The Big Cheese

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood.
At Maria's Bakery, on the corner of 37th Avenue and Shoshone Street, the best seat in the house is actually in the garden out front. From there you can hear the children playing outside the elementary school down the street and watch as neighbors tend to their tidy, tiny yards. Just across the street is a brick bungalow that was built in 1912 by the parents of Johnny Guido, who still lives there with his sister. John Rizzo has been just across the alley almost as long; he and his wife, Grace, live in another immaculate brick bungalow on Quivas Street, around the corner from Clara and Howard Hudson's place on 37th. This block was once full of these modest homes, kept up by modest people with modest dreams.

But that was before this same block gave birth to a huge success story: Leprino Foods Company, the world's largest manufacturer of mozzarella cheese. Despite its august standing in the business world--Leprino uses 5 percent of the nation's milk supply--the company, too, is a longtime neighbor. It's been here for over forty years, since Mike Leprino Sr. first began peddling cheese to a market on 38th Avenue, one of the city's main drags that's just a block--and a world--away. From those humble origins, Leprino kept growing...and growing.

And so today, in this part of northwest Denver, the only things popping up faster than pansies are PUD hearing notices.

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, but ugly feelings have been simmering below the surface for years. They date back over a decade, to the last time Leprino applied to the city for a Planned Unit Development zoning variance, one that allowed the company to spill across much of the block and take over most of the alley bordering the backyards filled with plants and playthings. The backyards of the five remaining houses that Leprino doesn't own.

Back then, this area didn't have a neighborhood group that could put up much of a fight.

It does now.
When the signs announcing that Leprino was looking for another PUD variance, one that would let it expand to the south, first sprang up last May, Highland United Neighbors, Inc. (HUNI) took a close look at the company's plans. And in September, HUNI registered its ardent objections. "Further intrusion of Industrial uses into the residential heart of the Highland neighborhood is unacceptable," wrote Tim Boers, chair of HUNI's planning and community development committee. "In the past, industrial and commercial uses along 38th Avenue have not been located more than one-half block from either side of the street. We have had verbal assurances from Leprino in the past that they would not encroach further south. They are now proposing to expand to within one house of 37th Avenue.

"The previous PUD, which went into effect in 1987, had several conditions which were recommended by this neighborhood and by the Planning Board, and which were approved by City Council. None of these conditions have been implemented or currently exist."

For decades neighbors have watched as houses disappeared. "This is Custer's last stand," says one resident. "If we lose this one, the Leprinos have guaranteed they're going to wipe out the block. If the city goes along, we're wiped out."

The natives are restless. Although Leprino denies that it has any immediate plans to take over the block, it's still the Big Cheese.

And in Denver, it's pretty easy for neighbors to smell a rat.

Denver is a city that takes pride in its neighborhoods--and it should. While other Western towns are all sprawl and no soul, Denver still has a heart: a downtown with history, with rejuvenated residential areas leading off in all directions.

Highland was once a town all its own, perched high above the city. Absorbed into Denver early on, it became an enclave of small storefronts and simple houses, with a few elaborate Victorians thrown into the mix. It's an area that attracts immigrants: Scottish, Italian, Hispanic and, today, suburbanites fleeing sameness. Although the economic boom took its time reaching Highland, the neighborhood is now exploding.

In Denver, neighborhood battles are fought--and fought hard--over disputes measured in feet and inches, in hours and minutes. And in that, the current Leprino controversy is no different from a garden-variety spat. Neighbors worry about what time milk trucks pull into the area, past the school and into Leprino's yard; they debate the scale of nearby buildings compared with the rose bushes in their backyards. Like all neighborhood fights, this is an intensely personal turf war. But this one goes global every time you order a Pizza Hut pie: That's Leprino mozzarella filling the stuffed crust.

Ken Brewer, the city planner responsible for northwest Denver, knew he had a problem after HUNI decided to oppose the Leprino PUD application. "The issue of their expansion had been an ongoing dispute in the neighborhood for a long time," he says. So he called both sides, found there was still room for negotiation, and says he "began to explore some options of what types of mediation programs were out there."

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