Looking to Auraria's future while studying the lessons of its past
Anthony Camera/Jay Vollmar
Few events in the life of a city are as relentlessly cheerful as a groundbreaking for a new school building. It's a time for back-slapping congratulations and lofty, forward-looking speeches; for misty-eyed reminiscences about the eternal struggle to advance educational ideals; for bold declarations about the opportunities and challenges facing the students of tomorrow.
Best of all, it's a chance to see well-tailored politicians and administrators don shiny hard hats, plunge pristine shovels into a ceremonial mound of dirt, as if threatening to actually break a sweat — and then freeze, tight-grinned, in a kind of onerous half-crouch, to oblige the flashing cameras seeking to record this peculiar, history-making moment.
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As public theater, the University of Colorado Denver's groundbreaking for a new edifice a few weeks ago offered all the essential rituals. The $65 million student-services building, which will also house lecture halls featuring what UCD chancellor Don Elliman describes as "a tremendous amount of technology," is a particular point of Buffalo pride. It's the biggest construction project in the school's forty-year history — and also the first building devoted exclusively to UCD students on the bustling Auraria campus, which also hosts the Community College of Denver and Metropolitan State University of Denver in its maze of shared classrooms and study areas.
The new building also promises to be a strategic bit of branding by the university. It's located on the edge of campus, replacing a parking lot at the corner of Larimer Street and Speer Boulevard — not far from the spot where Denver began, and where 25,000 motorists streaming by every day will see the prominent CU logo.
"More than just branding, it's a wonderful location, an entry point into Auraria and into Denver," Elliman told Westword shortly before the ceremony. "We're thrilled. It allows us to consolidate our student services and to make the student experience much more pleasant, much more efficient. For students to register today at University of Colorado Denver, they have to go to five or six different buildings. It's going to be one-stop shopping."
At the groundbreaking, there was much chatter about one-stop shopping among the assembled university regents and honchos, city officials and downtown business drummers. A video presented various faculty and students talking about the new building as a "gateway" and as an urgently needed space on the campus, which was designed to accommodate 15,000 students when it opened in 1977 and now serves nearly three times that number.
CU president Bruce Benson, who's been involved in the growth of Auraria in various capacities over the years — even serving as chair of Metro State's board of trustees, back when Metro was content to refer to itself as a college — reflected on the rough-and-tumble early days of UCD, when classrooms were scattered downtown and pregnant women were discouraged from taking courses involving the use of toxic laboratory and computer equipment.
"We've come a long way since the Tramway Building across Speer," he said, "which was known as UCLA — the University of Colorado between Lawrence and Arapahoe."
Other speakers noted that UCD's undergraduate population has grown by 50 percent in the last decade and that it now confers more graduate degrees than any other institution in the state. Denver mayor Michael Hancock, UCD grad and honored guest, feigned shock when someone mentioned the annual budget of the CU system as a whole.
"I had no idea y'all had three billion dollars," he said. "Next time, instead of a plaque, can you forgive my student loan?"
During his mayoral campaign, Hancock added, he often cited the Auraria campus as an example of successful economic development in the heart of the city: "If we activated and brought the intellectual capital of this campus to integrate itself into the city, that becomes the greatest economic opportunity that we have."
Ironically, the current boom in higher education has been, at least in part, the result of a failing economy. Collegians have waited out the grim job market of the past few years by staying on campus longer, and layoffs have sent older workers back to school to retool. Tough times can be good for academia, and this is a particularly dynamic period of growth for Auraria. Construction projects are sprouting across the complex; UCD's new building is only the latest in a series of expensive new flagships launched by the three institutions as they stake out their respective "neighborhoods" on the campus.
Last year, the Community College of Denver broke ground on its own one-stop shop, a $40 million, four-story, 87,000-square-foot structure known as the Confluence Building that will house CCD's admissions, registration, financial aid and academic-advising services, as well as a cafe and classrooms; the building is expected to be finished this summer. Last spring, Metro opened its own $62 million Student Success Building, a sprawling and airy 145,000-square-foot conglomeration of administrative offices and classrooms for MSU's exclusive use. The project was paid for entirely by student fees; nearby is a SpringHill Suites Hotel that houses Metro's Hospitality Learning Center, the result of a public-private partnership deal with Marriott that provides the hotelier a prime location downtown while offering future hotel executives a hands-on education.
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.
"People love this area," Alcaro says. "All the big shots like to have their meetings here. They forget they wanted to demolish it. These buildings were saved at the last minute, and that was it. They put in a little marker, and that's our history. It's a tombstone."
It's difficult to get a feeling for the old Auraria neighborhood from this one preserved block; placards outside the houses provide only bare details about the original owners. That's why Alcaro likes to tell visitors about his grandparents' journey here. "Their story," he says, "is a microcosm of the history of Auraria."
Auraria began as a gold camp staked out on the west bank of Cherry Creek by two brothers from Georgia in 1858; by the spring of 1860, it had been absorbed into Denver's west side. Over the next few decades, the area attracted an influx of German, Irish and Jewish immigrants, followed by Mexicans fleeing the violent revolution in their native land. In 1913, Ramón and Caroline Gonzalez arrived in El Paso. They soon moved on to Las Cruces, New Mexico, then southern Colorado, then Denver.
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Ramón worked as a printer, photographer and carpenter, Caroline as a nurse. The couple didn't speak much English at first and had trouble getting housing. But in 1933, Caroline was able to obtain a loan to purchase the Smedley house, a handsome two-story clapboard home that was the oldest Victorian on the block. They rented out a carriage house behind them to Irish families and eventually converted the lower floor of their house and a patio into the Casa Mayan restaurant.
The food was popular with Anglos, who would slip local kids a few coins to "watch the car" while they tucked into their enchiladas. The restaurant soon evolved into a kind of cultural center. There were sewing classes, dance classes, meetings of the Guitar Society of Denver. José Feliciano liked to drop in when he was in town, and so did a young Judy Collins. "It was a hub for writers, too," Alcaro notes. "William Shirer came through here."
It was all part of the melting-pot experience that was Auraria, which by the 1950s had come to encompass 38 blocks of working-class homes and light industry, including a dairy, a Rainbow bakery, a pickle factory, a cookie factory and a potato-chip factory. There was also a synagogue, a bar and three Catholic churches — one for the Irish (St. Leo's), one for other immigrants (St. Cajetan's), and one for the better-off whites (St. Elizabeth's).
"We had a health clinic here, a credit union, four schools, a newspaper," Alcaro says. "The story that Denver Urban Renewal Authority told was that after the war, the Mexicans came in and the property went to heck. That's not the true story. It was always a mixture of communities and industries. It was definitely old, but it wasn't a slum."
In the late 1960s, DURA was keen on rehabilitating properties damaged by the South Platte River flood of 1965. City fathers were also searching for a permanent site for Metro State, CCD and a proposed Denver campus of CU; at the time, Metro was a cramped, fast-growing school of 4,600 students holding classes in seven rented spaces around Civic Center and 27 other buildings in five counties. Close to downtown and "underutilized" from a real-estate perspective, the Bottoms neighborhood was a prime target.
What followed was a skillful campaign to win public support for a bond issue to create the Auraria campus — and, at the same time, wipe out a community some considered an eyesore. The Denver dailies quickly got behind the effort, running large photos of weed-choked auto salvage yards and declaring that redeveloping this "run-down area" would be the key to stopping the rot threatening Denver's core. Dick Johnston of the Denver Post described the neighborhood as "a generally blighted mismatch of small houses, salvage yards, railroad tracks, small businesses, junk cars, showing clear signs of age and long bypassed by new development."
DURA claimed that three-fourths of the houses in Auraria were "dilapidated or damaged beyond repair" — and that many of them were vacant, anyway. One survey reported that the number of occupied homes in the target area had dwindled from 823 in 1940 to 134 in 1969. Other researchers insist that there were still 200 to 300 families living in Auraria in the late 1960s and more than 200 businesses operating there.
"I didn't think it was that bad until people started moving out and giving up on their property," says James McNally, a retired teacher who grew up in the shadow of St. Leo's. "The flood of '65 didn't help anything. But I do think there was a conspiracy to get rid of the neighborhood."
Although outgunned and outspent, residents and business owners tried to fight back, asking where they were supposed to go. Pete Garcia, the priest at St. Cajetan's and one of the leaders of the opposition, pointed out that his parishioners had a median income of around $3,400 and couldn't afford a house for more than $9,000. There simply wasn't much in that price range available to them elsewhere in town, even with the modest relocation money the project would provide — and renters weren't expected to receive any aid.
"I had to go to Washington to get them some help," recalls Garcia, now retired. "The whole west side was in bad shape. All they did was move people out who couldn't move elsewhere. Some had already moved to Auraria from Avondale" — another DURA project — "and then they had to move again."
In the final weeks before the vote, backers of the bond issue, including Mayor Bill McNichols, made a flurry of extravagant statements in interviews and at public meetings in an effort to pacify the angry locals. The Colorado Commission on Higher Education announced that it was contemplating putting an "ethnic-studies center" on the new campus once it was approved. Attorney Bill Grant, co-chair of the committee pushing the bond, promised Lincoln Park residents that the development wouldn't encroach on their neighborhood, wouldn't include dorms and wouldn't raise rents nearby, since the students would mostly be living with their parents. But even if students did move into Lincoln Park, McNichols added, that "will have a good economic impact on the whole area south of Colfax."
Garcia distinctly remembers a promise made to residents at one public meeting "that their children could get scholarships. At one time, I had a tape recording where one of the officials actually said that."
The campaign passed out fliers urging Denver citizens to "Vote for Greatness." They did, but not by much: 32,913 votes for the new campus, 29,140 against. Lawsuits challenging the condemnation proceedings couldn't halt the ensuing diaspora. Some former Aurarians moved elsewhere on the west side. Some moved into public housing projects. Many of the small stores and repair shops simply disappeared; out of 249 businesses that moved out of Auraria, only 51 were still operating a decade later.
Alcaro's family was the last to leave, closing the Casa Mayan in 1974. "They were told they could open a new restaurant in some strip mall," he says. "But this was a home."
At the eleventh hour, through the intervention of Historic Denver and other preservation groups, a few buildings were spared from the bulldozer: St. Cajetan's (now an events center), the Emmanuel Chapel (now an art gallery), the block on Ninth Street. The Tivoli brewery was converted into an urban shopping mall — a sore point for displaced residents, who'd been assured that the campus would be devoted solely to educational purposes, not snotty retail. When that venture failed, it was transformed into a fast-food-friendly student union.
The ethnic-studies center never materialized. And, for many years, neither did the scholarships. Various people inside Auraria as well as outsiders have combed early AHEC board-meeting minutes and other files seeking some formal commitment to provide such things.
"I have searched and searched, and as far as I can tell, there is no document [about scholarships]," says Rosemary Evetts, the archivist at the Auraria Library. "But someone had obviously led people to believe there were going to be some educational benefits available to the residents."
In the early 1990s, a group of determined displaced Aurarians sought out lawmakers and officials at all three schools to inquire about the scholarships. They didn't have a piece of paper. They didn't even have Father Pete's tape recording. But they did have long memories.
In 1994, Metro, UCD and CCD began offering tuition breaks to students who could prove their families had resided in Auraria between 1955 and 1973. As of 2011, the Displaced Aurarian Scholarship Program has paid out more than $600,000 in college costs to 170 students.
Activists have since had occasion to give Auraria officials a few other history lessons. Thirteen years ago, protesters squelched a plan by UCD to develop student housing in the La Alma/Lincoln Park neighborhood, an attempted incursion across Colfax that seemed to be exactly what Grant and other original backers of the campus had said would never happen. And in 2004, Daniel Valdez and Su Teatro artistic director Anthony Garcia premiered their Westside Oratorio, a musical remembrance of the vanished community, including this exhortation by Garcia:
As you walk the sterile buildings,
of concrete and glass,
scurrying to class,
to your next meeting,
to your next performance,
listen for the voices
that came before you.
One of the selling points of the Auraria Higher Education Center was that it presented an opportunity for tremendous efficiency and collaboration among three schools with distinct missions. Sharing classrooms and other facilities would make education more affordable and accessible, the thinking went, particularly for inner-city youth and "non-traditional students" — who might start out at CCD, earn their bachelor's at Metro and go on to graduate work at UCD.
In practice, though, students have frequently found the Auraria experience more compartmentalized than collaborative. The plum-brick classroom buildings are functional but anonymous, dwarfed by enormous parking garages and a sprawl of parking lots marching westward. The shared library is underfunded and congested. When I taught at Metro State in the early 1990s, there was little in the way of "student life" on campus, and a strong sense of rivalry, with occasional turf squabbles, among the three schools.
In recent years the fractures have become more visible, with each institution balking at the one-size-fits-all approach and eager to promote its own brand. Metro, in particular, has broken ranks by rechristening itself as a university (much to UCD's aggravation) and by adopting a controversial policy of discounting tuition for undocumented immigrants, after the state legislature turned down such a proposal last spring.
AHEC has responded to the branding push by designating different "neighborhoods" on campus for each institution, along with one shared neighborhood, in order to allow each school to better shape its own identity. That's led to the current pile-on of new flagship buildings, as well as a decision by CCD officials to rename several buildings in their neighborhood after Platte tributaries, apparently to give them a bit more personality. The South Classroom Building will soon be known as "Cherry Creek," the Technology Building as "Boulder Creek," and so on.
Some faculty have wondered if the neighborhood concept merely promotes more competition and balkanization, but UCD chancellor Elliman doesn't see it that way. "Our students don't go to the University of Auraria," he says, adding that the new building will provide larger, university-level lecture halls than can be found in the present classrooms. "Each institution has its own identity. But the neighborhood concept allows us to develop that without taking away from the efficiency of working together when that makes sense."
While the schools are busy carving out their neighborhoods, there's also an emerging effort to connect the campus to the neighborhoods around it. Auraria has always been an island of sorts, cut off from downtown and the Lincoln Park area by raging streams of traffic on Colfax, Speer and Auraria Parkway, as well as the light-rail line. Proposals for better pedestrian access, a bike network and other improvements figure prominently in the latest master plan.
"We've been very cognizant of activating our edges," says AHEC campus planner Jill Jennings Golich. "One of our main concerns is improving connectivity to the adjacent areas. All three of the major arterials were built with the auto in mind, but 35 percent of our population arrive by transit now. Some of them live in the neighborhood and make use of the retail there. Improving access to all of that is foremost in our minds."
Perhaps the boldest step in connectivity is Metro's decision to move its athletic fields across Colfax, to the site of a former Unocal chemicals warehouse. The move hasn't stirred up the kind of outrage that greeted UCD's effort to develop student housing south of Colfax a decade ago, for several reasons — the most obvious being that most people prefer a soccer field to a decaying industrial site, with soil and groundwater contaminated by toluene. The turf will be artificial, since irrigation would only spread the groundwater plume, but locals figure some remediation of the property, which has also served as a homeless encampment, is better than none.
"That area has been blighted for a long time, and I'm pleased it's going to be used at all," says David Griggs, president of the Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association. "I think it's a reasonable best use of that property. I'm also excited about the potential for the community to utilize it."
Metro officials have kept residents apprised of the project for years and have even hammered out a memorandum of understanding with the LPNA, pledging to make the fields available to community groups when not otherwise occupied. Planners have also agreed to a walking trail around the perimeter of the thirteen-acre site suitable for seniors and strollers.
"This fits with Metro's mission of reaching out to the community, trying to be a resource," says Sean Nesbitt, the school's director of facilities planning and space management. "Ideally, there could be clinics and camps held in the summertime, and we could work with the community on returning baseball to the inner city."
The potential for the fields to become a community asset has gone a long way toward overcoming concerns among residents about Auraria creeping south. Doricel Aragon, the vice president of the LPNA, put aside her ambivalence after receiving assurances that no academic buildings would be placed on the acquired property. "We can't continue to live in the past," she says. "Everyone keeps talking about an agreement that Auraria would never cross Colfax. People were displaced, and I definitely want to respect whatever was agreed upon back in the day. But we haven't seen anything on paper, and nobody really came out to oppose this. It's hard to fight someone else's battle."
Both Aragon and Griggs give Metro officials high marks for their efforts to involve the community in their planning. So does veteran community activist Veronica Barela, president of NEWSED, a community development organization. Her group recently presented MSU president Stephen Jordan with a civil-rights award for his outreach to minorities, including sticking to the plan to reduce tuition for undocumented students despite scathing criticism.
"Dr. Jordan is a real community person," Barela says. "It's been such a change that this man has accomplished. He doesn't try to do things without community input."
Although she was strongly opposed to student housing going into the La Alma/Lincoln Park area, Barela sees nothing but positives in the ballfields project: "This development is going to benefit everybody. And that's what this campus should be about. There are hard feelings going way back, but maybe we are entering a new era here."
Griggs hopes his group will have a chance to become more involved in other design decisions as Auraria grows — including the question of what to do about what Lincoln Park residents call "the wall," the extended barrier along the light-rail track on the southern edge of campus. "The campus is oriented toward Speer," he notes. "There hasn't been much thought given to the Colfax edge. It should be more of a gateway rather than the way it seems to turn its back to the neighborhood."
It's clear that much of the current campaign to "activate" Auraria's edges is focused on its north side, amid the tantalizing possibilities of maximizing public-private development on the cusp of lower downtown. Still, the ballfields may well be the start of a rapprochement with the area's past. Even Alcaro says he's been impressed with the willingness of AHEC officials, and particularly Metro's Jordan, to listen to his proposals for honoring that past, even if they haven't embraced them. After one presentation, he says, Jordan asked him why he wasn't "more angry" about what had happened to his family.
Alcaro believes Auraria could benefit by increasing its historical signage and promoting "heritage tourism" on campus and in the surrounding area. He and Kalavity have proposed reducing on-site parking, launching a trolley service that could help connect the campus to its neighbors, and adding more green space and green buildings to the mix. (One pet AHEC project calls for converting the space in front of the Tivoli into a multi-purpose field that students could use for playing Frisbee or just lounging around.) They'd also like to see the college tap into some of its own expertise — programs in urban planning, design, history, archaeology and related disciplines — in shaping its future construction projects.
"This is a sacred site," Alcaro says. "We have no excuses as an academic institution not to have archaeologists and anthropologists involved in the design process."
It hasn't happened yet — at least, not to the degree Alcaro would like. He stands outside the Casa Mayan, looking up warily at the construction cranes that tower over what's left of the old neighborhood.
"From a real-estate perspective," he says, "all this is wasted space."
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