Longform

After ignoring the South Platte River for decades, Denver is once again panning for gold

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But the walls proved no match for the water that night. Just after 7 p.m., the sky opened up and dumped so much rain and hail that the river rose nearly three feet in less than an hour. According to news reports, Guel ducked into a narrow concrete tunnel along the path to escape the deluge. The water came after her, flooding the seven-by-seven-foot tunnel near the intersection of Decatur Street and West Howard Place. The force of it knocked her off her feet and pried the handles of Jose's stroller out of her hands.

Rescuers found her clinging to a concrete barrier. Firefighters told the media that Guel repeatedly asked if her baby had been found. When rescuers told her no, she let go of the barrier, saying she didn't want to live. Rescuers eventually pulled her out of the water, but there was no sign of baby Jose. His body was found two days later.

Today, the spot where the tunnel once was looks completely different. The bleak concrete walls are gone, and the entire area has been returned to a more natural state. There's still a paved path, but now what separates it from the gulch are grass, rocks and newly planted trees and berry bushes. A gently sloping hill leads from the street down to the water, providing an easy way to escape to higher ground in a rainstorm.

Not that the ground in the surrounding Sun Valley neighborhood, where Guel lived, could be considered that much higher. One of Denver's poorest neighborhoods, Sun Valley consists primarily of housing projects and has always had problems with crime and a lack of amenities. But things are supposed to be looking up.

The Regional Transportation District is building a twelve-mile spur — the West Rail Line — that will eventually run past Decatur and Howard on its way from Golden to Union Station. Neighbors hope it will bring people and jobs and a higher quality of life.

Before it started building, though, RTD wanted improvements to Lakewood Gulch to ensure that its train tracks wouldn't be flooded in the event of heavy rain. But the project was on the city's to-do list long before that, says Jim Potter, an engineering supervisor with Denver Public Works. However, there was a big obstacle in the way. A city building known as the Decatur Street Facility, which was part office complex, part garage for street-sweeping vehicles and the like, had been built in the middle of Lakewood Gulch, which was re-routed around it via those concrete tunnels. To return the gulch to its natural path, the city first had to relocate and demolish that facility. RTD contributed $12 million toward its removal.

The rest of the project cost about $16.2 million and was paid for with city money and funds from the independent Urban Drainage and Flood Control District. It included widening Lakewood Gulch and deepening where it flows into the Platte River, among other improvements. Whereas the previous configuration was equipped to handle what's known as a ten-year flood event, the banks of the new Lakewood Gulch can handle a 100-year flood. The whole thing wrapped up two weeks ago, with just a few finishing touches on the agenda.

On a recent afternoon, the spot, just two blocks from Sports Authority Field, was serene. The water in the gulch was no more than ten feet wide and two feet deep, moving at a pace that would be perfect for an inner tube. Ducks and spandex-clad bikers provided the only activity on the path, rolling past a cascading water feature surrounded by rocks just big enough to serve as a picnic spot for two.

The Greenway Foundation hopes these changes are just the beginning. Organization head Jeff Shoemaker has envisioned $17.5 million worth of improvements to the area that include returning Weir Gulch, which is south of Lakewood Gulch, to a more natural waterway, building a path alongside it and erecting a playground nearby.

Construction on some of those projects is expected to begin this fall, but the neighborhood's future is still difficult to read. "I don't know what Sun Valley is going to be in ten years, but it's going to be something very different," Shoemaker says.

Different, and safer.

— Melanie Asmar

Video: Take a fast-forward ride down the South Platte River trail

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 River North

Arkins Court and 36th Street

One minute, the only sound is a red-winged blackbird trilling from a tree next to the South Platte River bike trail. In the next, the motors of two eighteen-wheeled Pepsi trucks followed by an RTD bus, all three of them flying at more than forty miles per mile down Arkins Court, drown out every other sound.

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