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The Big Cheese

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood.
At Maria's Bakery, on the corner of 37th Avenue and Shoshone Street, the best seat in the house is actually in the garden out front. From there you can hear the children playing outside the elementary school down the street and watch as neighbors tend to their tidy, tiny yards. Just across the street is a brick bungalow that was built in 1912 by the parents of Johnny Guido, who still lives there with his sister. John Rizzo has been just across the alley almost as long; he and his wife, Grace, live in another immaculate brick bungalow on Quivas Street, around the corner from Clara and Howard Hudson's place on 37th. This block was once full of these modest homes, kept up by modest people with modest dreams.

But that was before this same block gave birth to a huge success story: Leprino Foods Company, the world's largest manufacturer of mozzarella cheese. Despite its august standing in the business world--Leprino uses 5 percent of the nation's milk supply--the company, too, is a longtime neighbor. It's been here for over forty years, since Mike Leprino Sr. first began peddling cheese to a market on 38th Avenue, one of the city's main drags that's just a block--and a world--away. From those humble origins, Leprino kept growing...and growing.

And so today, in this part of northwest Denver, the only things popping up faster than pansies are PUD hearing notices.

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, but ugly feelings have been simmering below the surface for years. They date back over a decade, to the last time Leprino applied to the city for a Planned Unit Development zoning variance, one that allowed the company to spill across much of the block and take over most of the alley bordering the backyards filled with plants and playthings. The backyards of the five remaining houses that Leprino doesn't own.

Back then, this area didn't have a neighborhood group that could put up much of a fight.

It does now.
When the signs announcing that Leprino was looking for another PUD variance, one that would let it expand to the south, first sprang up last May, Highland United Neighbors, Inc. (HUNI) took a close look at the company's plans. And in September, HUNI registered its ardent objections. "Further intrusion of Industrial uses into the residential heart of the Highland neighborhood is unacceptable," wrote Tim Boers, chair of HUNI's planning and community development committee. "In the past, industrial and commercial uses along 38th Avenue have not been located more than one-half block from either side of the street. We have had verbal assurances from Leprino in the past that they would not encroach further south. They are now proposing to expand to within one house of 37th Avenue.

"The previous PUD, which went into effect in 1987, had several conditions which were recommended by this neighborhood and by the Planning Board, and which were approved by City Council. None of these conditions have been implemented or currently exist."

For decades neighbors have watched as houses disappeared. "This is Custer's last stand," says one resident. "If we lose this one, the Leprinos have guaranteed they're going to wipe out the block. If the city goes along, we're wiped out."

The natives are restless. Although Leprino denies that it has any immediate plans to take over the block, it's still the Big Cheese.

And in Denver, it's pretty easy for neighbors to smell a rat.

Denver is a city that takes pride in its neighborhoods--and it should. While other Western towns are all sprawl and no soul, Denver still has a heart: a downtown with history, with rejuvenated residential areas leading off in all directions.

Highland was once a town all its own, perched high above the city. Absorbed into Denver early on, it became an enclave of small storefronts and simple houses, with a few elaborate Victorians thrown into the mix. It's an area that attracts immigrants: Scottish, Italian, Hispanic and, today, suburbanites fleeing sameness. Although the economic boom took its time reaching Highland, the neighborhood is now exploding.

In Denver, neighborhood battles are fought--and fought hard--over disputes measured in feet and inches, in hours and minutes. And in that, the current Leprino controversy is no different from a garden-variety spat. Neighbors worry about what time milk trucks pull into the area, past the school and into Leprino's yard; they debate the scale of nearby buildings compared with the rose bushes in their backyards. Like all neighborhood fights, this is an intensely personal turf war. But this one goes global every time you order a Pizza Hut pie: That's Leprino mozzarella filling the stuffed crust.

Ken Brewer, the city planner responsible for northwest Denver, knew he had a problem after HUNI decided to oppose the Leprino PUD application. "The issue of their expansion had been an ongoing dispute in the neighborhood for a long time," he says. So he called both sides, found there was still room for negotiation, and says he "began to explore some options of what types of mediation programs were out there."  

He didn't have to look too far. Last fall Denver's Office of Neighborhood Response was in the process of introducing a new mediation program. Brewer called that office and "begged and pleaded" to make Leprino the city's test case, he says, even though Denver's contract with Steve Charbonneau of Community Mediation Concepts wouldn't officially begin until January.

Early that month, at a community meeting at the school just down the street from Leprino, Highland neighbors selected five representatives to serve on the mediation panel; Leprino assigned two, Bill Walsh and Dan Vecchiarelli, to a process the company expected would last no more than six weeks. An independent mediator, Jeff Thomas, had been selected to lead the sessions. Until they concluded, the city would stay out--and everyone, from the noisiest neighbor on down, agreed to stay quiet.

The Denver Mediation Center is actually a cubicle in the city planning office, its walls posted with stress-relief exercises, a flier offering "Counsel From Attila the Hun," and a photograph of four teenagers--Steve Charbonneau's most impressive credential as a mediator. As befits someone who's made a career of getting people to get along, however, he's also well-spoken and friendly. (Should you know of someone who has a problem that might benefit from mediation, he has stacks of handy brochures available.)

So far, most of his work for the city has been educational: letting people know they can resolve many disputes without resorting to courts. But Charbonneau also has signed off on resolutions of neighborhood spats over parking places, over loud stereos, over trees and fences. Settling some of these disputes is easy, a matter of getting people to sit down together for an hour or two.

Other disputes are much rougher. The Leprino-HUNI situation, for example. "It's a hard, complicated issue," Charbonneau says, "with long-standing disagreement." But after he'd explained the process, both sides agreed to be part of the city's first neighborhood group-business test. "I think we provided a tremendous service," he adds. "We got antagonists talking again."

And talking and talking.
The seven representatives met with Thomas for almost three months, devoting 45 hours to the official mediation sessions--and many, many more to discussions among themselves. They talked about commercial traffic coming from the alley behind the Leprino building. They talked about parking and sidewalks and landscaping. They talked about the new research-and-design facility, which Leprino had wanted to build to three stories but would now scale back to two. They talked about physical setbacks and hypothetical language and other alterations in the original PUD filing that might make the project more palatable to the neighborhood.

They talked and they talked.
But they couldn't talk their way around one immovable obstacle: a lack of trust. The HUNI representatives wanted a guarantee--a legally enforceable guarantee--that there would be "no further commercial encroachment into the residential neighborhood." And that was a promise that Leprino's representatives would not make, much less put in writing; it would have violated the company's basic property rights, Bill Walsh says.

On April 8 the group signed off on a summary, noting that while many issues had been resolved, in the end "agreement was not reached."

"The mediation process has been meaningful," the group's members politely concluded. "The dialogue that has taken place over the past three months has been productive, and hopefully will result in a better relationship between the two parties, regardless of the outcome of the PUD process."

Leprino would file an updated PUD application, the summary reported, and HUNI would once again oppose it.

In a memo Charbonneau attached to the summary and sent to city officials a week later, he termed the mediation process successful for two reasons. "First, important and contentious PUD issues were resolved in a cooperative, productive and timely manner," he wrote. "Second, a gigantic step was taken toward building a positive and constructive relationship between a neighborhood and a neighborhood business."

The Leprino office doesn't look like the corporate headquarters of the world's largest mozzarella manufacturer. But that's because, in addition to this building on 38th Avenue that houses offices and the old research facility, Leprino has seven factories around the country, including one built four years ago in Fort Morgan with substantial financial help from the State of Colorado.

If Leprino had skipped the mediation process and pushed for the PUD it requested back in May 1997, the company might be breaking ground on its new research facility today. Instead, it has just filed its revised PUD application, with a first hearing before the Denver Planning Board on May 27.  

But although two neighborhood groups--Sunnyside and the 38th Avenue Merchants Association--had supported Leprino's expansion plans from the start, the company was worried about its closer neighbors. After all, Leprino had been in the area for forty years, and while the company could move its headquarters anywhere (and many neighbors would help send it packing), Leprino likes sticking close to home. Still, the company contends that a PUD is crucial if its research projects are to continue without interruption.

"We can expand to the north," Walsh explains, "but in order to expand the office building, we'd have to tear out the research building we use currently. And we don't want to discontinue current research." That research is not just in cheese, but also in whey--specifically, the production of protein concentrates that are popular in Japan as dietary supplements but are also being investigated as substitutes for mother's milk. With this PUD, Walsh says, Leprino can build a new research facility to the south (relocating a duplex it owns in the process), then move operations there while it expands the office building along 38th Avenue.

So when Brewer and Charbonneau asked if Leprino would be willing to try mediation, Walsh agreed. "Denver has a lot of great neighborhoods--and this is one of them--which have to balance business and neighbors," he says. "Without the mediation process, there is no formalized way to discuss these issues if you have a difference of opinion."

Leprino is used to big deals; during mediation sessions, Walsh says he found himself devoting "untold hours" to discussions of the most minute details. "We had good communication about a number of issues," he adds. "It was a very valuable dialogue."

But then HUNI's representatives asked that the company promise there would be no further encroachments into the neighborhood. "I've never heard of anything like that," Walsh says of the group's request. "We've been here forty years, and they've been here for ten."

And that was the end of that.

"Mediation can be a long and painful process," says HUNI's Tim Boers, "but it can be helpful in a number of cases. In this one, we didn't get to where we needed to be in order to be completely successful.

"We all ended up with a better understanding of the position of the other side and also found some places where we could compromise on the PUD," he adds. "It's certainly a better way to start out than battling in front of the planning board."

Not that the battle is over.
Since HUNI didn't get that "legally enforceable" agreement from Leprino, the group will fight on. "Primarily, we're objecting to continued encroachment that jeopardizes the fabric of the neighborhood," Boers says. "There's been a continued eroding of that part of the neighborhood."

Still, the neighborhood made a good-faith effort to resolve differences during mediation, and Boers says he's "curious as can be" to see if those efforts pay off as Leprino's PUD application now goes through the standard city hoops.

Already, over 150 neighbors have signed a petition opposing the PUD. Several are practicing their speeches for that first public hearing two weeks from now. And in the months to come, they promise, the talk won't be nearly as polite as it was through the touchy-feely mediation process.

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Several members of HUNI's mediation group are sitting inside Maria's greenhouse, surrounded by row after row of lettuce plants. Like Leprino, Maria's is a homegrown success story. Unlike Leprino, Maria's has stayed within the confines of its own yard.

It doesn't use Leprino cheese on its sandwiches.
Owner Maria Neumann was on HUNI's mediation team; for months she held strictly to the confidentiality agreement. But now that she's freed from those restraints, she looks across at the houses that have been there so long, at the neighbors who have been so good to her. "Where does the city draw the line?" she wonders. "The city is not pro-neighborhood." She worries about the kids who dodge trucks delivering milk to Leprino. Someday, she says, "a tragedy will happen."

Other neighbors think it already has.
"It's almost a joke for the city to tell us to negotiate," says one longtime resident. "We're down to five houses. If we give up any more, there's no neighborhood left."

"The city doesn't have the guts to enforce the law," says another man. Not when it comes to Leprino, he adds. When a family wanted to open a small auto-repair shop in a garage a block away on Pecos, the city turned it down. But the city has ignored Leprino's violations of the previous PUD, he says--and the neighborhood's councilmembers have never been a help. "We fought this man from day one," he adds. "That goes back forty years, and we haven't gotten a single thing."  

Not exactly. In this, Mayor Wellington Webb's official Year of the Neighborhood, this neighborhood got to be the mediation guinea pig.

"We are a community, we are a neighborhood," says Ellen Torres, a probation officer who's lived in the neighborhood 22 years and was a HUNI representative through the mediation process. "I don't think Leprino understands that. And other communities are going to face the very same thing. Maybe it won't be Leprino, but it's going to be another kind of Leprino. We have to think about those kinds of issues in the city."

Mediation may be one way to think about them, but it's not the only way. "The mediation process itself was a good attempt, because the sides are really polarized," adds Torres. "It was very, very professional." But it was also very, very frustrating.

"Leprino wants to expand," she says, "and the problem isn't so much in the expansion itself, but how they want to do it. The community is not operating out of fear, but operating out of history. I really believe that it is their intent to take over the block."

And there goes the neighborhood.


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