The saga of the East Village housing project has finally come to an end. Last week, wrecking crews arrived at the 16.5-acre site off Park Avenue West just east of downtown to begin demolishing what had started as planned housing for the 1976 Winter Olympics but soon deteriorated into a deadly mix of gangs and guns.
When Colorado voters shot down a plan to bring the games to Denver, the City of Denver built the two-story brick-and-stucco townhomes anyway, turning what would have been press facilities into low-income housing under the aegis of the Denver Housing Authority. The 250-unit East Village was heralded as a new wave of neighborhood-friendly low-income housing because it marked a departure from the standard high-rise, pack-'em-in mentality for dealing with the poor that was prevalent at the time. But in 1988, developer Urban Inc., which had received a $5 million grant from the federal government to build the property, passed its ownership to Beverly Hills-based Casden Properties, and tenants began complaining that the property was deteriorating.
Under Casden's management, they said, the grass died, maintenance requests lagged, and they were forced to live with faulty fire extinguishers, holes in the ceiling and moldy carpeting. By the early '90s, gang members were routinely shooting at each other in the parking lot, and many East Village residents were afraid to go out at night.
"I was there the first year people moved in," says Ted Freedman, who has lived across the street from East Village for 23 years and at one time considered putting bulletproof glass in his windows. "It started off with no problems and then went to horrendous problems."
Even though a crackdown by Denver police and DHA reduced much of the violence, there were still 2,000 calls from East Village to the Denver Police Department between January 1999 and April 2000. By then, the situation had become too problematic for Casden, and the company decided to sell East Village rather than renew its contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide low-income housing. It soon found an interested buyer: Post Properties, the Atlanta company that had renovated the former St. Luke's Hospital into luxury lofts and apartments just across the street from East Village, and was in the process of building several hundred more high-quality rental units in the neighborhood.
Although Post said it would include subsidized units in its plan for the former East Village, many of the city's service providers feared the loss of affordable housing. Tenants formed neighborhood groups and began protesting, and Denver officials threatened to condemn the property if Casden sold it to a private developer. Finally, Casden agreed to sell the entire site to DHA for $12.3 million, $2.5 million of which came from the city ("This Old Housing Project," August 31, 2000).
East Village tenants were moved out in phases, says DHA spokeswoman Stella Madrid, going into other DHA buildings or given Section 8 vouchers, part of a HUD program that subsidizes tenants' rents in eligible, privately owned units. They left behind boarded-up buildings, a stark contrast to the upscale properties Post was building across 20th Avenue.
Three years later, what was once one of the poorest areas in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods is slated to become part of an 800-unit, $177 million, mixed-use development designed by Humphries Poli architects. Demolition is expected to be completed in May, and the development team of Denver-based Simpson Housing Solutions and Los Angeles's Alliance Property Group will build the project in phases over the next five to seven years. When the project is completed, market-rate rentals and for-sale condos will stand side by side with low-income housing, whose replacement costs are being covered by a $20 million grant from HUD to the DHA.
The developers' plan also calls for reopening many of the streets that were closed off when East Village was constructed in 1977. A mix of townhomes, four-story apartment and condo buildings and a high-rise along 20th are slated for the site. Retail stores and a restaurant are proposed for the first level of the high-rise, which will face Benedict Fountain Park. A community recreation center will be built behind the Cleo Parker Robinson theater at Washington Street and Park Avenue.
"From a neighborhood standpoint, this is extremely positive," says Freedman, who has represented his neighborhood in meetings with the developer. "Our perception is that people were cut off from downtown. We want to have the street grid restored."
Mixing low-income housing into private developments has become a popular way for cities to deal with troubled public-housing projects, on the theory that it provides role models and a sense of opportunity -- instead of creating a community of crushing poverty. A similar project has been successful in Curtis Park. That development, known as Hope VI, replaced 286 public-housing units with 550 new townhome-style apartments, which combine subsidized housing with market-rate rentals. DHA contracted with a private firm to manage the project. Potential tenants are carefully screened and troublemakers evicted. Neighbors in Curtis Park credit the redevelopment with dramatically reducing the crime that was rampant in the former housing project.
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DHA is currently working on the final phase of the Curtis Park development, which will feature for-sale units targeted to low- to middle-income first-time homebuyers.
Although responses to the Curtis Park project, like reaction to the proposal for East Village's redevelopment, have been mostly positive, there are still concerns -- concerns that gentrification will change the character of these very colorful neighborhoods. Over the past decade, middle-class types have been buying many of the single-family homes in the neighborhoods, bringing with them middle-class fears of homeless people and streets that stay noisy long after midnight. But longtime neighborhood activists and new residents alike make a point of saying they want any new projects to include low-income housing.
"The neighborhood has said all the low-income housing going away needs to be replaced," says Jim Wiseman, a member of the San Rafael Neighborhood Association who serves on a committee that has been meeting with the East Village developers. "We want balance and a mix of incomes."
And that's a charge as challenging as any Olympic sport.