West Side Story

Auraria's neighbors don't trust its latest development scheme.

The houses are still there, sitting in the middle of the Auraria campus as though nothing had ever happened. They stand side by side, one short block of them, red brick and green trim, Victorian and cottage, reminders of a time -- and a community -- long gone.

Josie Acosta remembers. She grew up there, in the Auraria neighborhood. She roamed the tree-lined streets of what is now the Ninth Street Park. She played in the houses that have become administrative offices, attended the old Lawrence Street school and breathed in the aromas coming from Casa Mayan, Denver's first Hispanic-owned Mexican restaurant. Until the campus moved in and the families moved out, their houses bought out from under them and almost all demolished, Auraria was her home.

"I look at those houses on Ninth Street today, and it makes me feel bad," she says. "We lived three blocks away. My dad, my grandmother, my aunt and one of my brothers all had to move out. It was not an easy thing. They had a hard time finding places. And the places they found weren't that nice. It makes me sad to think about it, because I remember what it was like."

"We say no": LeRoy Lemos says the west side has already given too much to the Auraria campus.
James Bludworth
"We say no": LeRoy Lemos says the west side has already given too much to the Auraria campus.
Gateway to a comunity: The site of the proposed student center.
James Bludworth
Gateway to a comunity: The site of the proposed student center.

And she remembers something else. Acosta was there some two dozen years ago when University of Colorado officials stood at a community meeting and promised not to expand their Denver campus south of Colfax Avenue. She was there when they vowed not to move into the predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods of the west side. So now, when developers come to her La Alma/Lincoln neighborhood with plans to build an international student housing center on three acres of RTD land at Tenth Avenue and Osage Street, she bristles.

"I don't like it," says Acosta, a 69-year-old grandmother of nine. "I don't like it at all. They said they would never cross Colfax, and here they are, crossing Colfax. To me, that's broken promises. They're invading our neighborhood."

There's nothing at RTD's Osage lots except weeds, wild sunflowers and chunks of concrete. But depending on who's looking at this barren land, it could either rejuvenate the neighborhood or kill it.

Len McBroom is the developer who wants to build an international student center for the University of Colorado at Denver and transform this industrial pocket into one of RTD's proposed "urban villages," which would cluster apartments around mass transit. Such centers, the theory goes, would help stop urban sprawl and air pollution by encouraging people to spend more time in their communities and to ride mass transit when they have to leave them.

These lots are a perfect spot for such a project, RTD says. The land is already adjacent to a light-rail station and is near downtown, the Civic Center, the Speer Boulevard corridor, I-25 and, of course, the Auraria campus and its three colleges. By housing international students here, UCD would create a ready-made population of light-rail users.

"In general, students from other parts of the world are much more accustomed to mass transit and have not grown up around single-occupancy vehicles," says Scott Reed, RTD spokesman. "This really is an ideal site for this type of project."

McBroom sees more than that. Much more. He sees the $15 million student center as a gateway to La Alma/Lincoln -- the area bounded by Sixth Avenue, Colfax, Speer and the Platte -- as well as a cornerstone for future investment, a way to relieve pressure on Denver's affordable-housing market (it would take some 300 students out of the competition), and a focal point for neighborhood gatherings.

"This is cross-culturalization, diversification and a wonderful opportunity to bring communities together," McBroom says.

Opponents see it differently.

LeRoy Lemos is director of the PODER Project, a community-rebuilding initiative administered by the NEWSED corporation and financed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. He also lives in the neighborhood, and he's dead set against the center -- not that he has anything against international students, light rail or development of the RTD land, he says. It's simply a matter of UCD keeping its word.

"They promised in the early '70s to maintain this residential community, and they lied and deceived us and went back on their word," Lemos says. "There were promises made about scholarships and educating the children of the displaced families, but that did not take place until the early to mid-'90s, almost twenty years later. We're not going to stand for that."

They're also not going to stand for campus encroachment disguised as affordable housing and an answer to urban sprawl, Lemos says. Although the center itself would be built on vacant land and would not displace anyone, it would set a precedent for further UCD expansion. For despite what UCD officials say publicly, he insists, the campus has already looked to the west side.

"Hell, yeah, there have been overtures," Lemos contends. "That campus was built for 15,000 students, and it now has more than 30,000. Space is tight. Parking is tight. Administrative offices are tight. Being a student myself, I know there's a crunch. It just makes sense that they would begin to encroach into our community. We're poor, but we're not stupid. We're in the heart of the city. The writing is on the wall. Historical perspective says they will come into our community with disregard for our residents. And once the campus crosses Colfax, the floodgates are open. They're not going to stop with this. I'd be willing to bet my house on it."

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