The latest version of the Auraria Higher Education Center's master plan, issued last year, calls for more public-private partnerships and "strong physical and programmatic connections from the campus to Denver's core." The overall idea is to move away from the suburban office-park model of the original campus design to a "highly urban environment inspired by the nearby urban neighborhoods of Lower Downtown." That means developing new buildings "close to the city edge with a finer grain development pattern typical of many successful urban centers."

It also means moving past the edge, beyond the boundaries of the present campus. This month, Metro began work on a multimillion-dollar conversion of contaminated industrial land south of the Colfax viaduct into athletic fields, including tennis courts, a soccer field, and possibly baseball and softball fields, too. Its previous courts were sacrificed to the hotel project, and planners anticipate that other fields on the north end of campus can be put to better (more urban) use.

The move is expected to be a boon to the nearby La Alma/Lincoln Park neighborhood, since it transforms an industrial wasteland into a resource that community groups can use as well. Yet while several community leaders are supporting the project, some residents with long ties to Auraria are eyeing the expansion with unease. It brings back bad memories, they say, of the way the campus was created more than four decades ago.

Before it was a seat of intellectual capital and wraparound services, Auraria was a neighborhood, made up mostly of modest houses and small businesses. The people who lived there didn't call it Auraria — a name that dated back to when the area was its own town, briefly, in the late 1850s. Most residents called it "The Bottoms" or simply "the west side." That neighborhood abruptly vanished in the early 1970s, demolished to make way for the college campus of the future, after a bitter political and legal battle that uprooted hundreds of residents and businesses, many of them Hispanic.

That upheaval lies heavy on the hearts of some Chicano activists and historians, who say that city officials made several promises about the future operation of Auraria in an effort to win support for the project: that there would be scholarships available to the children of displaced residents; that there would be a Hispanic cultural center on the campus; that the land would not be turned over to commercial developers; that Auraria would never expand south of Colfax. AHEC officials have said they've never found any documents spelling out such agreements — though the institutions did start offering scholarships to "displaced Aurarians" after much lobbying by activists in the 1990s.

The elusive promises trouble Gregorio Alcaro, an urban planner who believes the current surge of development on campus is steamrolling over its past. "In moral terms, this is a slap in the face," he says. "There have always been these unwritten agreements about this site, going back to the Arapaho and the Cheyenne. No one wants to talk about them."

Alcaro's grandparents arrived in Denver in 1919. They operated the Casa Mayan Mexican restaurant out of their home in Auraria for decades, until the creation of the campus shut them down. The building still stands, one of a block of original homes granted landmark status and preserved in Ninth Street Park on the south end of campus. Alcaro co-founded a nonprofit, Auraria Casa Mayan Heritage, that gives tours of the area and is engaged in researching and preserving Auraria history. He and landscape architect Karen Kalavity have also spent many hours with AHEC officials, trying to interest them in alternative development plans that emphasize historic areas and green spaces, with little success.

"It's annoying to be excluded when you see what they're producing," Kalavity says. "This is a poorly laid-out campus. It doesn't have any cohesion. Their master planning is being done by real-estate people, and they don't follow it anyway. They end up taking the least-used parking lot as the site of the next building."

"Who speaks for the historical district?" Alcaro asks. "We're not here to stop building and growth, but we're questioning bad design and policy and why more people aren't involved."

After the speeches concluded at the UCD groundbreaking, the dignitaries grabbed their hardhats and gleaming shovels and headed to the parking lot to complete the ritual. They posed over a modest patch of dirt that had been dumped on top of the asphalt, just enough to provide a cushion for the shovels while the cameras clicked.

Nobody was actually breaking any ground that day, and that's probably a good thing. Dig too deep into the rich strata of Auraria, and there's no telling what you might turn up.

**********

When Greg Alcaro takes visitors on a stroll around Ninth Street Park, he sometimes hears how amazingly "realistic" it all seems. Some of his guests assume that the houses there, prime examples of middle-class residences in late-nineteenth-century Denver — and the oldest block of restored homes in the city — are Disneyland-like reproductions.

It's part of a larger disconnect between the park and the campus that surrounds it. Although the houses are now used as campus offices and conference rooms, most students have little interaction with the place, unless they're ducking into the former grocery store on the corner for a quick sandwich or coffee.

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2 comments
AurariaStudent
AurariaStudent

I give daily tours for one of the colleges on this campus. I am also a student here. Talking about the St. Cajetan's and Auraria's history is always one of my favorite parts of the tour. I know that there is a lot of anger and negativity around this development, my Chicano studies professor and I would have plenty of talks about it often. However, I always try to out a different spin on it. This campus has a beautiful history and though it's gone now it should be celebrated. The history parts aren't required on the script for our tours but I include it because I love it and almost always get a positive response from prospectives. This was an awesome article and it confirmed some information I already knew (people always asked where I got the line that none of the development was supposed to go south of Colfax, I'm glad other's are saying the same) and also helped with providing some more tidbits I might work into future tours. I hope the issues on this campus can be resolved, I have enjoyed my time here and when I graduate next year, I will miss this campus for sure.

 
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