My Way for the Highway

An anonymous call led police to Robert David Cline's body, tucked inside a concrete cave under the on-ramp for westbound Interstate 70 at York Street, where the traffic backs up and the air smells like dog food.

Cline had been living under the ramp for some time. There was a spot he used as a bathroom, a broken-down grill marked his kitchen, and five-foot-tall weeds walled off the area.

His squat was just a hundred or so yards from the Wonder house on Claude Court. When Betty Wonder realized that the homeless man could see into her bedroom, the family installed iron bars over the windows and put in an alarm. The security job was just finished when police found Cline on a mattress this past August. The 43-year-old man had drunk himself to death.

The little bungalow where Betty lives dates back to the late 1800s. Before the railroads came to Colorado, the wealthy built their houses in this area close to the South Platte River, north of the new settlement of Denver. But with the railroads came industry -- smelters, stockyards and packing plants -- and the affluent soon moved out, replaced by immigrants who were willing to live on the wrong side of the tracks.

Betty Wonder's parents bought the house in the late '40s, before I-70 came to Colorado. Betty raised her 35-year-old son, Mark, in this house.

He's never known the neighborhood without the highway.

Now the traffic the family has grown to loathe may finally be their ticket out of I-70's shadow.

In 1919, a young Army officer named Dwight D. Eisenhower passed a hundred miles north of this spot, along what is now U.S. 30, in one of 81 motorized vehicles. This was the first transcontinental envoy, and according to Eisenhower's archives, it took 62 days to complete the 3,251 mile trip from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, at an average of six miles per hour.

Thirty-four years later, Eisenhower was the president of the United States, facing the growing threat of the Cold War. He realized that the nation needed a network of highways that would allow people to flee the cities if they came under attack and give the military a quick route to get weapons across the country. Congress had been talking about an interstate system for a decade; now Eisenhower made it happen. In 1956, the government approved the 41,000-mile National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

One of those highways, I-70, opened in 1964 and went right through the heart of Denver -- from Colorado Boulevard west through Swansea, Elyria and Globeville, a trio of poor, working-class neighborhoods filled with the offspring of immigrants. A swath of houses disappeared; the once-cohesive community was divided into little islands of residents.

The rationale behind this choice of routes is lost to history. But, notes local historian Tom Noel, "You wouldn't build a highway through a country club."

Forty years later, as they assessed traffic eastbound from Denver on I-70, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration determined that it was also time to rebuild the 1.2 miles of elevated viaduct between Colorado and Brighton Boulevard, the main route out of downtown. Four decades of traffic had taken a toll on the structure.

Not to mention the neighborhoods around it.

Twenty-five Elyria neighbors are rallying in the parking lot. They've got signs and songs. They're hollering about their 500 signatures, all from people who want I-70 turned into a tunnel.

A tunnel was floated as an early alternative to the current I-70 route through north Denver, but CDOT has decided that it isn't a viable option.

Under the National Environmental Policy Act, government agencies tackling projects on public lands are supposed to take community concerns into consideration. In an unprecedented public-outreach campaign, CDOT collected ideas -- 170 in all -- on how to repair the viaduct. Three of those ideas remain on the table; two involve relocating the highway, and one calls for leaving it where it is -- either dropping it to ground level, or rebuilding the existing viaduct across Swansea, Elyria and Globeville, taking between 64 and 92 houses in the process.

CDOT's community meetings on the I-70 project are designed like block parties, only without beer. But the angry neighbors who came to this October gathering at a local middle school aren't in a partying mood.

Jumetta Posey stands directly in their path, wearing a bright-yellow shirt like a living yield sign. Posey was the first African-American female in the country to own a licensed investment banking company, right here in her home town of Denver in the 1980s. She left it to work for the Enterprise Foundation as a senior project manager trying to preserve African-American history, residences and businesses in Five Points, then joined the National Urban League's Denver chapter, where she helped minority owners of small businesses. Posey says she was skeptical when the company that CDOT has contracted with to rebuild I-70 came to her for help with the project's outreach requirement, she says. But the company met her demands of diversity training for everyone -- including the big-shot engineers and consultants -- all taught by her.  

And Posey made it clear that she wouldn't lie to people.

There's a distinct mistrust of government in this section of Denver, on both sides of I-70. Posey knows it, and so does CDOT. They recognized that as they kicked off the outreach process, and saw that some people would regard them as lying land crooks. Posey's job was to earn street cred for the contractors and the government. She had to convince the public that their opinions really did matter -- even as the government considered taking their land out from under them.

To handle the job, she created a business called Neighborhood Solutions and hired forty people to do six months of full-time outreach in the neighborhoods that might be affected by whatever happens to this stretch of I-70. Most of the workers came from the neighborhoods CDOT is reaching out to, from Green Valley Ranch to Five Points. Posey paid them $15 per hour and gave them health benefits and subsidized child care, then sent them door-to-door to visit neighbors.

The visits, the block parties and all of the other outreach efforts are designed to put the focus on individuals, not entities. "It's helping people get beyond the labels: 'Well, you're a resident in Elyria-Swansea, you're a business owner in Elyria.' The neighborhood is not just the neighborhood," Posey observes. "There are people who live in the neighborhood, some who agree, some who disagree."

Especially these Elyrians. Posey tells them that the only rule for the gathering is that people must be respectful. In turn, they will be respected.

The protesters keep quiet as they head through the doors to a sign-up table. They put on their name tags and put down their protest signs, mingling in a hallway filled with informational transportation posters set up like an art exhibit. They're attended to by 44 people in yellow shirts -- some from CDOT, some from RTD, some from Posey's company. Four of them are public-relations people charged with keeping an eye on the media.

Of the $15 million that CDOT, RTD and the City of Denver have pooled for the I-70 East Corridor Environmental Impact Statement -- which includes everything from collecting opinions to initial designs to more concrete proposals for the three final viaduct options, as well as two possibilities for rapid transit from Denver International Airport to Union Station -- about $2 million has been spent to involve the community.

"The viaduct between Brighton and Colorado is old, and it's become structurally deficient," explains Sharon Lipp, a resident engineer with CDOT. "It needs to be replaced sometime in the near future, and before we can replace it, we have to determine what can be done."

Small chunks of concrete occasionally fall out of I-70. They don't affect the structural support, Lipp says. But they can jeopardize what lies below, so CDOT sometimes removes larger chunks to keep them from falling.

After the talks, at the end of a maze of maps, a reward of barbecue, potato salad and cookies awaits the neighbors. They can sit and eat during "breakout" sessions, when more people in yellow will field their questions.

But they don't yet have answers regarding which blocks might lose businesses or homes to I-70. Again.

Just across from the Wonder house on the other side of I-70 sits a crumbling shopping center. Until October, the Cross Community Coalition was located here; sometimes executive director Lorraine Granado would let Cline use the coalition's bathroom.

Granado has fought many battles in Swansea, Elyria and Globeville since the coalition came together in 1988, with a goal of improving residents' quality of life through social change and economic opportunity. She remembers the shopping center at 46th Avenue and York as a lovely place back in the early '60s, before I-70 bisected the neighborhoods.

But the problems in this part of town predated the interstate. Smelters had been located here since before the turn of the last century, and the ASARCO plant had spewed elevated levels of cadmium, lead and other toxins into the community. In 1983, the State of Colorado sued ASARCO for natural-resources damage and creating a public-health risk; the two parties reached an agreement to study and assess cleanup options for the site. Ultimately, the site's groundwater and soil were designated for decontamination and neighboring residential soils replaced. Residents got medical monitoring.  

Neighbors to the north of I-70 sued ASARCO in 1991. They were awarded $24 million, including cash and soil replacement. In 1997, neighbors on the other side filed suit and reached a $12.3 million settlement that included cash for 390 property owners and soil remediation for 285 properties. A Superfund site remains in the neighborhood, with a $31 million estimated cleanup cost; a nearby water-treatment plant still processes between 11,000 and 15,000 gallons of water contaminated with arsenic, lead, cadmium and zinc every day, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The soil at the former smelter was still being replaced when ASARCO went bankrupt. "The community is going to get stuck with it, it looks like," Granado says.

The ASARCO fight gave Granado a good lesson in bureaucratic battles, and she believes that CDOT officials sincerely care about what the neighbors want. "These folks seem to be open, they seem to be listening, they seem to understand the damage it's caused," says Granado, who wants the highway moved and the neighborhood reunited. "I have more hope than I've ever had."

She has a vision of Swansea and Elyria coming back together, creating a community that can support a pharmacy, a grocery store, some retail space and parks where the crumbling highway once stood. "You know, the things that other people have, so we don't have to go across town to get fresh vegetables," she explains.

ASARCO wasn't the only polluter in the 80216 zip code. Although the slaughterhouses moved on, other industries moved in. Two oil refineries and a coal-fired power plant. A dog-chow plant. But the neighbors successfully fought a proposed medical-waste incinerator, and the Cross Community Coalition managed to raise $1.4 million over the past five years to build a 9,000-square-foot community center. When the coalition moved into its new home at 48th Avenue and Columbine Street, though, it left one more empty space in the old shopping center.

For the past century, one business has kept a consistent presence in north Denver: the National Western Stock Show.

In January, the Stock Show will celebrate its hundredth anniversary. Created by the chamber of commerce to increase post-Christmas shopping, the first show in 1906 attracted about 15,000 stockmen from Chicago, Omaha, Kansas City and other cities to the east. And the event just kept growing -- attracting about 600,000 people in 2005 and filling all of the 95 acres it now occupies just north of I-70.

Because of space limitations, about 150 to 200 would-be vendors land on a waiting list every year, according to National Western CEO Pat Grant. Although Denver's stock show is still the largest beef-industry showcase in the country, shows in Texas are catching up, cashing in on Colorado's shortcomings.

If I-70 stays in its current spot, the existing National Western land would be minimally impacted, Grant says, but the show would not be able to expand. Although the current location is cramped, it's conveniently located close to downtown, where show-goers pump more money into the local economy. Under the first option for moving I-70, which would wipe out 39 to 44 houses in Elyria, National Western would lose a corner of its property -- essentially its front door -- and parking.

The second option for relocating I-70 would put it right through the National Western property. If CDOT decides on this plan, the Stock Show and all of its buildings would have to find a new location -- perhaps out by DIA or Stapleton.

"Our preference is to stay, but we're going to need significant help," Grant says. "Our stock show is the premier, prestigious stock show in the world. The people in Denver do not understand this. They do not understand who we are and what we do."

"Our relationship to the rest of the state, to ranching and to Western heritage is critical," says Mayor John Hickenlooper, who attended a recent Elyria, Swansea and Globeville Business Association meeting. "If the metro area doesn't begin supporting that Western lifestyle, it will go away. And it's so valuable. I mean, if you take away the Rocky Mountains and our Western heritage, Denver might as well be Indianapolis or Cincinnati.

"Not that they're not nice cities," Hickenlooper adds. "Assuming we could find a place and include it in the money for redoing I-70, we could make sure the Stock Show is as it should be -- larger, more robust, and with capacity to provide their services to the rest of the state."  

The city has not yet taken a position on the I-70 plan. "What we are trying to do is get all the information and analyze what is the best alternative," Hickenlooper adds.

And in the meantime, the Stock Show must go on. An elaborate centennial celebration is planned for January -- one that will remind Denver just how much it stands to lose if the National Western isn't supported.

"We've got to move on," Grant says. "National Western can't hold its breath. This is a celebration of our Western heritage. It's a big deal."

In 1969, Fred McPeck was sitting at the soda bar in a pharmacy at 47th Avenue and Brighton, which had served generations of Elyrians. McPeck sold ambulances, and he was meeting a client in the neighborhood.

While he slurped his milkshake, McPeck noticed a "For Sale" sign hanging next to the gold-leaf letters that proclaimed the building "Elyria Post Office 80216." He soon bought the place, knocked down the counters and some walls, added garage doors and moved in the ambulances.

McPeck had one employee but lost him to Rickenbaugh Cadillac. Since most of the ambulances in those days were Caddys, he retaliated by stealing one of Rickenbaugh's guys, Leo Branstetter. Over the next three decades, as McPeck bought more property in the area, he and Branstetter ate a lot of meals at the nearby Cindy Lynn Cafe.

In 2000, McPeck retired. Branstetter bought the business, as well as two of the houses that McPeck owned in the neighborhood. McPeck sold another house and its large lot to a fellow who'd been renting it as an architectural-salvage spot.

One of the relocation options for I-70 would reroute traffic up to I-270, then back down to I-70. It would rip right through McPeck's past and Branstetter's present. The old post office needs a new furnace and a paint job, but it's tough making those kinds of commitments when the business could be forced to relocate in a few years. "What am I, stupid?" Branstetter says. "I'm not going to go in there and put that money into the business and then have them come in and steal it. I'm not going to get that money back. I've got to force myself not to think about it, because it gets me off my game so bad."

Branstetter goes to the meetings, he offers suggestions and asks questions. But no one can tell him whether he'll lose his property -- much less how much they'd pay for it. If the state takes land by eminent domain for this project, it will conduct two appraisals before making an offer, and then the landowner will have the right to get a third appraisal that the state pays for. If the owner can't come to an agreement with the state after that, a third-party mediator will settle the dispute.

The yellow-shirts tell Branstetter that he'll get a fair price, just as they tell him his opinion on I-70 counts.

"I think CDOT sees our opinion at these meetings as something to write on the chalkboard to show that they've collected many 'diverse' ideas about what can or should or won't happen," Branstetter says, "and then they strike off what they want to strike off and they're going to damn well do what they want to do."

Mark Wonder wears a yellow shirt to the I-70 meetings. He's working as part of the outreach team that was created to reach out to people like him.

Another young man in a yellow shirt says Jumetta Posey's job offer came at just the right time. "I was messing up pretty bad," he says. "I really needed a job."

As the 170 alternatives were whittled down to three options for I-70, many of those jobs disappeared. Next year, the Draft Environmental Impact Statement will release an evaluation of the social, environmental and economic impacts of the remaining options and their estimated costs. That will be followed by another public comment period, and probably another round of signs, yellow shirts and barbecue. Finally, in 2007, the preferred plan will be revealed.

Mark's mother, Betty, watches and waits. Her family lost four houses to the first round of highway construction, including two that her father had built. The government bought half of an uncle's property. He thought he'd make a million dollars with the lot he had left, but all it's brought him are forty years of property taxes.

Both of Betty's parents died in the Wonder house. She says her father's ghost still drops in from time to time.

Mark grew up with I-70, which he says is almost like another relative. Some people have swing sets in their back yard; he had an overpass. As a kid, he loved to gawk at the car crashes and ride his bike up the concrete hill. "We could never write our own life story without including the highway," he says. "I know the highway like other people know the country. It's home, and will I miss it if it goes? Absolutely."  

But he won't miss the unofficial homeless shelter, or the traffic.

Both Mark and Betty Wonder hope that I-70 stays right where it is. In that case, whether it's dropped to ground level or rebuilt as a viaduct, the project would take the Wonder house and five decades of family history with it. But Betty just might get enough money to be comfortable -- and as it is now, it's difficult to sell a house with a highway for a neighbor.

"They took away what they can't give back," Mark says. "She wants to leave her own neighborhood."

Another man has moved in under the freeway ramp by Betty Wonder's house. Sleeping under the traffic doesn't bother him much. "You get used to it," he says.

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