In Whittier, Gentrification Challenges Diversity

As the investment dollars spill out of the city center, the Whittier neighborhood northeast Denver is challenged to preserve its past. Home values have jumped up more than 12 percent in the last year.
Rising home values in Whittier are a sure sign the historically black neighborhood is seeing the gentrification other close-in Denver communities have seen in recent years.

In the last year, the median home value in Whittier has increased 12.2 percent to $357,600, and Zillow predicts they will rise another 5.3 percent within the next year. The median list price per square foot is $314, about 10 percent higher than the Denver average of $288. The median price of homes currently listed in Whittier is $499,949, while the median price of homes sold is $392,154.

"It is a quickly gentrifying neighborhood," says Zoe Williams, a community organizer. "Housing values have gone up,  and the ratio of owned homes to rented homes has shifted dramatically in the last couple of years. Five Points is seen as the picture of gentrification in Denver, but Whittier has gotten some of that as well."

Properties that once were rentals are now owner-occupied, and long-time residents are trying to navigate a rapidly changing neighborhood. Still, the median rent price in Whitter is about $1,400, lower than the Denver median of $1,650.

African Americans began moving into the neighborhood in the 1920s, and a "race" or "color" line ran down the alley between Race and High streets -- blacks could only buy homes to the east. By the 1950s, Whittier was 90 percent black.

"People of color couldn't buy houses," says Darrell Watson, president of the Whittier Neighborhood Association. "It was a way of separating blacks from whites in northeast Denver. That line kept moving. It kept going east toward Park Hill until the city enforced the inclusionary housing and didn't allow segregation based on race."

Diversity and changeThe neighborhood is getting $7,000 for the Whittier Alley Loop, which is designed to connect four alleyways between Williams High and Race streets.

The neighborhood is named for American poet John Greenleaf Whittier, an avid abolitionist who worked for 30 years to end slavery.

Watson, who has lived in Whittier for 20 years, moved to the neighborhood because of its economic and racial diversity. He's been actively involved in the neighborhood ever since.

On behalf of the Whittier Neighborhood Association, Watson applied to Denver Arts & Venues for a P.S. You Are Here grant, a citywide creative placemaking and neighborhood revitalization program designed to cultivate collaborative, community-driven outdoor projects in Denver's public spaces. The neighborhood is getting $7,000 for the Whittier Alley Loop, which is designed to connect four alleyways between Williams High and Race streets. In all, Arts & Venues awarded $40,000 in grants to seven community groups including RedLine, La Alma Neighborhood Association, Chaffee Park, Athmar Park, Access Gallery, Birdseed Collective and Jefferson Park.

The Whittier Alley Loop, which will roll out in May, is a creative intervention that will transform the under-used alleyways and connect important places in the neighborhood, including the Ford-Warren Library, a recreation center, Madame C.J. Walker Park and local businesses. The goal of the project is to create unique public spaces and demonstrate that alleyways can become creative neighborhood assets rather than merely utilitarian rights of way.

"We will have historical points of reference throughout the alleys," Watson says. "The Denver library will create an outdoor space or reading room, and we will have neighborhood movie nights in the park. We want this to be extremely interactive and informative."

Plans for the futureThe neighborhood's small corner stores have been there for decades.

The city's rezoning effort did not update the Whittier neighborhood plan adopted in 2000. However, it did create the Northeast Downtown Neighborhoods Plan, which includes the Whittier neighborhood.

"After the successes of Five Points and those neighborhoods along Downing, I'm sure Whittier is going to experience the same kind of successes," says Caryn Champine, director of planning services for Denver's Community Planning and Development department.

The plan preserves the character of the neighborhood by protecting the small corner stores that have been there for decades. It also provides for development opportunities along Downing Street, which forms the seam between the angular downtown street grid and the adjacent north-south and east-west neighborhood grid.

"That's really where we mapped mixed-use ranging from three to five stories," Champine says. "That's where the bigger redevelopment and investment opportunities are."

The plan, which also includes the Curtis Park, San Rafael and Cole neighborhoods, calls for:
  • Maintaining the current mix of low-scale building forms such as urban homes, duplexes and row houses
  • Allowing new development to replicate existing development patterns, including small lots, shallow setbacks and high building coverage with parking and access in the rear off the alley
  • Making use of entry features that connect the buildings and front yard to the street
  • Allowing a mix of land use consisting of primarily residential uses with limited neighborhood-serving commercial
  • Encouraging the use of streetscape elements that promotes residential character and pedestrian and bicycle use, such as detached sidewalks, pedestrian-scale lighting and tree lawns
Over the years, the Whittier community has worked with the The Denver Foundation through the organization's Strengthening Neighborhoods program, designed to help residents take action on community issues.The program awards grants up to $5,000 to any group that has a good idea and three people willing to execute it.

"As Whittier has gentrified, we have seen fewer and fewer applications," says Patrick Hovarth, vice president of programs for the foundation. "Whittier is regarded by a lot of people as already flipped, but it isn't completely gone yet."

The Denver Foundation is now working with the neighborhood to figure out how to maintain the socioeconomic and cultural diversity that has defined it over the years.

"Most of the people who have moved in there have done so because they like the near-urban environment and the diversity," Hovarth says. "There is a progressively minded effort to retain the elements of the neighborhood by the people who live there."

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Read more articles by Margaret Jackson.

Margaret is a veteran Denver real estate reporter and can be contacted here.
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