edge of Sun Valley. The attraction is supposed to attract nearly 1.5 million visitors to the neighborhood a year.
In March 2018, the Denver Broncos announced their preliminary plans to build a $351 million entertainment district in the stadium’s surrounding parking lots. A venture between the stadium district and the Broncos, the plan will include a new, mixed-use neighborhood destination in Sun Valley. Lopez, Sun Valley’s city councilman, called the project an “economic engine for the future.”
“Gentrification is negative. Period. We can’t confuse gentrification with development,” Lopez said.
To him, responsible community development is all about building community.
“It can’t just be development. It can’t just be these new buildings coming up. That’s not the problem. The problem is much deeper. We’re being intentional and making sure that there’s opportunities for folks who don’t have the kind of money that is flying around in this city — (people) who cannot pay market rent, but have always lived here.”
Harper, who is on the planning committee for the stadium’s proposed entertainment district, feels confident that the redevelopment of Sun Valley will provide more opportunity for residents since they have been involved in the planning process since the beginning.
The DHA, Meow Wolf and the stadium district have hosted dozens of community meetings in Harper’s Kitchen since 2013.
For Chavez, it’s less about how many meetings have occurred, and more about how many people show up. And if they were listened to.
“I used to tell them, come to the meetings, you know, speak up, because not one person can talk for everybody. So you got to come to these meetings and get your word out. So then they don’t show up, and they are asking me what happened at the meeting? I said, ‘Why didn’t you go?’”
But sometimes, the meetings felt meaningless to Chavez.
“I even tell them, why do you want our input? It’s already on paper. So what we have to say don’t matter. That’s just the way I feel,” Chavez said. “I don’t like people who come here and say they are helping, but they are trying to take over.”
Kris Rollerson, executive director of the Sun Valley Youth Center, is excited for the changes to come, but worries that residents don’t fully grasp the ambitious redevelopment plans underway.
“The plans have been underway for so long, who knows if the same people living here now even know about it,” Rollerson said. “Have they been a part of the conversation? Maybe. Maybe not.”
Rollerson has worked with the neighborhood’s youth since 1998. She feels optimistic about the redevelopment plans.
“Whatever comes, I just hope it helps the neighborhood’s youth,” she said.
“Do we have drama? Absolutely. Do we have substance abuse? Absolutely. Are we a food desert? Yes. Do we need more resources? Oh yeah. Do we have domestic violence? Yes. It’s the most welcoming, loving and supportive community because everyone is just trying to survive.”
The commitment the DHA has made to solidify affordable housing throughout the redevelopment process is unique and commendable, said Carrie Makarewicz, an expert in gentrification and assistant professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Colorado Denver.
But she warns that gentrification is not always about physical displacement. When wealthier couples and families move into an area, she explains, so do the yoga studios, high-end coffee shops and expensive restaurants that only some can afford.
“It makes folks feel out of place, unwelcome, even,” she said. “That nothing is there for them anymore.”
“We don’t want to villainize these people who move into neighborhoods because they’re looking for urban amenities. They want a convenient location in the city, and many of them moved there for the diversity,” Makarewicz said. “Obviously, that’s not the whole realm of gentrifiers. It’s also people who are like, ‘I hope I’m the first of thousands that move into this neighborhood and we’ll get in early and others will follow.'”
To help ensure that that doesn’t happen in Sun Valley, Makarewicz is part of a group working with Meow Wolf to write a Corporate Social Responsibility plan.
Since its announcement in early 2018, Meow Wolf has hosted monthly community meetings in Sun Valley and created a 15-person advisory committee, including Sun Valley residents, to develop a corporate social responsibility agreement. The company also announced plans to offer discounted tickets to residents in the area.
“My hope is that everyone recognizes the existing residents and that the plans are shaped by them and with them,” Makarewicz said.
Putting down roots
On lower Colfax Avenue in Sun Valley, five pastel buildings sit in a seemingly calm neighborhood. The Colfax bridge rises above them, and the parking lots of Broncos Stadium jut against their back door. An occasional visitor stops to take a photograph, enamored by the splash of color they provide in an otherwise gray and brown landscape.
In 2020, the buildings will house Adrianna Abarca’s Latino Cultural Arts Center. The buildings, which have been in Abarca’s family since 1972, will feature a food market, museum and a variety of Latino art exhibits.
Abarca hopes the space will become the heart of cultural preservation as Sun Valley develops, and will inspire local young people to grow up with a strong sense of cultural identity and belonging.
“We’re having such a hard time capturing that history before it’s gone completely. That’s why I’m building this cultural arts center as a place where we can cement a Latino presence in the inner city,” Abarca said, “to be able to say, we have been here and will continue to always be here.”
In a way, Abarca is preparing for the worst.
“There are always people who are going to be left in the dust of all this construction and all this growth,” she said. “I don’t think that their conditions are going to be improved by the redevelopment of Sun Valley. … I think we’ll continue to have a lot of people’s needs not being served.”
When gentrification arrived at Abarca’s back door in the North Side — now called the Highlands — she says it was like a flood.
“So much money came in,” Abarca said. “We didn’t have time to organize, to resist it, to have any say.”
She said the development snatched away her sense of place. She could no longer travel to her uncle’s house or show her daughter her favorite local businesses — they had moved on or gone under.
“That [loss] is really hard for people to verbalize or to have the opportunity to verbalize. That sense of displacement and that lack of respect for one’s history,” Abarca said.
She hopes things will be different in Sun Valley.
“I think that they have made for the most part an attempt to reach out to the community. How much they really listened, I guess will be determined,” Abarca said. “We can just cross our fingers and hope that they have some consideration for community and don’t just chase the money.”
Additional reporting by Lara Henry.
Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that CU Denver assistant professor Carrie Makarewicz is part of a group working with Meow Wolf on a Corporate Social Responsibility plan.
A timeline of Sun Valley history
Compiled by Lara Henry
Colorado Journalism’s Generation Next
The Colorado Sun has been pleased to work with the University of Colorado’s News Corps, led by Chuck Plunkett, to showcase the work of student journalists who pursued various elements of our larger look at gentrification in Denver. Many of the program’s participants produced excellent work, but we present this week what we felt were the best of the best — work that promises a bright future for local journalism in Colorado and wherever these talented students land.
WESTWOOD: Staff writer Kevin Simpson explores the Denver neighborhood of Westwood and its struggle to retain its identity while dealing with the challenges of gentrification, which has become a top issue for city leaders. Freelance photographer Jeremy Sparig contributes a wide array of images. Freelance graphic artist Carrie Osgood sketches maps that show the demographic changes across Denver over the years.
PROGRESS REPORT: In 2016, the city published a report that made 12 recommendations for ways that Denver could mitigate the negative effects of gentrification. The Sun asked for an update. The city summarized its response to each of the recommendations.
SUN VALLEY: CU journalism students Amanda K. Clark and Shannon Mullane paint a compelling portrait of Denver’s Sun Valley neighborhood, which city officials hope will be a model for development without displacement — though locals aren’t so sure. Mullane also produced a short audio story on a community institution, while Lara Henry created a detailed, illustrated timeline of the neighborhood. Both Clark and Mullane also contributed photos.
REDLINING: Students Anna Blanco, Anna Mary Scott and Jackson Reed examine the practice of redlining and how, as a side effect of gentrification, it still echoes today. The package includes photos shot by Blanco and Reed.
ROOTS RUN DEEP: CU journalism student Will Halbert spent time with longtime Westwood resident Eve Ulloa and produced a poignant video that details all the things that bind her to the neighborhood.
ACROSS THE STATE: Sun writer Kevin Simpson returns to look at how Colorado’s hot real estate market has triggered early rumblings of displacement across the state — and how other cities are trying to prepare to counter the negative impacts of gentrification.