The ongoing saga over a proposed northwest Denver elementary school has taken an ironic turn. Parents who spent months trying to convince the Denver Board of Education to offer a dual-language/Montessori program at the new school found out last week that their wishes had been granted when the board voted 5 to 2 in favor of it -- but they are now being told that there may be no school in which to implement it.
Construction plans are being stalled by the Capuchin Franciscans, a Roman Catholic order that owns a monastery near the site of the new school -- between Zuni and Wyandot streets and 35th and 37th avenues -- as well as property that Denver Public Schools hopes to buy for the school's playing field.
"We have a legal agreement with them for a land swap and money exchange whereby some lands to the north will be theirs and others will be ours," says Mike Langley, executive director of facility management for DPS. "The agreement has two key aspects: One is to vacate 36th Avenue between Zuni and Wyandot streets so that the Capuchins can extend their property and so that kids won't be running across the street to get to the playground. The other stipulation, at the Capuchins' request, is that their portion of land be rezoned so they can build a small office and garages.
"If both of those stipulations aren't satisfactorily met, we can't buy the land we need, and we don't have a school."
The standard size for new elementary schools in Denver is between eight and ten acres; the lot slated for the new school, which is supposed to accommodate 550 students from preschool through sixth grade, is only 4.5 acres. The area set aside for the field, just south of 36th, is less than two acres. Because the lot is so small, there is no alternative for the play area.
"If all things come to pass, it's still only 60 percent of what we'd like. At this moment, we don't have another option for a new school," Langley says, adding that he doesn't know what the district will do if the zoning change is not granted and the Capuchins don't sell their land. He says there isn't another piece of property in the area that's big enough for a school and close enough to the four existing elementary schools -- Bryant-Webster, Columbian, Smedley and Valdez -- from which to draw the new school's students.
The Capuchin property currently contains an administration building and housing for the priests and monks who live there. According to Father Harvey Dinkel of the Capuchin Order, the friars want to build a new 3,600-square-foot administration building. But in order to expand in the residential area, the Capuchins need their land to be rezoned to a mixed-use property. Because parking is limited on the streets surrounding the monastery, they also want to build ten one-car garages. Dinkel confirms that the Capuchins aren't likely to sell their property to DPS unless the zoning change is granted. The school, which will be constructed with money from the November 1998 bond election, is supposed to open in the fall of 2001. The city council, which has the ultimate vote on the rezoning and street-closure requests, has not yet scheduled dates for public hearings on the issues.
Patrick Ridgeway, a parent who sat on the committee that recommended the dual-language/ Montessori program, in which both Spanish and English will be taught, says he understands the district's need to purchase the land where the field will be. "They're already dealing with minimum requirements for lot size. It's better to have more land, because it would be safer for the kids," he says. "But a lot of people have worked very hard for what we've got. It was a year's worth of effort, and it leaves me concerned. We all want this school built on time."
The agreement with the Capuchins was reached in the spring, while Rita Montero was still northwest Denver's school-board representative, and some community members are resentful because the current board -- which they see as being more open to their desires -- can't change what's already been done.
"The greater community needs to know that there were transactions made by the DPS and the Capuchins. They are bullying the community; if we don't give the Capuchins what they want, we don't get a new school," says northwest Denver parent Ellen Torres. "Those deals were made without input from the community. The DPS didn't look at any other properties. It's not an attitude of 'not in my neighborhood,' because everyone wants a new school here, but there's other property in northwest Denver, and the DPS already tore down a building that had sentimental value," she adds, referring to the old Mt. Carmel High School that was demolished to make way for the new school ("Atención, Por Favor!" April 29).
"We could have located property a few miles away that would have been the right size, but that wouldn't have been appropriate, since we're trying to have a neighborhood school where it's needed," Langley counters.
Residents like Torres object to the Capuchins' rezoning request because they say it will compromise the character of the historic Potter-Highland neighborhood. David Brehm, vice chairman of the Highland United Neighbors, Inc. (HUNI) planning and community development committee, which reviews all building projects in Highland to see if they fit in with the neighborhood, says that most of the residents he's talked to plan to remain silent at the rezoning hearings. City council members will base their decision on the public input they receive, according to Debbie Ortega, who represents northwest Denver on the council. But residents say they can't, in good conscience, speak in favor of the rezoning; if they speak out against it, however, it will harm their chances of getting a new school.
"A lot of neighbors are concerned about the rezoning because it will set a precedent of building office space in the middle of a residential area. We pride ourselves on the residences in our neighborhood," Brehm says. "Anytime there's a proposal to change zoning, it should raise a red flag, because you have to look at the long-term implications."
Montero, who was replaced on the board by Lucia Guzman in November's election, defends the agreement between the monastery and the school district. "For the Capuchins to sell the DPS part of its property, they have to be able to do what they want or it doesn't make sense for them. The Capuchins want to do some things with their property, and in order for them to do so, they have to get some changes made. That's entirely separate from the DPS, which has no control over them," she says. "You have a group of people -- HUNI -- that claims to represent the entire community. Part of the problem with neighborhood organizations is that they think they can make decisions for the community without any authority."
The same group, Montero points out, objected to the relocation of an alternative school at 28th Avenue and Wyandot Street two years ago; she says they feared students would cause a disturbance in the neighborhood and spray graffiti on their homes. "They're just a handful of white, upper-middle-class folks objecting to an improvement in the community. The Capuchins have been in northwest Denver for a very long time, and they have a right to do what they want with their property."
Some residents have spoken out against the 36th Avenue closure because they say the rerouting of traffic will clog their residential streets and decrease the amount of off-street parking spaces. But their main concern rests with what the school will look like if it actually gets built. The design plan, which was presented to the school board in September and is still being revised, calls for a two-level, 65,000-square-foot box of a building with a flat roof. Torres, who sat on the thirteen-member advisory committee, refused to sign off on the design because she says it doesn't blend in with the historic neighborhood's Victorian and bungalow-style homes. She's also miffed because only three community members were on the committee, which she believes was a rubber stamp for the school district.
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"It looks like a youth detention facility, and it's going in across from the city's second-largest historic district. We want a building people will be proud of, not one that looks like a prison," adds Maureen Keller, a member of HUNI who has been actively involved in the push for the dual-language/Montessori program.
But Keller isn't worried about not getting a school in the neighborhood. She thinks the district is just bluffing. "The DPS likes to make threats," she says. "It's nice to have a playing field, but the elementary school I went to didn't have a playing field. The district is just concentrating on the playing field because they have a certain amount of bond money they have to spend. If the only issue was the playing field, people in the community wouldn't be against it. The issue is that the district is proposing an ugly, substandard school."
Langley, however, says the school would be substandard without a field. Every elementary school in the district has an outdoor area for kids, he says; to not build one in northwest Denver would "not be fair and not be feasible."
Still, Keller is confident that the school will be built. "They're just trying to scare us," she says. "The question is, is it going to be a school the community wants or a school the DPS wants?"