Video: Opponents of Stormwater Project, I-70 Expansion Find Common Ground

Two looming, big-ticket infrastructure projects in northeast Denver — the $1.8 billion expansion of I-70 and a $300 million drainage project to redirect stormwater runoff to the South Platte River — have raised a disparate range of concerns from neighborhood groups about the environmental and economic impacts of the projects.

But a new video, put together by defenders of a little-known park along the river, makes a case that the campaigns to "Ditch the Ditch" and re-examine the stormwater plan, which have been fought separately and piecemeal for the most part, may have more in common than most people realize.

Both projects have strong backing from state and city officials despite sometimes heated objections at public presentations. The highway expansion, which would replace a crumbling six-lane viaduct with a below-grade, partially covered superhighway stretching to ten lanes, has been a source of controversy and protest in neighborhoods flanking I-70 for years. A pending lawsuit challenges the EPA's decision to revise emission standards to allow the expansion to proceed; in addition, a civil rights complaint recently filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation claims that the project disproportionately impacts Latino populations in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods.

The Platte to Park Hill Stormwater Systems project, touted as a necessary fix for long-festering drainage problems in northeast Denver, involves construction of a fifteen-block stormwater channel along East 39th Avenue, an expanded outfall area at Globeville Landing Park, and a thirty-acre detention "pond" at City Park Golf Course, which won't fill up except in the worst storms. But residents in the affected areas have argued that the primary beneficiary of the improvements appears to be not the neighborhoods south of the 39th Avenue channel, but the I-70 expansion, which requires hundred-year-flood protection. They point to the fact that the Colorado Department of Transportation is helping to fund the drainage work, under the terms of an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) pushed through a lame-duck city council in its final weeks. The project also offers flood relief for industrial areas flanking the highway and targeted for future development, as well as for one of Mayor Michael Hancock’s legacy projects: a billion-dollar makeover of the National Western Complex.

Last week, Denver District Court Judge Michael Vallejos refused to dismiss a lawsuit against the city that seeks to halt construction of the detention area on City Park Golf Course, which would involve closing the course for years and removing more than 200 trees. Other opponents have challenged the decision to direct storm runoff to Globeville Landing and the South Platte River through a heavily polluted Superfund site, a process that some fear could expose the river and nearby neighborhoods to a toxic brew of contaminants from arsenic-laced groundwater and a long-buried landfill.

At public meetings, CDOT and city officials have maintained that both the highway expansion and the drainage project are badly needed improvements for the future welfare of north Denver, and that each project would be proceeding independently even if the other didn't exist. But critics contend that the urgent timetable driving the Platte to Park Hill work is largely a result of the IGA deal with CDOT, which calls for $5,000-a-day damages payable by the city if it fails to meet certain deadlines. A recent citizen's open-records request uncovered a 2015 e-mail from the Denver City Attorney's Office to an EPA official regarding the Platte to Park Hill project, in which the writer observes, "We are undertaking this project in cooperation with CDOT, and we are somewhat at CDOT's mercy with regard to the schedule."

In a new video posted on YouTube, people concerned about the drainage outfall impacts on Globeville Landing Park — businessmen, a couple of engineers, neighborhood and environmental activists — talk about the need to "press the pause button" on Park to Platte Hill and the relationship between it and the I-70 expansion. The video arrives as members of the Globeville-Elyria-Swansea communities are planning to meet to discuss highway concerns; the "Ditch the Ditch" discussion gets under way tonight, December 1, at the Focus Points Family Resource Center, 2501 East 48th Avenue.

Watch the video below.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast