Arts and Culture

Why Denver's La Alma/Lincoln Park Neighborhood Deserves to Be a "Great Place"

The La Alma/Lincoln Park neighborhood was named one of the nation's Ten Great Neighorhoods this week by the American Planning Association. I happen to live in the neighborhood, which is bounded by Colfax Avenue to the north, 6th Avenue to the south, Speer Boulevard to the east and the South Platte River Drive to the west. All of those places are major thoroughfares, and anyone who lives in Denver knows where they are. But the response I get most often from new acquaintances who ask which neighborhood I live in is, "Huh? Never heard of it." When I tell them I live near the Santa Fe art district, a look of recognition dawns on their faces. "Ohhhhh," they say. "Cool."

But while La Alma/Lincoln Park may not be the most recognizable neighborhood or top most tourists' (or residents'?) to-do lists, boosters say it has a lot going for it -- a contention with which the APA's award-pickers agree.

See also: The people of First Friday at Denver's Art District on Santa Fe

The APA sings La Alma/Lincoln Park's praises by noting that it's "one of Denver's oldest neighborhoods, with a strong sense of heritage and community." The neighborhood has Latino roots -- and the organization mentions that La Alma/Lincoln Park has retained much of that culture while growing into a transit-friendly, artsy, park-y place with a variety of housing options and land uses that's close to downtown.

If all of that sounds super vague, the association offers concrete examples: the opening of the light rail station at 10th and Osage (1994), the creation of the Art District on Santa Fe (2003), the reconstruction of the La Alma Recreation Center outdoor pool (2012) and the redevelopment of the South Lincoln Park Homes housing projects (ongoing).

But the neighborhood is different than LoDo or Washington Park, which made the APA's list in 2010 and 2012, respectively. There are no skyscrapers and few trendy restaurants. The neighborhood's parks don't attract hordes of stroller-jogging moms during the week or young professionals playing shirtless volleyball on the weekends. Though La Alma/Lincoln Park doesn't have the highest number of crimes in the city, it ranks sixth. And it's home to at least one of the public school system's ten lowest performing schools.

Alyson Crabtree, the communications officer for the La Alma/Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association, recognizes that the neighborhood has its ongoing struggles, including graffiti, illegal trash dumping in the alleys and how to make space for both the homeless folks and young families who want to spend time in the parks. But she says that working toward finding positive ways to co-exist is one of the things she likes about the neighborhood.

"These are different needs and expectations, and how to have a conversation about those is something we're trying to navigate," Crabtree says. "It would thrill me if we could be the neighborhood that figures out how to do that."

Jason Jordan, the APA's director of policy, says that several of the neighborhoods on this year's list have ongoing challenges as well as successes. "There was an explicit attempt to look harder at what does it mean to be using civic capital and innovative policy ideas to move neighborhoods that are transitioning a little bit or face significant social challenges," he says."It takes all different neighborhoods for cities to thrive. ... A great neighborhood does not have to be synonymous with a wealthy neighborhood."

Continue for more on the La Alma/Lincoln Park neighborhood.

Veronica Barela has seen the transition in the neighborhood firsthand. Barela is the executive director of NEWSED, a community development corporation founded in 1973. Barela was born in the North Lincoln Park housing projects and grew up in a time when, she says, "Santa Fe had everything on it." She remembers a JCPenney, several grocery and drug stores and sidewalks wide enough to facilitate socializing and commerce. Back then, she says, La Alma/Lincoln Park "was a real active, prosperous neighborhood."

But in the 1960s, families started moving to the suburbs and the neighborhood changed; the APA notes that, "in the 1970s and 1980s, this once-thriving community experienced poverty and crime rates much higher than the city and national averages." Barela says Santa Fe Drive changed too. "It wasn't vacant," she says. "Just run down and ugly."

NEWSED set out to change that. It applied for big-money grants to revitalize the neighborhood, eventually attracting a major grocery store (King Soopers) and helping to build two shopping centers. It started an annual Cinco de Mayo celebration along Santa Fe that attracted so many people it eventually moved to the much bigger Civic Center Park. And it began several programs to facilitate home ownership in the neighborhood, including one that bought, refurbished and sold single-family houses.

Today, with a thriving arts district, the relocation of the Colorado Ballet to Santa Fe Drive, the redevelopment of the neighborhood's housing projects and the recent approval by the Denver city council of a Business Improvement District for the area, Barela says La Alma/Lincoln Park is on a roll. "It has come back," she says.

Jack Pappalardo, the president of the art district's board of directors, agrees -- and he says there's more to come. This November, the commercial property owners along Santa Fe will vote on whether to raise taxes to pay for infrastructure improvements via the Business Improvement District. Those improvements could include widening the sidewalks, erecting some "gateway public art" and generally spiffing up the streetscape.

"We're so well known nationally that when people come to Denver and come down to the Art District, we want to live up to their expectations," Pappalardo says.

Does all of this amount to "gentrification," a word Barela herself uses to describe the neighborhood's recent metamorphosis? Maybe. But Barela says it hasn't meant a total loss of the neighborhood's culture or a driving-out of all of its long-time residents. "One of our missions is to stabilize the issue of affordable housing for people that traditionally lived here," she says. It's a goal that Barela says the Denver Housing Authority shares.

DHA is nearly halfway finished with construction of the Mariposa Development, which will include a total of 800 units. A third of those units will be for low-income residents, a third will be workforce housing and a third will be market-rate housing. The development is meant to replace 270 units of low-income housing currently on the site. The entire project is scheduled to be completed by 2018.

"The redevelopment of this site represents the change from low-density, concentrated poverty to a more appropriate TOD density through a mixed-use, mixed-income development," Chris Parr, the DHA real estate director, says in an email.

TOD stands for "transit-oriented development," and the Mariposa Development is considered "transit-oriented" because it's located next to the 10th and Osage light rail station. "A focus on health for both the environment and the residents has led to a walkable site with better bike connections, community gardens, art programs and economic opportunities," Parr says. "Residents have immediately adjacent access to light rail and therefore better connectivity to jobs and education."

The buildings are big and tall, with some space on the bottom floors reserved for retail businesses and community organizations. Thus far, the development houses an arts program called Arts Street; the Osage Cafe, a restaurant and culinary training center for youth; and Youth on Record, a music education program (formerly Parr says that DHA is now "reviewing leasing options that promote physical health, which currently includes negotiations with potential tenants for yoga and fitness studios."

Though the American Planning Association Great Place designation doesn't come with any grant money or monetary award, Jordan says it does provide recognition. "Our hope is that by attracting attention to it, it's a shot in the arm in terms of more tourists to Denver who will choose to stop by the neighborhood," he says.

Crabtree, of the neighborhood association, thinks it's a recognition long overdue. "We're sort of a well-kept secret in Denver," she says.

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar