Donna Garduno has no intention of moving quietly.
Her small home is in north Denver’s Elyria-Swansea, a mostly low-income, Latino neighborhood where her family has lived for four generations. It’s among those targeted for demolition by the Colorado Department of Transportation as that agency readies for a five-year construction project to widen a 12-mile stretch of Interstate 70.
The neighborhood is home to 6,000 residents and plenty of industrial activity. Within its borders is the Purina Mills plant, which spews the smell of dog and cat chow at a steady clip. And the National Western Stock Show, whose complex is slated for an $856 million facelift and expansion. And four city-blocks of dumping grounds for “slag” — waste material left over from Swansea’s early days as a base for mining and smelting operations.
Garduno’s mother recently died in their home, which sits next to the Interstate viaduct that divides Elyria-Swansea from downtown Denver and much of the city’s economic boom. Her family has withstood generations for booms and busts in the neighborhood. There’s no way, Garduno said, that a highway expansion will uproot her.
“I’m not quiet no more.”
Garduno was one of 150 area residents crowded into the cafeteria of Bruce Randolph Middle School earlier this month to weigh in on how the construction would affect Elyria-Swansea’s residents, businesses and environment. Of the 40 who commented, only four spoke in favor of the project. The other three dozen condemned it.
The hearing was part of a larger public comment process on a final environmental impact statement — a document that lays out the highway expansion plan and how it will affect the surrounding neighborhoods. Public comment will be accepted through March 2.
“It’s an issue of economic justice,” said Brent Adams of Swansea. “The project would force the displacement of people of color and the poor.”
Resident Jorge Merita called the project “racist.”
CDOT officials sat silently throughout most of meeting, which was intended — by law — to let the public voice concerns, however uncomfortable those concerns may have been to hear.
Construction on the $1.8 billion project is slated to start in just over a year. It will begin at the I-70/I-25 interchange — Denver’s so-called “Mousetrap” — and gradually move east toward Tower Road in Aurora. That 12-mile stretch of highway gets between 52,000 and 220,000 vehicles per day, and those numbers are growing with rampant expansion near Denver International Airport.
Chunks of the Interstate, most notably the I-70 viaduct that passes over the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, are crumbling. Residents are wary about driving under the viaduct because concrete occasionally falls onto cars.
Officials from CDOT and the City and County of Denver point out that the viaduct isolates Elyria-Swansea from the rest of the city, including downtown Denver. They aim to remove the barrier by demolishing the viaduct and rebuilding a one-mile stretch of the highway that will expand the highway from six lanes to 21 (including off -and on-ramps), through an underground tunnel above which they’d build a neighborhood park designed to beautify the neighborhood and invigorate its economy.
Homeowners whose houses are slated for demolition counter they have the right to stay put. What’s the point of jump-starting the economy of a neighborhood — or building a park, for that matter — if the folks who live there are being chased out, they asked.
The highway project has been planned for nearly 13 years. It has stalled several times because of objections from residents concerned about how construction would increase air and noise pollution in the neighborhood and destroy the fabric of their community.
With the latest plan to remove the viaduct and bury the highway have come fears of rampant gentrification that will force out even the residents whose homes aren’t being scraped. A row of high-priced townhomes with half-million dollar price tags already have been built on the north end of Elyria-Swansea.
Residents point to redevelopment of other parts of Denver in questioning what public officials define as progress.
Forty years ago, the mostly Latino residents of the Auraria neighborhood immediately west of downtown were forced out of the homes and businesses they’d occupied for generations. Those buildings were scraped to make way for the hub of university and community college buildings that now make up Denver’s Auraria campus. More recently, farther north and west, gentrification of the neighborhood now called the Highlands forced out long-time residents, particularly low-income, Italian and Latino homeowners.
Despite advancements the transformations of both those neighborhoods brought to the city, critics say, they no doubt diminished the Denver’s cultural and socioeconomic diversity.
As planned, the I-70 expansion project will require CDOT to demolish 56 homes in Elyria-Swansea — 21 of which are homeowner occupied, and the rest are rentals. The agency began buying up homes and businesses in 2013, according to the environmental impact statement. To date, CDOT has acquired 21, with 35 still to be purchased, said spokeswoman Rebecca White.
State documents show that in December 2012 home values in Elyria-Swansea ranged from $36,000 to $210,000, and that several properties in the neighborhood were for sale, but nothing was available for rent.
And that was more than three years ago, before the current critical shortage of affordable housing. According to the February Denver Metro Area Association of Realtors report, there are just over 4,000 for-sale single family house and condo listings in the 11-county region — less than one-third of the average for January. The average price of a condo in the 11 counties is more than $270,000. And for a single family home, it’s north of $400,000.
That’s out of reach for many buyers, including families who would need to relocate from Elyria-Swansea, one of the last semi-affordable neighborhoods in Denver. Families whose homes are being targeted for demolition by CDOT may struggle to find housing they can afford elsewhere.
Businesses will have to move, too. The CDOT plan mentions 17 commercial sites up for relocation, 13 of which are in Elyria-Swansea.
Because the highway project is a joint effort between CDOT and the Federal Highway Administration, residents and business owners are being offered buyouts under federal law. Under that law, If a homeowner can’t find a comparable replacement home, CDOT must put up extra money to cover — tax-free — the difference between the market value of the home being demolished and what it will cost to find something equivalent elsewhere.
Renters can get a good deal, too. For those who can’t find rentals comparable to their current units, CDOT must make up the difference between what the renter was paying and the cost of similar housing. A renter can get up to 42 months tax-free supplemental assistance.
April Thompson is one of 21 residents who so far has accepted a buyout to make way for the widening project. She says she was treated well by CDOT, which hired a moving company to move her family of eight from the four-bedroom house they rented in Elyria-Swansea to their new home near Federal and Alameda. She wouldn’t say how much CDOT paid her, nor how the department treated the homeowner.
The Denver Rescue Mission, which provides food and shelter to the homeless, also took the buyout, moving its administration and education center from Elyria-Swansea to Smith Road, north of I-70. Brad Mouli, the mission’s executive director, praised CDOT for its efforts in moving the Mission’s facilities.
Miles Goplen said he didn’t favor kicking people out of their homes, but that the highway expansion would address longstanding traffic problems in Elyria-Swansea. He took advantage of CDOT’s help to develop a business plan and move his glass studio to Highlands Ranch.
But for some Elyria-Swansea homeowners, there’s no silver lining in the highway expansion. The project, they say, will irreversibly uproot families who’ve lived in the area for generations and for whom the neighborhood represents not just home, but also their roots and culture.
“The pride and love are gone and can’t be replaced,” said Steve Kinney who reluctantly sold his home to CDOT and moved to Wheat Ridge.
CDOT has no easy answers for those who, unlikely Kinney, may refuse to sell out.
White told The Colorado Independent that her agency doesn’t like to use the term “eminent domain” — the taking of private property for public use. Even so, she was quick to bring up that last resort as a legal possibility in dealing with those who won’t take CDOT’s offer.
Photo credit Open Grid Scheduler, Creative Commons, Flickr, https://flic.kr/p/BJU1qq