"If it had happened in Stapleton or South Park Hill, everybody knows that it would have been cleaned up in a week," says Roberts. "The Crips burned it down, but the government left it. It was a literal mountain of evidence of how bad the gang problem really is in northeast Denver. I think it helped gang members who wanted to recruit kids. I think it was a way for them to say, 'Look at how the Crips look at us, look at how the government feels about us.' I think sixty or seventy kids became Bloods over the arson, which is a whole new generation of Bloods."
The garbage from the fire was eventually cleaned up — nearly six months after the attack, once community members started complaining to the media. But that left the shell of the shopping center itself, apparently damaged beyond repair, and the knowledge that Denver has a less than stellar track record when it comes to projects in northeast Park Hill.
Back in the late 1990s, then-mayor Wellington Webb vowed that rehabilitating the Dahlia, by then a nearly vacant mall, would be a top priority. In 2001, the Denver Urban Renewal Authority had created the Northeast Park Hill Urban Renewal Area, a section of the neighborhood where tax-increment financing would be used to fund the revitalization of the Dahlia as well as the Holly.
But a complicated proposal to bring residences and retail to the area around the Dahlia fell apart when a former landfill was discovered underneath the shopping center, one that would require millions in loans and grants to clean up. Then a plan for a high-density development helmed in part by now former mayor Webb fizzled because there wasn't enough market demand. (Webb declined to be interviewed for this story.) Finally, in 2008, the now-vacant Dahlia site was certified clean and purchased by Oakwood Homes, the housing developer behind the Green Valley Ranch subdivision. But then the housing market collapsed. Today, a corner of the lot features a new Denver Health clinic, and another section has been earmarked for affordable senior housing scheduled to be built by the end of 2011. Still, about half of the eight-acre site remains in limbo.
Some community members still hold out hope that the Dahlia site or the Holly may once again turn into thriving commercial centers. At the very least, they'd like to see a new grocery store: Northeast Park Hill has nothing other than two small convenience stores to serve the dietary needs of 18,000 residents. But such scenarios look unlikely. Although both shopping centers were built around the promise of the automobile, since neither is located on a main thoroughfare, they're not viable as retail properties today.
"The problem is that they are right in the middle of the community," says Michele Wheeler, executive director of the Northeast Park Hill Coalition. "Sometimes I wonder if these two shopping centers were on Martin Luther King Boulevard, would something would have been done by now? I say yes. But because they are stuck a block north of the main drag, nobody sees them. They're just forgotten eyesores, except to the people who live around them."
The two locations seemed destined to be ongoing reminders that while Greater Park Hill was selected as one of the ten best neighborhoods in the country by the American Planning Association in 2008, its northernmost section would forever be a flyover zone, just as it was when the airport was located at Stapleton. Homeownership in the area lingers around 50 percent, well below the state average, and foreclosures are predicted to rise. The vast majority of kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches at area schools, almost all of which are performing well below expectations.
To get as close to the heart of the problem as possible, in 2009 the Prodigal Son Initiative and new state senator Michael Johnston joined forces, setting up shop in a formerly ramshackle building across from the Holly's remains and launching the Park Hill Community Center. "That was the place in the community where people seemed to be working the hardest to bring back a neighborhood that had really been hit hard," says Johnston, a former school principal and Obama advisor. "With Terrance, it really was a natural partnership."
But Roberts could only do so much with his very limited resources. "We aren't getting crime prevention and control money," he says of Prodigal Son. "The city hasn't given us a dime. Foundations weren't supporting organizations in northeast Denver, and that was before the recession. The people working around here are doing all that we can, but there are still a lot of kids being left out there who don't have anything to do — and so they're finding negative things to do with their time instead of positive things."