In Montbello, A Future of Promise and Challenge

With five decades under its belt, Denver's "City within a City" looks forward by addressing challenges pertaining to economic development, transit and community engagement.
Montbello is one of the few neighborhoods in Denver where a buyer can still snag a home for a fairly reasonable price. Detached, single-family dwellings go for, on average, $258,500, according to Heather Hankins at Madison & Company Properties.

And after decades of disregard, real estate prices -- coupled with other bonuses: spectacular mountain views; proximity to downtown Denver -- have spurred an unprecedented interest in Denver's largest neighborhood, the quadrilateral district wedged between I-70 and Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge and Peoria Street and Chambers Road.   

Fifty years youngOn on June 3, 2014, Montebello High School closed, and Montbello High School's campus has since been repurposed with three smaller, specialty schools

In Sept. 2016, 1,600 Montbello residents turned out at the stomping grounds for the defunct Montbello High School, where a parade commenced a daylong celebration commemorating the neighborhood's 50th year. Some things haven't changed much since the community was formed in 1966, when Denver City Council annexed nearly 3,000 acres of vacant prairie grassland and farmland from Adams County.

"Montbello was established to serve as an affordable community where middle-class and military families could own their own house," explains Donna Garnett, grant manager for the three-year-old Montbello Organizing Committee and editor of MUSE, Montbello's neighborhood newspaper.

Longtime resident Chris Martinez, a senior advisor for Mayor Michael Hancock and chair of the Montbello Organizing Committee, moved to Montbello 40 years ago, when he was 22. "I came for affordability," he says. "Quality homes, big yards. You get a lot for your money," he adds.

Montbello was the first major annexation of private land in Denver's far northeast area, and the city hatched a master land use plan that divided the land, allocating 1,770 acres for new home construction. When the inaugural 100 single-family homes went up in 1967, newcomers could buy a four-bedroom tri-level with a two-car garage for $21,950.

A couple of years later, Montbello looked like its own mini-city, with a fire station, a bank, a park, a church, and 1,200 occupied homes. About 50 manufacturers and distributors employed over 5,000 in their Montbello-based facilities. "At the close of the 1960s, the City declared Montbello 'a tremendous success,'" Garnett wrote.

By 1970, Montbello had nearly 5,000 residents; over 80 percent of that population was married and under the age of 34. "When I first moved to Montbello we were a growing community, and a suburban community of hope," Martinez says.  

Today's population of roughly 31,599 (according to a 2014 indicator) is racially diverse, with 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data showing 62 percent of residents are Latino, 24 percent African American, 11 percent Caucasian, and 2 percent Asian. The community is still young: Over half of residents are under the age of 34, and there are an estimated 6,668 families.

A quarter of those families live in poverty, which is high compared to metro Denver's overall poverty rate of 12.1 percent in 2014, according to CBS Denver. When Denver Community Planning and Development evaluated Montbello in anticipation for its accelerated citywide neighborhood planning initiative, analysts found that changes in median income over a 10-year period were low when compared to other neighborhoods in Denver.

When the Montbello community does get media attention, it's typically for its crime rates. The neighborhood has been ranked among Denver's most dangerous neighborhoods by several local news outlets, including Fox 31 Denver and Westword.

While some residents are quick to claim that their neighborhood is in the bottom quarter for crime rate, that figure doesn't totally reconcile with the Denver Police Department's 2014 annual report. According to police data, Montbello experiences more crime than most other Denver neighborhoods. The neighborhood, though, has a significantly larger population: Compare Montbello's 31,599 residents to, say, Cherry Creek's 5,491, and Montbello's crime rate -- with 1,042 incidents in 2014, or 32 per 1,000 residents -- is about 60 percent lower, per capita, than Cherry Creek's rate of 73 per 1,000 residents (401 total).

Until recently, the perception of Montbello as a violent neighborhood kept people out, according to Angelle Fouther, a Montbello resident and founding member of the Montbello Organizing Committee. But, as development in Denver reaches a fever pitch, Montbello is beginning to look like an untapped resource to outsiders.   

A vision for the future

Denver Community Planning and Development's new neighborhood area plan initiative launches this year with a focus on the Far Northeast area that encompasses Montbello, Gateway and Green Valley Ranch.

Only about 20 percent of Denver has an up-to-date area plan; the city's latest model will introduce accelerated plans into every neighborhood in a 10- to 14-year time frame, providing detailed recommendations for land use, future development, mobility, and open space.

"Working with the community we'll try to set a vision for what the area wants to be," explains Courtland Hyser, the principal city planner who is overseeing Far Northeast neighborhood planning. The process, Hyser says, will take 18 to 24 months, start to finish, and kicks off this spring with "a public process focused on getting as much engagement with the community as possible."

Montbello should be an easy community to engage. Fouther and other stakeholders founded the Montbello Organizing Committee back in 2013, and started their own community engagement process near the end of 2014 with a public event. "We held another session in January 2015 to prioritize issues that came up at the first event," says Fouther, turning first to the local economy.

A food swamp

"Montbello was originally a community of growth and opportunity," says Martinez. "We've had a huge increase in population, but it seems we have gone backwards in regards to retail opportunity. Folks are taking their dollars elsewhere."

The grocery sector is a prime example. The neighborhood is a designated food desert. "Montbello has three times the population of your average Denver neighborhood, and there's no full-service grocery," Fouther says. She says it's not just a food desert, but a "food swamp" because of the preponderance of unhealthy food.

Safeway opened a branch in Montbello in 1969, near the intersection of Peoria Street and Albrook Drive, on the neighborhood's westernmost border. The grocer relocated to Montbello's east side, and operated from a brick-and-mortar on Chambers Road, across the street from an Albertstons, until 2015, when the companies merged and closed under-performing stores in both chains to cut costs.

"Safeway made the determination that its Montbello store was one of its lowest-performing stores," says Martinez. "Part of that was their inability to accommodate the local market with fresh produce and ethnic foods."

Walmart reacted to the Safeway and Albertsons closures, opening a Neighborhood Market, "a smaller version of the chain where you can buy some groceries and limited produce," Fouther says. "It is not a full-service store."

The nearest full-service grocer is a King Soopers located in neighboring Green Valley Ranch. Montbello residents who own cars can go outside of the community for their supermarket needs. "Those that can't rely on 7-Eleven and Family Dollar for quick fixes," Fouther says.   

A team at Montbello Organizing Committee recently conducted a market scan with JVA Consulting and determined that there's plenty of demand for a neighborhood grocer. "We've had meetings with King Soopers and a Sprouts representative," Fouther says. The city, she adds, has established a million-dollar incentive for prospective grocers, consisting of $250,000 in grant money, and $750,000 in low-interest loans.  

A child picks okra at the Urban Farm at United Church of Montbello.In the meantime, community members are taking matters into their own hands, maintaining an urban garden at the United Church of Montbello, where Fouther's husband is pastor. The church's acre-and-a-half plot is moving into its fourth year of production; beyond growing 400 pounds of produce a week seasonally for Food Bank of the Rockies, the garden also functions as a teaching tool for about 300 local youth annually. Plus, Garnett adds, Montbello residents "can come and give some sweat equity."

With funding from The Kresge Foundation, Garnett and her cohorts intend to expand on their community garden concept, possibly converting the space into "a food hub," as Garnett puts it, which might include a greenhouse and co-op, too.

"Part of it is changing the narrative," says Fouther. "Just because there's a swamping of fast and processed food in low-income communities doesn't mean that's what a community wants."

The food system isn't Montbello's sole retail problem. The neighborhood was developed during the height of automobile-oriented suburban sprawl, and maybe that's why "[t]here's just not enough retail," as Martinez puts it.  

According to Denver's Office of Economic Development, 1,276 businesses operate in Montbello. Commercial and industrial strips, though, are confined to the edges of the neighborhood. Montbello is "very segregated in land use," says Ken Schroeppel, assistant professor at CU Denver. "Unless you happen to live fairly close to one of the two boundary streets, you really don't have any place to walk to."

Transit-oriented development Many community members don't have walkable access to the stations at I-70 and Peoria and Pena Blvd and 40th Avenue.

Land-use principles and a lack of destination have informed infrastructure, and transportation, Fouther says, is another urgent issue in Montbello.

In partnership with WalkDenver, Schroeppel's urban planning graduate students assessed walkability in Montbello for a class project last fall. Students performed on-site audits, researched demographic data for their study area, and interviewed local residents about their walking habits, challenges, and needs. The students were then asked to identify "walkability gaps."

"When we talk about what makes a place walkable, there are two key ingredients: The quality of the pedestrian infrastructure, and having places to walk to," Schroeppel begins. In Montbello's case, the lack of destinations within walking distance of residential areas is just as big of a problem as the quality of the pedestrian infrastructure.

Land use can be "a pretty difficult fix," Schroeppel admits. "You're talking about changing the fundamental uses of land," he continues, and recommends policy changes -- rezoning, for example -- that would allow for the types of walkable developments that serve neighborhood needs, especially local grocery stores, cultural destinations and community spaces.

City planners, says Schroeppel, should "identify key undeveloped parcels in the interior of the neighborhood, and rezone with the goal of getting small-scale development to occur in the interior part of the neighborhood over the next decade."

In the interim, planners can focus on short-term fixes that address the infrastructure needs in places residents are already walking. "Traffic goes fairly fast, even on residential streets," says Schroeppel, explaining that narrowing wide streets with, say, bike lanes would help reduce vehicle speed. City planners might also consider widening existing sidewalks, which are currently narrow and attached to the curbs, and adding more painted crosswalks, especially near schools and bus and train stops.   

Take RTD's A Line, for example, which opened to Montbello residents last year. Many community members don't have walkable access to the stations at I-70 and Peoria and Pena Blvd and 40th Avenue, according to Martinez. "You have to go way out of your way in order to get into the stations when you are walking," he says. "Even if they are close in proximity to a resident, they aren't accessible."

Folks, then, often drive to their RTD stations or take the bus. And the bus service, Martinez says, isn't currently meeting the community's needs either. When RTD opened the A Line, it realigned its bus routes. After drawn-out negotiations between neighbors and RTD representatives, Montbello ended up with two bus routes, down from the five that existed beforehand.

"We're working with the city, and still working with RTD," Martinez says. One potential solution is "a taxi or Uber service co-op that would service residents in Montbello." Other Colorado communities have established such services to help with first- and last-mile connectivity. "They've mostly been directed toward seniors, but I think we could really utilize something like that in Montbello," Martinez adds.

Fostering community spirit

Montbello could also use a venue for fostering community camaraderie. Montbello High School, a traditional DPS school, served as a social hub for neighbors since opening its doors in 1980; in 2010, though, the Denver Public Schools Board voted to phase out its public high school, citing poor test scores and dropping enrollment as key figures in the decision.

The entity shuttered on June 3, 2014, and Montbello High School's campus has since been repurposed with three smaller, specialty schools: Denver Center for International Studies at Montbello, Noel Community Arts School and STRIVE Prep - Montbello. Things haven't been the same.  

As Garnett, writing for MUSE, put it, "Many view the dismantling of Montbello High School . . . as the destruction of one of the most unifying institutions in the community."

According to Martinez, "Montbello truly was a small town-atmosphere. [High school] sports drew a lot of pride into the community."

Some Montbello residents are working to fill the gap. "There is no venue for arts and culture here," Garnett says. "If you're an artist in Montbello, you have to go outside the community to ply your art."

A centrally located, arts-oriented cultural hub could kill two birds in one stone, acting as a gathering place and bolstering local artists, too. "We have a couple of places in mind, but are still in negotiations," Garnett says.

For decades, Montbello has "been a kept secret," says Martinez. "It takes time to get things moving in the right direction, and the city is definitely working with us."

"Suddenly everyone is interested in Montbello," echoes Garnett, calling for conscious and thoughtful development.

Adds Fouther: "We want to hang on to this community. We don't want it to be enhanced and turned over to somebody else. If you want to build alongside of current and long-term residents, we're an open and welcoming community -- but we don't want our residents to be displaced."

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn, K. Haynes and Vanessa Martinez.

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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