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East Colfax Motel Hell

No room at the Inn.

By last October, Amy's husband "started acting his bullshit again," and she knew he was off his meds. She woke one morning unable to find her wheelchair. She called for her husband but got no reply. He'd taken her chair cruising and left Amy stuck in bed. So she started sleeping in her chair. Then Julian had another episode, beating on the walls and making a mess of the place. Halcyon House managers told Amy that if she wanted to stay there, her husband could never come back. "But what if God makes my husband well again?" she asked.

The managers were adamant, though, so the couple headed for the Dunes, at 13000 East Colfax in Aurora, a cheap motel that charged $535 a month. But on the night they checked in, the cops came to the door with a warrant for Julian, which got him a quick trip downtown before he was locked up again in a mental-health facility run by the University of Colorado right across from the Dunes. When he was later moved to another facility, Amy stayed at the motel.

But then in February, she heard that the Dunes would soon be shut down, bulldozed to make way for residences and businesses catering to the people who will fill the 20,000 or 30,000 jobs that redevelopment is expected to bring to the area. Amy had to look for yet another place to live.

Amy Hess-Kibben and her family lived at the Dunes for two and a half years.
Mark Manger
Amy Hess-Kibben and her family lived at the Dunes for two and a half years.
Maggie Tidwell founded the Colfax Community Network eight years ago, to help families living in the motels.
Mark Manger
Maggie Tidwell founded the Colfax Community Network eight years ago, to help families living in the motels.

At the end of March, she checked into the Sands Motel, another rundown spot on East Colfax.


Aurora's motel business boomed during the 1940s and 1950s as families headed to the Rocky Mountains for summer vacations, driving west along Colfax Avenue -- Denver's stretch of U.S. Highway 40 -- and stopping for a final night's rest in Aurora. Several motels offered poolside views of the traffic.

"Aurora used to bill itself as the 'Gateway to the Rockies,'" says Tom Noel, a history professor at the University of Colorado at Denver. "Like Denver wasn't even there."

When Interstate 70 sliced through Colorado in 1964, it also sliced into Aurora's motel business. Although a few tourists with a sense of nostalgia would veer south off the new highway to stop at the Dunes, the Sands, the Ranger, the Family or any one of several dozen motels along East Colfax, most stayed at the chains that soon sprang up along I-70.

That left plenty of room for the transients who had begun spilling out of downtown Denver and creating a motel ghetto in the rapidly decaying buildings to the east, home to a community of criminals, immigrants, addicts and families that were both broke and broken. The motels began renting rooms by the hour, the week, the month, and eventually even accepted vouchers from homeless shelters. The rooms weren't cheap -- by this past winter, they'd command up to $1,000 a month -- but at least residents didn't have to come up with hefty security deposits.

In 1995, the Army announced it would be closing Fitzsimons Army Medical Center off East Colfax. Fearing that its closure would be the final blow in the neighborhood's losing battle against crime and poverty, then-mayor Paul Tauer and the Aurora City Council tried to convince the feds to keep the hospital open. When that failed, they reached out to the University of Colorado, which was looking to expand from its campus at Ninth Avenue and Colorado Boulevard in Denver. Tauer convinced CU that Fitzsimons was the perfect location, and the university's medical, pharmaceutical, nursing and dental schools, as well as CU's medical-research facilities and the University of Colorado Hospital, all signed on to relocate to a part of the old Fitzsimons site that's now named the Anschutz Medical Campus. (Eventually, Children's Hospital and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also agreed to build new facilities in what has been dubbed the Fitzsimons Life Science District.)

Thinking that the new Fitzsimons could be the economic engine to drive the town's revitalization, in 1999 Aurora rezoned a one-mile stretch of East Colfax, a process that pushed about sixty businesses into non-conforming status. Existing businesses that were now forbidden -- bars, gas stations, liquor stores, mobile-home parks and motels -- were grandfathered in, but Aurora officials encouraged the owners to redevelop their properties into more welcome projects such as housing, shopping centers, sit-down restaurants and hotels instead of motels.

Colfax didn't clean up quickly, though, and four years later the city took a more aggressive approach, adopting a tool known as "amortization," which would have eventually ousted non-conforming businesses that refused to sell to someone who would play by the new zoning rules. Obstinate owners wouldn't lose their land, but they would be forced to close up shop.

Amortization came way too close to seizure for many Aurora residents, and 7,706 of them signed a petition to have the plan reversed, or at least taken to a vote of the people. In April 2003, the city backed off on amortization.

But an urban-renewal plan for Fitzsimons and the area surrounding it was moving forward. One component was tax-based incentives for investors like Andy Klein, who broke out his checkbook when he heard about the $4 billion development surrounded by slums.

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