By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
Some community members still hold out hope that the Dahlia site or the Holly may once again turn into thriving commercial centers. At the very least, they'd like to see a new grocery store: Northeast Park Hill has nothing other than two small convenience stores to serve the dietary needs of 18,000 residents. But such scenarios look unlikely. Although both shopping centers were built around the promise of the automobile, since neither is located on a main thoroughfare, they're not viable as retail properties today.
"The problem is that they are right in the middle of the community," says Michele Wheeler, executive director of the Northeast Park Hill Coalition. "Sometimes I wonder if these two shopping centers were on Martin Luther King Boulevard, would something would have been done by now? I say yes. But because they are stuck a block north of the main drag, nobody sees them. They're just forgotten eyesores, except to the people who live around them."
The two locations seemed destined to be ongoing reminders that while Greater Park Hill was selected as one of the ten best neighborhoods in the country by the American Planning Association in 2008, its northernmost section would forever be a flyover zone, just as it was when the airport was located at Stapleton. Homeownership in the area lingers around 50 percent, well below the state average, and foreclosures are predicted to rise. The vast majority of kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches at area schools, almost all of which are performing well below expectations.
To get as close to the heart of the problem as possible, in 2009 the Prodigal Son Initiative and new state senator Michael Johnston joined forces, setting up shop in a formerly ramshackle building across from the Holly's remains and launching the Park Hill Community Center. "That was the place in the community where people seemed to be working the hardest to bring back a neighborhood that had really been hit hard," says Johnston, a former school principal and Obama advisor. "With Terrance, it really was a natural partnership."
But Roberts could only do so much with his very limited resources. "We aren't getting crime prevention and control money," he says of Prodigal Son. "The city hasn't given us a dime. Foundations weren't supporting organizations in northeast Denver, and that was before the recession. The people working around here are doing all that we can, but there are still a lot of kids being left out there who don't have anything to do — and so they're finding negative things to do with their time instead of positive things."
Just like the Holly, Roberts and the work he was doing seemed out of sight, out of mind.
But then something funny happened. In the spring of 2009, the Urban Land Conservancy, a Denver nonprofit dedicated to acquiring and preserving community assets in urban areas, purchased Holly Square from its longtime owner, Michael Bullock, for $750,000. "Although I only owned the center a short time, it is the focal point of the community," Bullock says, "and transferring the land to ULC, I believe, was in the best interests of the neighborhood."
The ULC had already been turning heads for the do-gooder approach it was taking to urban redevelopment. Since its founding in 2003, it had redeveloped a former tram facility at East 35th Avenue and Franklin Street into the Phillips Center non-profit space, and had also purchased a dilapidated housing project across from the Dahlia site in order to transform it into transit-oriented low-income housing. Now the organization had similar hopes for the Holly. As a precondition of the purchase, the ULC made Bullock remove the fire-damaged buildings once and for all. Working with the Denver Foundation's Strengthening Neighborhoods Program, it formed a steering committee to develop a new vision for the Holly and the surrounding blocks, a group that included neighborhood activists, city officials and a former Blood named Terrance Roberts. This past April, it even held a community fair at the Holly so other community members could weigh in.
These efforts didn't seem like hollow concessions. Aaron Miripol, ULC's CEO and a longtime activist, showed up for every event, sweaty from biking across town. "When we buy a property, we aren't operating solely from a financial and real-estate perspective," says Miripol. "We want to understand what is going on in the community. We are in it for the long term."
Miripol was sure there was enough neighborhood buy-in to make the redevelopment work. When the longtime liquor store at the Holly — a beacon for criminal activity — filed an application to reopen in a storefront across the street, residents came out against it by the hundreds, creating so much opposition at the city hearing that the liquor-store owners withdrew their application on the spot.
"I can't speak enough of the way they dealt with the liquor-store application," says Miripol. "That says something. People truly care and feel vested in this area. That's very powerful."
The neighborhood clearly wasn't ready to give up on the Holly — so potential investors shouldn't, either, he determined.
In June, the ULC released a draft vision plan for the Holly detailing possible options for the site, including a school, a training and community center, a central plaza, a community garden, a playground and maybe even a small market. But given current economic conditions, construction of any of these options is likely to be several years down the road. And that meant the desolate remains of the Holly — now just a 22,000-square-foot concrete pad with twelve rusty pillars that once supported the center's front awning — would continue to blight the community.