Just like the Holly, Roberts and the work he was doing seemed out of sight, out of mind.
But then something funny happened. In the spring of 2009, the Urban Land Conservancy, a Denver nonprofit dedicated to acquiring and preserving community assets in urban areas, purchased Holly Square from its longtime owner, Michael Bullock, for $750,000. "Although I only owned the center a short time, it is the focal point of the community," Bullock says, "and transferring the land to ULC, I believe, was in the best interests of the neighborhood."
The ULC had already been turning heads for the do-gooder approach it was taking to urban redevelopment. Since its founding in 2003, it had redeveloped a former tram facility at East 35th Avenue and Franklin Street into the Phillips Center non-profit space, and had also purchased a dilapidated housing project across from the Dahlia site in order to transform it into transit-oriented low-income housing. Now the organization had similar hopes for the Holly. As a precondition of the purchase, the ULC made Bullock remove the fire-damaged buildings once and for all. Working with the Denver Foundation's Strengthening Neighborhoods Program, it formed a steering committee to develop a new vision for the Holly and the surrounding blocks, a group that included neighborhood activists, city officials and a former Blood named Terrance Roberts. This past April, it even held a community fair at the Holly so other community members could weigh in.
These efforts didn't seem like hollow concessions. Aaron Miripol, ULC's CEO and a longtime activist, showed up for every event, sweaty from biking across town. "When we buy a property, we aren't operating solely from a financial and real-estate perspective," says Miripol. "We want to understand what is going on in the community. We are in it for the long term."
Miripol was sure there was enough neighborhood buy-in to make the redevelopment work. When the longtime liquor store at the Holly — a beacon for criminal activity — filed an application to reopen in a storefront across the street, residents came out against it by the hundreds, creating so much opposition at the city hearing that the liquor-store owners withdrew their application on the spot.
"I can't speak enough of the way they dealt with the liquor-store application," says Miripol. "That says something. People truly care and feel vested in this area. That's very powerful."
The neighborhood clearly wasn't ready to give up on the Holly — so potential investors shouldn't, either, he determined.
In June, the ULC released a draft vision plan for the Holly detailing possible options for the site, including a school, a training and community center, a central plaza, a community garden, a playground and maybe even a small market. But given current economic conditions, construction of any of these options is likely to be several years down the road. And that meant the desolate remains of the Holly — now just a 22,000-square-foot concrete pad with twelve rusty pillars that once supported the center's front awning — would continue to blight the community.
Or so it seemed, until Roberts came up with a better idea. Until the economy turned around, why not do something with the site that would be so big and bold it could be seen from all those airplanes flying by overhead?
The sweltering July heat makes it feel like the air's on fire at the corner of Holly and 34th — like the stretch of concrete is a crucible that's been fired and primed, ready to forge something new.
The weather doesn't stop kids by the dozen from scampering across the site, hunting down pieces of trash. They take breaks in the shade of the old auto shop on the corner, grooving to the beats spun by DJ Ktone, who's working his turntables under an awning. Nearby, Commander Jones and another police officer are filling up bags of garbage and state senator Johnston is pulling weeds. Jonny 5 from the Flobots is helping out, too, as is Mike Sanders, the onetime Blood, now rolling across his former hangout in the wheelchair to which he's confined.
Roberts is in the center of it all, directing the happy chaos. "This has never been done. This is a first," he says excitedly. "We've got people from all over: blacks, whites, Latinos." Word of the event had been spread via Facebook and text messages, fliers at the barbershop and word of mouth: Come to the Holly to participate in a neighborhood clean-up and blessing ceremony, the first step toward a massive peace mural — possibly the largest in the world.