Reinventing Sun Valley

Sun Valley is the poorest neighborhood in Denver. It's also the youngest and arguably the most neglected. That's poised to change, with a new master plan in the works and a vision for a greener, healthier future.
Sun Valley is one of Denver's more anonymous neighborhoods. It's a safe bet that well-heeled locals are likelier to associate the name with a ski resort in Idaho than a troubled urban island across town. The neighborhood is the home of Sports Authority Field at Mile High, but nobody mentions Sun Valley, only Dove Valley, when it comes to the Broncos.

More than half of residents are under 18 -- it's the only Denver neighborhood where kids outnumber adults -- and about 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Roughly 90 percent of Sun Valley's 1,500 residents currently live in subsidized housing.

"It's been an area of disinvestment for at least 50 years," says Chris Parr, director of development for the Denver Housing Authority (DHA).

But the tide has started to turn. Recent investments and plans for more have "started to make surrounding land more appealing and more developable," says Parr. And there's a lot more to come.

A master plan is underway, slated for completion in July 2015. Parr says that the team -- which includes Mithun, a Seattle-based urban planning firm; an environmentally minded national nonprofit in EcoDistricts; and DHA -- has conducted monthly focus groups on various topic areas. After an April 15 open house, additional public events are slated for May and June.

Parr describes Sun Valley's public housing stock as "significantly aged" and runs down a laundry list of challenges. "There's isolated and concentrated poverty and a lack of connectivity in the whole neighborhood, even from a street grid perspective," he says. "All those things contributed to the isolation of Sun Valley and compounded the problems in Sun Valley."

It's easy to miss. The area is a bit of an urban island, but, once you visit this odd little pocket of industrial, residential and green space about two miles southwest of downtown, Parr adds, "You realize it's a great location in the city."

Mithun Partner Deb Guenther says the firm's planning effort echoes its work at Mariposa in La Alma/Lincoln Park. "It's a wonderful process to be involved in," says Guenther. "That's not always what happens. We're really excited to be involved."

"Not a lot of people know about Sun Valley," she continues. "It's been an ignored neighborhood for a long time. This project provides an opportunity to bring some shared equity to the neighborhood."

Guenther says there's a healthy, ongoing conversation between all of the primary stakeholders. "Our role is to work with the community and create  a development plan for DHA, plus a vision for what the larger private market could do," she explains. "DHA is really good at reaching out to folks. When people can start visualizing it, it pulls people in."

And it works both ways, Guenther adds: Those same people are feeding the vision for the Sun Valley to come.

Take Reed Silberman, owner of Ink Monstr. Guenther describes the level of energy of Silberman and other Sun Valley stakeholders is "sort of rare."

Reed Silberman moved Ink Monstr to Sun Valley in 2013.He moved the large-format print shop moved from RiNo to Sun Valley in 2013. He says he was attracted to the neighborhood by the building first, then heard of the plans for redevelopment. "It got me really, really excited about the future of Ink Monstr and the future of Sun Valley as a whole," he says. "We have hopes and dreams of building in this neighborhood and growing here."

Silberman says his company is already involved in neighborhood events and has given out toys and turkeys during the holidays. He just finished gussying up his building with the city's largest wrap -- what was once an anonymous industrial structure now resembles a row of Brooklyn storefronts.

"Neighborhood beautification was on my mind," Silberman explains. "It's the highest resolution building wrap we've ever seen. Right up with your nose right against it, it's still crisp."

Word has gotten out. Silberman says it's become something of a destination for aficionados of public art.

He sees Ink Monstr as a potential neighborhood "catalyst" and describes a goal of "making Sun Valley a community-based creative hub."

"We've already been drawing attention to this neighborhood nobody has heard of," Silberman adds "I'd like to see a thriving, mixed-use residential neighborhood."

Density and sustainability

There are currently 360 units at DHA's Sun Valley Homes, but Parr says that number will go up to as many as 1,200 with the new plan. "We are definitely looking at a mixed-income approach to bring market-rate housing to the neighborhood, but we'll increase the number of affordable units as well," says Parr. "Because it's so low density, it's easy to bring in more housing."

A new vision for Sun Valley is in the works.The big question: "How do cities help neighborhoods and build on the cultural diversity of the neighborhood?" asks Guenther. "I think Denver has a wonderful model of how a city has built that into the policies and systems. Other cities are looking at Denver and saying, 'Wow, there's a lot of shared equity and prosperity.’"

Parr highlights opportunities for developers to build on "underutilized vacant land" in Sun Valley. "How do we activate Decatur Street and the light rail station? How do we attract commerce? We've had such a large amount of river frontage that hasn't been embraced as river frontage."

The $25 million River Vision project has already upgraded some of the river's infrastructure, but more investment is needed. "Making it safe and usable is going to be critical," says Guenther.

Same goes for Xcel's Zuni power plant at Zuni Street and 13th Avenue. Dating to 1900, it's an antiquated backup for electrical and central steam power that's burned natural gas since the 1970s. Running since 1880, Denver's central steam system is the oldest continuously operated commercial district heating system in the world.

"The steam system still needs it and uses it," says Steve Kutska, business development manager for Xcel's downtown thermal business unit.

But it's a candidate for retirement, perhaps as soon as 2017 if the Colorado Public Utilities Commission approves a plan Xcel submitted late last year. There are several alternatives, and customers will evaluate until mid-2016; two of them involve shutting down the Zuni plant.

"There's all sorts of discussions on what could happen to that property," says Kutska. "One of the options would be to do something with the city. There are all sorts of possibilities."

If you get rid of the power plant and replace it with a park, garden and/or solar farm, it replaces with a debit with a credit, with the potential to give the sprawling site a public face. Says Parr: "We're trying to be very thoughtful in that conversation."

Guenther has a few ideas. "To me that's an area for food production. Maybe we could have a food hub there and a market."

Guenther's sustainability lesson from Mariposa was that a holistic vision allows for greener energy generation and stormwater systems. That's something that doesn't happen so easily with block-by-block planning.

Renewable energy is another big component, Parr adds. "EcoDistricts fits right into that."

Nwamaka Agbo is the director of programs for Portland-based organization. Its Target Cities program encompasses 10 sites, including Sun Valley.

"Target Cities is our opportunity to test our four-phase methodology that is the EcoDistricts protocol," she explains. Originating at the Sustainable Institute, the protocol covers: government structure to manage a project; assessment; action design and feasibility testing; and stewardship. Its flagship project in the Lloyd EcoDistrict in inner Northeast Portland.

"We really only focus on the neighborhood or district scale," says Agbo. "You have a lot of organizations that look at the city or regional scale. We try to boil it down to the neighborhood."

The goal is to make a place "healthy and livable, with a great quality of life," and back it up with data. "We want to add that piece to the ongoing stewardship," says Agbo.

In Sun Valley, affordability is a much higher priority than at counterpart projects in Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. "They haven't prioritized it the way DHA has," Agbo says.

Blacktop barrier

Green push aside, there's a big issue with blacktop. Sports Authority Field is surrounded by a sea of surface lots that do little but radiate heat on the 350-plus days the Broncos don't play a home game.

"How to engage the stadium is going to be key," Agbo says. "Right now, it acts as a barrier. We need to activate is as more of a gateway."

Ink Monstr's Silberman says he'd like to see the lots replaced by multilevel parking structures to allow surface lots to be redeveloped into a mixed-use district with "that LoDo or 16th Street Mall feel." He wants to see vertical growth throughout the neighborhood -- it has large pockets of open space in the shadow of the skyline, after all.

More broadly, a key is a master plan that preserves Sun Valley's open space and parks, Silberman adds. "We can create an environment that's safe for the kids to go out and play."

Parr echoes this sentiment. "One of our big focus areas is kids, kids, kids," he says.

Fairview Elementary School sits across from Sun Valley Homes on West 11th Avenue. It's an asset that dovetails into its demographics. Says Guenther: "It's important to keep the school healthy to keep the neighborhood healthy."

The elements are in place for a radical reinvention of a neighborhood that's been lost in plain sight for decades. Every ingredient is in place: transit, lots of room to grow and a central riverfront location, and plenty of energy from residents, government, nonprofits and local businesses.

It's going to come down to formulating a thoughtful plan that challenges tradition and executing on it.

Or, as Parr puts it, "Let's start landing this plane."

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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