Tensions over gentrification are amounting to more than just a hill of beans in Curtis Park.
The Women’s Bean Project has requested a zoning change for its property at 3201 Curtis Street, which Denver City Council will consider at its next full meeting, which has been postponed until June 4. If council approves the proposal, the rezoning would help clear the way for the nonprofit to sell its current home, which could be valued as high as $3 million, and then purchase or construct a larger facility. That would allow the thirty-year-old organization to expand its services, providing transitional employment and skills training in food manufacturing for women experiencing homelessness and other challenges.
The Women's Bean Project was founded by Josepha “Jossy” Eyre, a survivor of the Nazi occupation in the Netherlands, who died last month at the age of 89 of complications from COVID-19.
Eyre began packaging ten-bean soup mix in 1989 with two homeless women, who benefited from the sales. The concept took off, and in 1995 the Women’s Bean Project purchased the former Firehouse #10 — a circa 1928, two-story brick building in the Curtis Park Historic District — from the City of Denver for $185,000. At the time, the city created a unique Planned Use Development (PUD) zoning for the Women's Bean Project, specifying square footage devoted to “dry soup mix,” a maximum number of deliveries, and requirements for a now-defunct catering operation.
But those stipulations no longer fit the WBP, much less a potential buyer ofthe property.
Over the years, the project’s product line has grown to encompass popcorn, cornbread mix and an assortment of packaged snacks, as well as piecework packaging for other food manufacturers. Clients served have expanded beyond the homeless population to include incarcerated women and those living in sober recovery or halfway houses.
“We are very happy that we've been in this building for the time that we have,” says WBP CEO Tamra Ryan. “We're at a point now where there are many aspects of the facility that are constraining our ability to further pursue our mission.”
Last year, she notes, a bean distributor was interested in having WBP repackage bulk legumes — a seemingly ideal opportunity for the nonprofit. But the Curtis Street property has no loading dock or space to park the distributor’s fifty-foot truck. “And so there is an example of business that makes perfect sense and would allow us to hire more women and allow us to really stay within the capabilities we have as a business,” Ryan explains.
The rezoning proposal would allow for a much wider use of the building, but would put it in the U-MX-2X category, which still keeps restrictions on the property. And since it's part of a historic district, the building cannot be torn down without permission...which would not be easy to obtain.
Curtis Park Neighbors supports the rezoning request, according to the neighborhood organization's president, Jeff Baker. The Women’s Bean Project "has been a wonderful neighbor, and we understand their need for an expanded facility,” he says. “We also appreciate that they approached us directly first, listened to our concerns, and are applying for the lower of two zoning categories. [CPN] sent out fliers and/or spoke to approximately 100 immediate neighbors. We gave [them the] opportunity to voice their concerns.
"Curtis Park is not your typical NIMBY neighborhood, and we are in the epicenter of the homelessness crisis in Denver," Baker continues. "Therefore, we understand the need for WBP to grow to continue to help with that crisis the whole nation is experiencing. We will be open to new occupants that are good neighbors. Being right in the middle of a residential neighborhood, we don’t want late-night bars or clubs. The right office space, lofts, restaurants or retail, or a combo of those that appropriately fit the residential neighborhood, would most likely work with the existing neighbors.”
Not all neighbors agree, however. Benita Guzman has lived in Curtis Park since 1967 and raised five children there; her granddaughter is currently going through the WBP program. “Many of my old neighbors have sold their property to make money,” Guzman wrote in a letter to council. “I do not want the money; I just want to keep on getting by and keep my home.”
Not only is Guzman worried about gentrification, but she doesn't want the area to lose the services of the WBP. “They do such a good job," she says. "They started helping the ones that really need them and are in a bad situation, and then they want to move out. I don’t understand why. I guess they say they need more space or something. But I don’t know why. I just don’t understand that.”
Real estate appraiser Donald Damian is another neighbor who opposes the zoning change; he's concerned about the potential negative impacts of commercial development, and has expressed interest in purchasing the property himself in hopes of housing another nonprofit there. “The neighborhood is looking at it in more of a selfish way," he says of CPN's position, "and not looking at it that it’s their back yard. Which it is, however; we’re two doors down. I think the neighborhood has become very selfish in wanting the new tap room, the new coffee shop, and all the other things that come with putting a business in there. ... A coffee shop, a tap room is not going to change someone's life for the positive. And that's all we're asking for the neighborhood to do.”
Damian points to concerns outlined in a five-page letter sent by Lowry resident Paul Vranas to city council, which analyzed statements made by Ryan at a February 25 Land Use, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee meeting and cited purported inconsistencies in WBP financial statements and its 2018 strategic plan, posted on the project’s website.
But Ryan strongly defends both her statements before the committee and the goals in that plan. “Keep in mind, the strategic plan was published in 2018, and at that time we were really trying to address the fact that our applicant pool had declined," she says. "And we've made progress in the meantime. And, of course, we're counter-cyclical to the economy. So we're seeing our applicant pool go up dramatically, even before the COVID situation. We've seen our applicant pool increase. We've also recently developed a relationship with the Department of Corrections to hire women as they're being released from prison to decrease recidivism and make sure that we're meeting women where they are and helping them get on a better path upon release."
Ryan calls that 2018 plan "a snapshot in time." And times have changed, she notes: "We had five women start today. And we had 35 applicants for those five positions.”
With need only growing for WPB services, what will happen if the rezoning request is denied? “I don’t know what to say to that," Ryan admits. "We have a PUD that's very prescriptive that was made in 1995, when we bought the building....it would be a huge hardship to the organization.”
The Denver City Council meets at 9 a.m. June 4 in the Denver City and County Building.
Update: On June 1, this story was updated to note that the Denver City Council meeting was moved from June 1 to June 4, because of the downtown protests.