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This Old Housing Project

To save East Village, is it necessary to destroy it?

As soon as Charmaine Barros enters her daughter's vacant East Village apartment, in the shadows of downtown Denver, the smell of decay overwhelms her. She futilely opens the windows and the patio door leading to the second-floor balcony.

Her daughter moved from the federally subsidized apartment a month ago, though the unit is still in her name. Barros has the key and has offered to show a reporter a typical East Village residence. But the electric bill hasn't been paid, so there's no power, which explains the smell of rotting food coming from the refrigerator. The freezer compartment contains mold-covered fruit, some kind of brown terror dripping from the inside of the door, and maggots.

Over the next forty minutes, Barros and two others try to squeeze the fridge through the patio door. As the General Electric is tilted up and down and up again, its juices spill on the carpet, drawing flies by the dozen.

Barros hurries home to fetch a screwdriver. With it, she removes the handles on the refrigerator doors. Then she wrenches the doors off of their hinges, and the appliance is finally shoved out of the apartment. The next-door neighbors wince. A woman arriving by car can smell the fridge even before she steps out, fifty feet away. In the apartment below, Thomasita Perez wonders if someone has died.

The next day Barros returns to the apartment, pulls out a closet door and places it on the balcony to hide the fridge from view. She mixes up a batch of ammonia and water, throws it in the appliance of death, then sweeps it out with a broom. The apartment is bombarded with sprays and the carpet thoroughly Rug Doctored.

Watching Barros, flashlight in hand, empty another container of black water into the toilet, it's clear that's she's used to the tough jobs. She's seen worse than this. When she used to work for the Denver Housing Authority, it was her job to straighten up apartments after families had been evicted. Angry evictees were known to trash a place -- maybe stuff dead birds or squirrels into the freezer. One family dragged in a horse trough, filled it with water and then dumped in food and clothing. Barros discovered it three months later.

Barros revs up her big, aggressive, bring-it-on smile when things gets difficult. And things are difficult now -- not only in her daughter's apartment, but throughout one of the last ungentrified neighborhoods in the heart of the city.

East Village is surrounded by the renaissance of central Denver, which is pushing out of downtown with lofts and townhouses and condos, restaurants and stores. For twenty years before the turnaround, when no one wanted to live here, East Village provided homes to low-income Denver residents. But earlier this year, the owner of the property, Beverly Hills-based Casden Properties, opted not to renew its subsidized-housing contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, setting the stage for the transformation of the entire neighborhood.

Casden is looking to sell, and two parties have been looking to buy: Atlanta-based Post Properties, in the midst of a gigantic redevelopment project of the old St. Luke's Hospital next door to East Village; and the City of Denver, through the Denver Housing Authority.

At the southern edge of East Village sits a triangle of greenspace called Benedict Fountain Park, where the homeless spend their days near one of the loveliest fountains in town. Buttressed by Post's swanky Uptown Square property on one side and a row of elegant old homes on the other, within a few blocks of downtown yet relatively untrafficked, the low-income housing on the north side of the park is all that stands in the way of transforming this part of town into an oasis of prosperity.

Earlier this year, Post offered Casden $12.8 million for the 199-apartment property, vowing to provide homes for the low-income residents in a new project there; the city countered with a condemnation proceeding to try to buy the property through eminent domain. Last week, Post upped the ante by signing a $14 million contract for the property -- which the city was set to fight at a condemnation hearing in Denver District Court set first for September 1, then postponed this week to October 6. And then, on August 29, Post announced it was withdrawing its contract.

But Post may not be out of the deal for good. "We continue to be enthusiastic about being part of downtown Denver's renaissance," Art Lomenick, executive vice president for Post's western division, announced Tuesday, "and hopefully to be a part of East Village's redevelopment in the future."

Each side has a great deal at stake. By promising to keep low-income housing, Post might have an easier time getting any ultimate project approved by the city's zoning department and win political favor for future projects. The Denver Housing Authority, traditionally defensive about its territory, has been using the condemnation to cast itself as a defender of low-income housing in the face of an out-of-town developer who hadn't committed to anything in writing. For its part, the DHA has refused to meet with Post until the condemnation issue was settled.

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