Rethinking Public Housing: Mariposa and the Transformation of La Alma/Lincoln Park

As part of the Mariposa redevelopment in La Alma/Lincoln Park, South Lincoln Homes and its 278 affordable-housing units are going the way of the wrecking ball to give way to a considerable denser footprint of 900 units, as the formerly low-income public housing project expands into a broader market and brings health and sustainability to the forefront.
As the Mariposa redevelopment takes shape, a decade of urban planning is moving from the drawing board to reality in Denver's Westside. 
The Denver Housing Authority is in the midst of a sweeping redevelopment spanning several city blocks. The 278 public-housing units that made up South Lincoln Homes in the La Alma/Lincoln Park neighborhood will be demolished and 900 new units replace will them, likely more than tripling the area's population density. Planners also made health and sustainability focal points -- solar energy, vocational programs and walkability are all part of the master plan.Nine hundred new units are being built, tripling the neighborhood's density.
Completed in 2012, Tapiz at Mariposa, the subsidized senior housing at 1099 Osage St., was Phase I of the Mariposa project. Construction on Phase II is currently in full swing, with work on 180 new units underway; 93 will open in July and 87 more will be available in November. There are six Mariposa phases in all, with a target for completion in 2016.
Denver City Councilwoman Judy Montero, who represents the La Alma /Lincoln Park neighborhood, says the seeds for the Mariposa redevelopment took root a decade ago. In 2003, Montero began working on a plan to revitalize the area near the 10th and Osage light-rail station. That led to the concept of making the area "a national transit-oriented development (TOD) model," says Montero.
The Bush administration was somewhat averse to federal funds going to such projects, but Montero moved ahead on planning with the Denver Housing Authority and numerous other entities. 
"We had all of these different people looking at it from a helicopter view," she says. "How can we put all of these elements together so they sustain each other? Instead of doing things in silos, we started to look at how everything can be connected. In order to strengthen our city, we need to strengthen our communities around downtowncthey're a link."
Cut to 2009, and the Obama administration was embracing TOD. When Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan visited Denver in 2009, Montero joined the entourage on the light rail ride from Union Station to 10th and Osage. "They announced the funding right then and there," she says, citing the 2009 federal stimulus and its directive to fund shovel-ready projects. "We were ready." 
The $200 million of funding for the project is a private-public partnership. "For every $1 of public funds, we're able to leverage $4 of private funding," explains Kimball Crangle, senior developer at the Denver Housing Authority (DHA) and manager for the Mariposa project. The private funding comes from such lending institutions, including the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, driven largely by the tax credits available to entities making investments in public projects.
Montero commends DHA for its work on the project. "They're one of the best developers in the city and often overlooked," she says.
All of the new apartments are rentals, but there is a wide range of different layouts and prices. "There are lots of affordability levels," says DHA's Crangle. "When you introduce a spectrum of incomes and housing types, you start to rebalance the neighborhood. Redevelopments [of public housing] across the country have successfully looked at a similar mixed-income model."
Another goal of the redevelopment is to patch holes in the city's urban fabric, Crangle adds. "When you were west of Kalamath, you felt you were in a different neighborhood," she says. "It was creating a cycle of poverty. We're really working at weaving the neighborhood together." 
To this end, existing amenities like the La Alma Recreation Center and Byers Library (both of which were once threatened with closure) have been integrated and emphasized in the new neighborhood plan.
The $200 million of funding for the project is a private-public partnership.The Mariposa blueprint also pushes for healthy living and sustainability. "Our vision is to create a truly sustainable area that focuses on several different areas," says Crangle, citing such features as electric car chargers, photovoltaic panels, public art, and bicycle amenities.
"When you're building communities, you want to have amenities people can walk to," says Councilwoman Montero. "A health impact assessment should be done in every neighborhood. It didn't make sense for me to be talking about childhood obesity and not have any parks. " 
Workforce development is another key part of Mariposa's sustainability plan, and new facilities such as Arts Street and the Osage Cafe, both located at Tapiz, offer local youth a chance to learn real-world skills. Arts Street is a creative accelerator for largely underprivileged students, with a mission of teaching them creative skills that can apply to numerous vocational pursuits. Osage Cafe is a culinary academy that operates a restaurant at Tapiz, with the similar aim of teaching at-risk youth in the neighborhood skills that can open the door to a culinary career.
Coming soon is Youth Media Studio, a music-education facility from DHA and, the educational outreach nonprofit started by members of the Flobots, a Denver hip-hop band. When the facility opens later this year, employees and volunteers will teach local students on music and recording skills and work with them on other media projects.
While existing residents have been given the opportunity to stay, only about 30 percent are expected to call the redevelopment home after construction is complete, says Crangle. "Residents are given a choice," she says. "If they don't want to stay, we will find a place for them." 
The apartments are indistinguishable aside from the rents. One- to three-bedroom market-rate apartments will be $700 to $1,300 a month, workforce apartments will be priced $500 to $1,200, and affordable housing is priced at 30 percent of the household income. As is the case with any project with federal funding, all residents must pass background checks, and adhere to resident-driven criteria.
Another longtime community fixture, the Denver Inner City Parish, has been in La Alma/Lincoln Park for 25 years, says Executive Director and CEO J. Todd Clough. "I've been here a long time, right in the 'hood," he says. "It's gentrified to some degree."
Denver Inner City Parish (DICP) was founded in 1960 after the "white flight" to the suburbs in the 1950s and '60s. Now it serves more people from a pair of newer locations on the southwest side of the city, says Clough. These locations are the College View Center, 2525 S. Decatur St., and a food bank at 2830 S. Zuni St.
Clough says he expects more gentrification as the Mariposa project progresses. "When you think of our location, it's primed for what you've seen in North Denver, Curtis Park, and Five Points. There are some great things happening -- especially if you own a piece of land." However, the trend is pushing out lower-income residents out, he says. DICP's primary clientele was families in La Alma/Lincoln Park, but now "it's homeless and re-entry folks," says Clough. However, the trend is pushing out lower-income residents out to other neighborhoods in southwest Denver and the suburbs.
"There's nothing wrong with gentrification," he adds. "It's change. Things change, and controlling that is not easy."

This article also appeared in the Washington Park Profile.
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Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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