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In Divided Denver, a Highway Promises Reconnection

In working-class north Denver, a $1.2 billion cut-and-cover project may transform the neighborhood that the highway once isolated. But some residents fear they'll be left behind.

A young girl walks under Interstate 70 on her way to Swansea Elementary School. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post/Getty Images)

Throughout this week, CityLab is running a series on borders—both real and imagined—and what draws so many of us to places on the edge.

DENVER, Colo.—The playground at Swansea Elementary School sits less than 50 feet from the viaduct that carries I-70 through Denver. From the perspective of a driver on the interstate, the orange brick schoolhouse, faded gingerbread bungalows, and low-slung industrial plants surrounding this neighborhood flash by in seconds.

From the ground, however, it’s impossible not to notice the highway. Since it was built in 1964, I-70 has defined life in Elyria-Swansea, a community of about 6,500 people and a lot of industry largely separated from the rest of Denver by six lanes of traffic. There’s the smoke-billowing pet-food factory, the warehouses full of growing marijuana, the clutch of livestock yards. At recess, Swansea Elementary schoolchildren breathe the fumes from these smelly neighbors, and from the hundreds of thousands of cars and trucks that roar overhead daily. For some kids, getting to class means walking beneath the viaduct’s crumbling underbelly, where hunks of concrete can drop without notice.

This will soon change. State highway engineers say this stretch has to be replaced, and after 14 years of studying, stalling, and battling over plans, they have an innovative—and expensive—fix: Dismantle the viaduct, dig a widened trench, shove the traffic below grade, and stick a grassy park on top.

For $1.2 billion, the Central 70 project promises to stitch this neighborhood back to the city. Its design is the outcome of a hard-fought battle by a community accustomed to being ignored. But not everyone is celebrating. As the tides of revitalization and gentrification lap against Elyria-Swansea’s borders, some residents wonder whom these improvements will serve. Will a beautified highway really reconnect this long-isolated neighborhood? Or will it just push those who live here now even further away?

“It’s like we’re bottom-shelf people.”

The playground of Swansea Elementary school is about “as close to the highway as you can get without touching it,” says Principal Gilberto Muñoz. In the background, puffs of smoke rise up from the Purina pet food factory on the south side of I-70. (Laura Bliss/CityLab)

Elyria-Swansea, along with an adjoining community called Globeville, has always been somewhat island-like. In the early 20th century, Eastern-European immigrants lived here. Among the maze of railroad tracks cutting through the north side of the city, they labored in brick factories and meatpacking plants, heard mass in their native languages, and shopped and socialized close to their wood-frame shanties. The city largely ignored them. When there was money to invest in streetlights, sewers, or road repairs, Elyria-Swansea and Globeville were usually the last to get it.

You could say these communities were already on the wrong side of the tracks when state highway engineers chose to run Interstate 70 through them. In the mid-1960s, at the height of the federal government’s road-building fever, the partially elevated, east-west highway displaced homes, eliminated a corridor of shops and businesses, invited in yet more industry, and worsened air pollution. For cities all over the U.S., it’s a familiar story.

Today, Elyria-Swansea is 84 percent Latino, compared to Denver’s 32 percent. Average incomes are about 43 percent below the city’s average; 60 percent of adults over age 25 lack a twelfth-grade education. The mix of traffic exhaust and factories rank Elyria-Swansea among the most polluted zip codes in Colorado, according to EPA toxic release data. Just a few miles to the south, Denver’s booming downtown boasts glass-walled condos, bike paths, and breweries; in Elyria-Swansea, there’s barely a grocery store. Some streets lack sidewalks or functioning gutters. On a blue-sky January snow day, a local man I met at a bus stop likened Elyria-Swansea’s relationship with Denver to a liquor store selection: “It’s like we’re bottom-shelf people.”

But that’s not how Gilberto Muñoz sees it. He always wanted to work at a school like the one he attended as a kid in El Paso, Texas, a town with a large Spanish-speaking immigrant population and a place where pollution and industry often stand between opportunity. In Elyria-Swansea, he found something similar. So seven years ago, Muñoz jumped at the opportunity to be a principal at Swansea Elementary, with big plans to replace the school’s burned-out staff and revamp the reading curriculum. To earn the trust of Swansea parents—especially those who spoke little English—he set up open-door family forums on early Friday mornings: “Muffins with Muñoz.”

The principal quickly noticed something about these conversations. The Swansea parents would often ask about children other than their own—and they’d talk about when they, or other neighbors, were children there. “This is a dense, close-knit community,” he says.

Flor Vazquez, a longtime resident and mother of three Swansea Elementary students, agrees. “It reminds me of a pueblo,” she says. “You always have neighbors on your side who are Hispanic. They all speak your language.”

For better and for worse, the highway helped create that tight hermetic seal.

In the early days of Muñoz’s muffin-proffering chats, concerns about I-70 came up constantly. The Colorado Department of Transportation had begun talking about rebuilding the section that runs through Elyria-Swansea and Globeville in 2003. After close to 50 years of use, the viaduct’s supports were a patchwork of exposed rebar and flaking concrete. “At a certain point, you move beyond eyesore to structural deficiency,” says Shailen Bhatt, CDOT executive director.

A draft environmental impact statement from 2008 looked at four options for a new viaduct, with different alignments and lane configurations. Would they widen it, reroute it, put in tolls? How many homes would have to be cleared?

Parents were concerned. Almost no one liked the idea of a disruptive project reinstalling a widely hated neighborhood feature. Plans stalled, but CDOT hit the gas again in 2010, assembling a group of community members, political representatives, and business leaders to study the options. Highway engineers ultimately decided to keep the viaduct along the same basic alignment, but also expand the number of lanes in order to accommodate Denver’s growing population.

An area map of Elyria-Swansea. showing transit, railroad, and highway alignments. (City of Denver)

Rather than bulldoze a factory to make way for the wider footprint, the stakeholders leaned towards demolishing Swansea Elementary. In 2011, the state and the city launched a year’s worth of community workshops focused on deciding the school’s new location. The proposed site: right near the railroad tracks a few blocks away, where slow-moving freight trains regularly cut off schoolchildren on their way to class.

That’s when the neighborhood mobilized. “People really started to pay attention,” says Muñoz. Community meetings swelled and neighbors partnered with nonprofits to petition CDOT for an alternative. “We showed up at every meeting,” says Maria Elena Espino, a Swansea Elementary parent of seven. “We would speak and we asked that the school be left untouched.”

The community waged its fight for a year. “CDOT didn’t really seem to hear their input,” says Muñoz. But it worked. In 2012, CDOT made a fairly unprecedented move: they went back to the drawing board.

A citizen had submitted the idea for a “cut-and-cover” highway during a public comment period back in 2009, and the idea to remove the viaduct, lower the flow of traffic below grade, and put a lid on it continued to come up in forums. This is essentially what CDOT now proposed, for a cool $1.2 billion—one of the priciest infrastructure projects in Colorado history.

To make it an even sweeter deal, the highway “cap” would be turned into a green space adjoining Swansea Elementary. Rather than be destroyed, the school would get a new place to play, plus a host of classroom improvements.

To many community members, this proposal was a vast improvement. And for a neighborhood that had suffered under decades of disinvestment, the “connected” design was symbolic. “It sent waves through this community, for sure,” says Muñoz. “It felt like a victory.”

Green highway: A digital rendering depicts the grassy Central 70 highway cover adjacent to Swansea Elementary School, at the upper right corner of the cap. (Colorado Department of Transportation)

Judging by the renderings, it looks like one. Soar over the I-70 corridor in one of CDOT’s computer animations and the cap looks like a seamless green carpet rolled out as a kind of regal entryway to northeast Denver. There’s a splash zone, soccer fields, play structures, and a stage—some of which are design ideas that community members contributed. It’s easy to imagine pedestrians and bicyclists zipping happily along the two newly restored surface streets flanking the park.

“When you combine placemaking and connectivity and mobility and choice—and the very real reality of dollars available to solve these challenges—we think that this solution we have achieves a lot of those concepts,” says Rebecca White, the communications manager for Central 70. “The cap is a huge reconnection for them, and it really is the crown jewel of the project.”

It’s telling that CDOT, a government agency created to build highways efficiently, now acknowledges those human impacts. Environmental justice was a fringe concept two decades ago; today, it’s been the focus of the current federal administration. With grants, competitions, and sustained outreach, the outgoing U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, has pushed transportation leaders across the country to redress the economic and racial inequities urban highways created. “Reconnecting” neighborhoods divided by infrastructure has been perhaps his signature platform.  

They’re not a new idea, but highway caps are enjoying a surge of interest in this progressive transportation climate. Klyde Warren Park in downtown Dallas, Texas, inspired the Denver lid: Opened in 2012, the park knits a five-acre green patch over an eight-lane sunken highway, attaching surface streets previously snapped apart. The cap significantly improved walkability between Dallas’ arts district and nearby neighborhoods, according to a report by the Congress for New Urbanism. “They’ve got tai chi and movies and concerts,” White says. “You don’t even recognize you’re standing over a highway.”

The Dallas park also sparked a real estate boom. Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Cleveland are all floating similar proposals.

So far, most caps built or proposed are located in downtowns or other high-value, high-opportunity real estate markets. Few serve the populations that have been most deeply affected by urban highways: poor people of color. Elyria-Swansea would be a rare example of a cap park in this context. The outcome of the Central 70 project, and its effects on the neighborhood around it, could be instructive for other cities grappling with infrastructure barriers and the “border vacuums” they create.

One of those lessons to look for will be what hiding these barriers does to property values. The interstate—and the industry that thrives in its shadow—has kept housing affordable in Elyria-Swansea. So who will be living here once the highway is hidden?

“I just hope my kids will get to play there.”

A concept land use map from Elyria-Swansea’s 2015 neighborhood plan—its first ever—shows an ambitious vision for its development. (City of Denver)  

Construction hasn’t even begun yet, but the reality of Central 70 is proving to be slightly different than the promise. The proposed cap is tiny—just 800 feet out of two miles of sunken trench—which means there will be far fewer pedestrian connections than currently exist beneath the viaduct. And the highway itself will widen from six lanes to 10, tripling its footprint. CDOT says that large fans flanking the highway cap will keep the park users from breathing in fumes, but air quality experts aren’t convinced. Those familiar with the principle of induced demand are up in arms over the prospect that the improved I-70 will end up worsening congestion, as well as the neighborhood’s existing pollution burden.

Fifty-six homes and seventeen businesses will be cleared out of the way; CDOT has already started buying up and demolishing some of them. Displaced residents are being compensated, but there’s a strong sense that it isn’t enough to resettle nearby—local property values are now beginning to creep up. Actually, make that rocket up. According to Zillow, Elyria-Swansea home values have increased more than 21 percent over the past year, and are predicted to rise another 9 percent within the next year.

In a federal complaint filed with the U.S. DOT’s Office of Civil Rights, two community advocacy groups and the Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Association assert that CDOT made offers based on 2012 home values, not current ones. “They’re getting offers for $150,000 to $200,000, which can’t buy anything in Denver,” says Candi CdeBaca, an activist and organizer who leads the Cross Community Coalition, one of the complainants. (White, CDOT’s communications liaison, says CDOT has followed all federally mandated compensation requirements—and that the process has even “resulted in some positive benefits for local residents,” including renters becoming homeowners.)

Central 70’s eye-popping renderings probably aren’t motivating realtors all by themselves. This is Denver, one of the hottest housing markets in the country, where downtown’s redevelopment shows little sign of slowing. Shortly after CDOT announced the cut-and-cover alternative, the city of Denver signaled other major changes coming to Elyria-Swansea. In early 2013, Mayor Michael Hancock established the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative, a municipal office focused on turning the area into “a connected and sustainable community that will drive job creation and growth on a globally competitive scale.” The NDCC’s function is to help streamline planning and strategize public-private financing for six separate projects in north Denver—including parts of the I-70 cap.

Also within the office’s purview is a $900-million renovation of Elyria’s National Western Center, a sprawling livestock complex slated to morph into a year-round tourist destination. Brighton Boulevard, a major industrial corridor at the eastern edge of the Central 70 project area, will be getting new sidewalks and bike lanes in a bid to lure commercial and residential development. The city also wants to start developing land around commuter-rail stations recently or soon to be opened around north Denver. The NDCC also worked with Elyria-Swansea to create its first-ever neighborhood plan, which recommended the city invest in updated infrastructure and better land-use separations—but unlike the NDCC’s other projects, those improvements are largely unfunded. The I-70 makeover is in some ways the linchpin of these projects, as it will transform the area most dramatically.

Walking around Elyria-Swansea, few visible signs of change in the neighborhood’s character have yet emerged. But property listings now tout locations in the “huge North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative redevelopment area.” And rising rents and real estate values may already be pushing families away: Last year, Muñoz tells me, Swansea Elementary’s enrollment declined by 79 students, or nearly 15 percent. The year before, it had lost about half that number. Garden Place Elementary school, in neighboring Globeville, has seen similar declines.

Many of the parent-activists I spoke with are now afraid they might not be able to enjoy the neighborhood they fought so hard to preserve. “If they’re raising our rents even during construction, then when they finish they’ll be raising it double or triple the rates,” says Vazquez, the mother of three. She says she and her family will have to move if rents keep rising. After attending every meeting she could to save her children’s school, and to help design that lovely park, “I just hope my kids will get to play there.”

“They’re erasing a strip of people.”

“For us, the neighborhood is beautiful, because we’ve been here more than 20 years,” one mother in Globeville, the neighborhood next to Elyria-Swansea, told me. In this photograph, taken at Globeville’s Garden Place Elementary, the I-70 viaduct can be seen in the distance. (Laura Bliss/CityLab)

Whether Elyria-Swansea is fated for a total brewery-bike-path makeover—and whether that means existing residents will leave—is by no means certain. A report by the city’s office of economic development found that, although homeownership rates are fairly high, Elyria-Swansea is still vulnerable to displacement if the neighborhood gentrifies. Other experts are skeptical that this still-active industrial area would appeal much to better-heeled newcomers.

But what if the threat facing Elyria-Swansea isn’t gentrification, but elimination? That’s what CdeBaca, the community organizer, forecasts. “This attempt to ‘connect’ communities is really just disconnecting them in a bunch of different ways,” she says. “In fact, it’s not even disconnection. They’re erasing a strip of people.”

Allan Wallis, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Colorado’s School of Public Affairs, gave Denverite this chilling quote in June 2016: “It’s a low-density area, and a lot of the housing stock is not very good,” he said. “It could be that the asset in this area is you knock down whole blocks. That’s old-fashioned 1950s slum-clearance, and the neighborhood has every reason to be leery.”

Apart from alleging CDOT’s unfair compensation of displaced homeowners, the federal complaint filed by CdeBaca and others asserts that the Central 70 project “will result in disparate and severe environmental and economic impacts on the predominantly Latino communities of Elyria-Swansea and Globeville”—and should therefore be ineligible for federal funds. Last month, U.S. DOT officials launched an investigation.

An environmental lawyer with decades of experience in air pollution litigation told me that the feds’ decision to investigate the complaint is by itself groundbreaking. If they do find a disparate impact, that could call into question future highway expansions through minority neighborhoods. Again, that’s a testimony to how far highway policy has come, philosophically, since the highway-building frenzy of the mid-20th century. But there are more important lessons here: No project exists in a vacuum. Infrastructure that promises to heal old scars can end up deepening them.

CdeBaca says she expects the federal investigators’ findings to hit soon—before President Obama leaves office. Her hope is that they side with her, and force CDOT to thoroughly research an option that she and another contingent of highway protestors have been calling for: Reroute the highway to a fully industrial corridor a few miles north of Elyria-Swansea, tear down the viaduct, and put a tree-lined boulevard in its place. Muñoz says he would also support a rerouted highway, which “simply wasn't an option on the table when the decision was made to put it below grade.”

It’s a proposal that CDOT has consistently refused to fully vet, maintaining that the displaced freight traffic would overwhelm surface streets. Such a design could also have the same, if not worse, gentrification impacts as the current plan. But CdeBaca says that it should get as complete an analysis as the cut-and-cover option, which she views as having been “forced upon the community” by the government.

Muñoz doesn’t see it quite like that. He’s a civil servant, too; he knows what it’s like to have to work for success within a structure. And he’s achieved some: In seven years he’s bumped up the school’s academic scores on its district rating by two notches, and he believes he’s seeing slow but measured progress in students’ reading skills.

Muñoz is also happy to imagine that soon Swansea Elementary kids won’t have to play in the shadows of the viaduct. He’s grateful for the investment the school has already received from CDOT and the NDCC. After Swansea’s enrollment declines led to per-pupil funding cuts from the state, the school had to eliminate nine teaching positions. Together, the NDCC and the local United Way branch offered $60,000 in grants to help make up some of that gap. Swansea Elementary is using those funds to continue to pay for its school psychologist—“as a way of providing some support in stabilizing the impacts of [the neighborhood’s change] on families,” he tells me in an email.

Much of the housing stock in Elyria-Swansea is fairly low quality, which makes some experts question whether the neighborhood is ripe for gentrification. (Laura Bliss/CityLab)

And although CDOT has not received its record of decision for funding from the Federal Highway Administration—it expects one in early 2017—the agency has already started touching up Swansea Elementary. “We’re getting real walls and doors in our classrooms, instead of partitions from the 1970s,” says Elizabeth Diaz, who’s taught fifth grade here for 12 years. “They’re starting to redo the playground, so it’s a little safer for our students. This summer they’re redoing our whole HVAC system. It’s had positive impact so far.”

Muñoz also notes that the mayor and the city council also recently approved the creation of an affordable housing fund that would raise $150 million over 10 years to ward off some displacement impacts.

But he wonders what the future holds. Besides awaiting its record of decision, the I-70 project still has legal roadblocks to overcome (including this air quality impact lawsuit from the Sierra Club). But if the project is greenlit and gets swept up by the strong winds of redevelopment, the plucky, tight-knit neighborhood Muñoz came to serve might vanish.

“All along, the important thing has been to maintain a school in this community, to take care of the people who live here,” he says. “No word captures how disappointing it is to imagine that it will all be someone else’s.”

With translation assistance from Bernardo Alvarado Rojas and Edwin Elias.

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