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Sun Valley: Diversity, Change and Consequences

The Sun Valley Youth Center has been in operation since 1998.

Xcel proposed decommissioning the steam plant at 13th Avenue and Zuni Street, operating since 1879 and said to be the world's oldest.

One concern is the displacement of the existing 1,500 residents -- the majority of whom live in low-income housing owned by Denver Housing Authority.

Sun Valley is Denver's poorest neighborhood, and home to the Broncos.

The Sun Valley Youth Center was founded as a Christian organization to address the high school dropout rate and teen pregnancy.

Sun Valley is Colorado's poorest neighborhood, but big investments are on the way in the form of transit-oriented development and relocating creative businesses. How can the neighborhood balance its traditional diversity with the change that is afoot?
West of I-25 and south of 20th Avenue, Sun Valley is unique in Denver, marginalized by decades of questionable planning objectives. It's just the type of neighborhood that needs a little help to write a new, inclusive and empowering future.
 
It also can currently lay claim to being Colorado's poorest neighborhood. This label looks like it could be shed soon, as investment and development catalyze change. 
 
The light rail is on its way, and along with it plenty of transit-oriented development (TOD) is in the works. And there is a huge opportunity to replace a negative with a positive: earlier this year, Xcel proposed decommissioning the steam plant at 13th Avenue and Zuni Street, operating since 1879 and said to be the world's oldest. The plant would be replaced by a smaller natural-gas facility, opening up much of the old site for redevelopment.
 
With change, however, could come unintended consequences. One justifiable concern is displacement of the existing 1,500 residents -- the majority of whom live in low-income housing owned by Denver Housing Authority. Many of them are immigrants, and Sun Valley is the only neighborhood in Denver where minors outnumber adults.
 
Proactive Urban Planning Xcel proposed decommissioning the steam plant at 13th Avenue and Zuni Street, operating since 1879 and said to be the world's oldest.
 
In 2011, the Denver Department for Community Planning and Development went after a substantial grant from the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a collaboration between HUD and the Department of Transportation. According to former City Planner Barbara Frommell, Denver was subsequently awarded the largest grant of any other city in the country. The majority of funding fueled a two-year citizen-engaged process and the development of the Decatur-Federal Area Station Plan approved by the city this past May.
 
The city and Denver Housing Authority tried to create a plan in the late 2000s, but the effort lacked viable financing and stalled.  "At that point, we were just waiting for grant opportunities to arrive," Frommell explains. "This grant was the first on the list. We thought, 'This should all be for Sun Valley,' but it ended up as a grant for TODs in west Denver. The majority of the funding awarded, however, went to Sun Valley."
 
Now that the plan has been approved, the real work is just now beginning, adds Frommell. "The developers won't pay for all the infrastructure needed," she says. "A lot hinges on the Xcel decision in August and whether or not they are able to decommission their site." 
 
Planting Seeds
 
The Sun Valley Youth Center has been in operation since 1998 and it was founded as a Christian organization that landed in immediate proximity to Fairview Elementary School to address the high school dropout rate and teen pregnancy. Activities consist of getting the youth out of Sun Valley often and helping them see the more possibilities for their lives. The youth get a glimpse into the world outside of poverty in order for them to realize that a different reality is possible beyond the one in which they are growing up. 
 
When Executive Director Kris Rollerson began setting up shop in Sun Valley, the organization had to work with the elementary students. "We could not do high school ministry nor junior high at that point because the students were all parents," Rollerson states. "Now the average age at which the youth have children is 18 to 22. That is a four-year difference and a significant change in the direction of their lives."
 
Rollerson has watched the planning process in Sun Valley for a long time. This most recent activity has given her the most hope and that is through the constancy of the Denver Housing Authority and their leadership that the families she works with will be at the decision-making table -- the DHA is proactively working to ensure that the residents of Sun Valley Housing are not displaced but rather an active component of the development process. This also means so much more than simply housing them. It's about economic opportunities and concurrently, educational opportunities. 
 
In regards to displacement, Rollerson explains, "That needs to be a neighborhood conversation alongside DHA. I will never speak for residents but will stand alongside them supporting their voice." 
 
While more is on the horizon moving into the neighborhood, SVYC has dreams of its own to enable the youth as well as the parents, to actively take part in forming the future of their urban fabric transgressing the past role of being "the marginalized". 
 
"I would like to see education levels available for all people living in Sun Valley, offering assistance to assess the education levels of the kids and adults," Rollerson says. "It also should be in all languages. Most of the parents who would like to get their GED, for example, don't test at a level to take the free classes. Eliminating that problem by getting them to a level to move forward is critical."
 
Past, Present and Future: Food and Creative EconomiesThe Sun Valley Youth Center was founded as a Christian organization to address the high school dropout rate and teen pregnancy.
 
Two businesses in Sun Valley embody the vibrancy of what has been and what is to come. Both are socially engaged and strive to embed themselves within their neighborhood.
 
Ready Foods started operations in Sun Valley in 1972. Founded by married couple Luis and Martha Abarca, who established life in Denver after leaving Mexico as immigrants, the intention was to open a small tortilla factory and restaurant, but today Ready Foods supplies means and other foods to Chipotle and Noodles & Company, two Colorado-based national restaurant franchises.
 
The neighborhood has always been part and parcel to their philanthropic activities as a family-owned business. They have supported Fairview Elementary, Decatur Place, the Denver Urban Gardens site at the elementary school, as well as the Sun Valley Youth Center. And Luis and Martha's daughter, Adrianna was proactively involved in the community master plan process with the city and DHA these past two years. 
 
The neighborhood has changed, according to Adrianna Abarca. "It has gone from Mexican, which was shifting when we moved in, to Vietnamese, to now Somalian immigrants," she says.
 
Adrianna was involved with the community outreach efforts the city implemented and is very appreciative of the intention for the city and the DHA to conduct this community outreach. Over 50 meetings and workshops were hosted in the neighborhood.  
 
Adrianna thinks there will be opportunities for smaller businesses in Sun Valley -- she sees restaurants and small retail businesses arriving and flourishing. "There are really hardly any businesses now that work with the neighborhood," she stated. "I would like to see some art studios open here as there is affordable space and more parking available than along Santa Fe, as an example."
 
Reed Silberman founded his print shop, Ink Monstr, in 2004. The company has not officially moved to Sun Valley yet -- the building is under construction. Silberman hopes to be up and running here sometime this fall.

Silberman says he was attracted to the neighborhood for numerous reasons. "I chose Sun Valley because of the great location, tight-knit neighborhood and potential growth and development in the area," says Silberman. "We are trying to be a positive influence in the area, help create jobs, and help stimulate economic growth in the area."
 
Silberman has stayed abreast of the urban renewal process. "I have been informed as much as most people in the neighborhood. I have read the planning commission's plan for redevelopment in Sun Valley and am excited for this transition," he says. "I am also aware how this will effect local residents and want to do my part to help where I can. I know this is going to be a difficult road for everyone, and the Ink Monstr team is going to do our best to help the community through this transition, and do what we can to support the local community."
 
He has also taken the initiative to move in before moving in. "I have made it a point to meet all my new neighbors and introduce myself to the neighborhood," Silberman adds. "Being the new guy on the block, I realize I am presented with certain challenges. Ink Monstr is already working with Fresh Start nonprofit and making plans to be heavily involved with community activities. Our goal is to make sure we know everyone and everyone knows us."
 
Connecting the Dots
 
Though there becomes a base of skepticism on behalf of the residents that have been in Sun Valley as the planning work may be seen as one more futile attempt, if each new business stakeholder assesses their place and how to begin connecting the complex matrix of working in this context, the future is really bright. An opportune framework can be set in place for everyone to excel, not simply those who come in with money. 
 
Barbara Frommell reflects on the city's two-year process: "Building relationships is so important, and I think that is something that city planners or maybe city officials in general overlook. And it's not just relationships with one group but major property owners, everyday residents whose lives who are affected from our decisions, possible investors -- you can learn so much from the people that live there."
 
"I really see Sun Valley as such a huge opportunity as a neighborhood outwardly celebrating its multiculturalism," Frommell adds. "As a starting point for the greater Denver area, in Sun Valley, there could be the creation of an international fair, or an African festival. These things don't really happen in Denver and there is no real multicultural anything. An international market would also be incredible giving Sun Valley an opportunity to build identity and to empower residents to be part of that identity building."
 
Rori Knudtson

Read more articles by Rori Knudtson.

An artist, architect and writer, Rori Knudtson is also one of the founding partners of the School of Critical Engagement, an experimental and context-specific action-based think tank.
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