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West Side Story

The houses are still there, sitting in the middle of the Auraria campus as though nothing had ever happened. They stand side by side, one short block of them, red brick and green trim, Victorian and cottage, reminders of a time -- and a community -- long gone. Josie Acosta...
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The houses are still there, sitting in the middle of the Auraria campus as though nothing had ever happened. They stand side by side, one short block of them, red brick and green trim, Victorian and cottage, reminders of a time -- and a community -- long gone.

Josie Acosta remembers. She grew up there, in the Auraria neighborhood. She roamed the tree-lined streets of what is now the Ninth Street Park. She played in the houses that have become administrative offices, attended the old Lawrence Street school and breathed in the aromas coming from Casa Mayan, Denver's first Hispanic-owned Mexican restaurant. Until the campus moved in and the families moved out, their houses bought out from under them and almost all demolished, Auraria was her home.

"I look at those houses on Ninth Street today, and it makes me feel bad," she says. "We lived three blocks away. My dad, my grandmother, my aunt and one of my brothers all had to move out. It was not an easy thing. They had a hard time finding places. And the places they found weren't that nice. It makes me sad to think about it, because I remember what it was like."

And she remembers something else. Acosta was there some two dozen years ago when University of Colorado officials stood at a community meeting and promised not to expand their Denver campus south of Colfax Avenue. She was there when they vowed not to move into the predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods of the west side. So now, when developers come to her La Alma/Lincoln neighborhood with plans to build an international student housing center on three acres of RTD land at Tenth Avenue and Osage Street, she bristles.

"I don't like it," says Acosta, a 69-year-old grandmother of nine. "I don't like it at all. They said they would never cross Colfax, and here they are, crossing Colfax. To me, that's broken promises. They're invading our neighborhood."

There's nothing at RTD's Osage lots except weeds, wild sunflowers and chunks of concrete. But depending on who's looking at this barren land, it could either rejuvenate the neighborhood or kill it.

Len McBroom is the developer who wants to build an international student center for the University of Colorado at Denver and transform this industrial pocket into one of RTD's proposed "urban villages," which would cluster apartments around mass transit. Such centers, the theory goes, would help stop urban sprawl and air pollution by encouraging people to spend more time in their communities and to ride mass transit when they have to leave them.

These lots are a perfect spot for such a project, RTD says. The land is already adjacent to a light-rail station and is near downtown, the Civic Center, the Speer Boulevard corridor, I-25 and, of course, the Auraria campus and its three colleges. By housing international students here, UCD would create a ready-made population of light-rail users.

"In general, students from other parts of the world are much more accustomed to mass transit and have not grown up around single-occupancy vehicles," says Scott Reed, RTD spokesman. "This really is an ideal site for this type of project."

McBroom sees more than that. Much more. He sees the $15 million student center as a gateway to La Alma/Lincoln -- the area bounded by Sixth Avenue, Colfax, Speer and the Platte -- as well as a cornerstone for future investment, a way to relieve pressure on Denver's affordable-housing market (it would take some 300 students out of the competition), and a focal point for neighborhood gatherings.

"This is cross-culturalization, diversification and a wonderful opportunity to bring communities together," McBroom says.

Opponents see it differently.

LeRoy Lemos is director of the PODER Project, a community-rebuilding initiative administered by the NEWSED corporation and financed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. He also lives in the neighborhood, and he's dead set against the center -- not that he has anything against international students, light rail or development of the RTD land, he says. It's simply a matter of UCD keeping its word.

"They promised in the early '70s to maintain this residential community, and they lied and deceived us and went back on their word," Lemos says. "There were promises made about scholarships and educating the children of the displaced families, but that did not take place until the early to mid-'90s, almost twenty years later. We're not going to stand for that."

They're also not going to stand for campus encroachment disguised as affordable housing and an answer to urban sprawl, Lemos says. Although the center itself would be built on vacant land and would not displace anyone, it would set a precedent for further UCD expansion. For despite what UCD officials say publicly, he insists, the campus has already looked to the west side.

"Hell, yeah, there have been overtures," Lemos contends. "That campus was built for 15,000 students, and it now has more than 30,000. Space is tight. Parking is tight. Administrative offices are tight. Being a student myself, I know there's a crunch. It just makes sense that they would begin to encroach into our community. We're poor, but we're not stupid. We're in the heart of the city. The writing is on the wall. Historical perspective says they will come into our community with disregard for our residents. And once the campus crosses Colfax, the floodgates are open. They're not going to stop with this. I'd be willing to bet my house on it."

And he very well could be doing just that. "We've been told by the developer that the swords have already been drawn -- and in the face of adversity, that only makes his resolve stronger," Lemos says. "Those type of messages tell me they plan to move forward with this development on the backs of this community."

Tony Garcia, whose family was uprooted when the campus was built in the early '70s, says UCD and its developer should not underestimate the impact that displacement had on people who live in La Alma/Lincoln today.

"People remember what they had," says Garcia, executive director of El Centro Su Teatro and the author of a play about the Auraria displacement. "It was a tremendous loss. A horrible experience. It dispersed the Chicano community. Those wounds that happened 25 or 30 years ago are still fresh. The neighborhood has still not recovered. I attended a meeting where the tears flowed as if this happened yesterday. That's how painful it was for them to watch their houses torn down and their community split up. When you have a scar that hasn't healed and someone touches it, you feel it."

The wound gets even more irritated, Garcia says, when UCD, RTD and McBroom treat people with the same disrespect they showed decades ago.

"They're not giving straight answers, and they've had an inability to negotiate," says Garcia, a PODER advisory council member but not a La Alma/Lincoln resident. "Their view is, 'We can do anything we want, and we're talking to you only as a courtesy. It's not like we care about your concerns -- we're doing this because we have to go through the process.' UCD is offering minor stuff, and RTD is selling the property and doesn't give a rat's ass what's done with it. It's the same thing with different players."

But this time, Garcia says, west-siders are demanding a voice.

"They want not only some input, but some actual decision-making power in their lives," he says. "It's not a matter of 'not in my backyard,' but 'not in my backyard again.' There's a pattern with this type of thing. You don't see this in affluent neighborhoods; it consistently happens in poorer neighborhoods. This community is already under attack, and its character and population are two of its resources. The whole idea of preserving a community doesn't mean you become exclusive; it means there's an integrated understanding of what the traditions are."

But while Garcia and Lemos worry about protecting the neighborhood's integrity, others worry about parking. Each morning, students and downtown commuters clog the streets around the Auraria campus. "You come down here on any day, and there's not a parking spot along the street within two or three blocks," says Bill Dutton, general manager of the Buckhorn Exchange, the restaurant that stands across the street from the RTD property. "The streets are just lined with cars."

If UCD's project is approved by City Hall, that situation could get worse, Dutton says. And the Buckhorn would lose the forty customer spaces it now leases from RTD.

"Considering we're a destination restaurant and don't have a lot of walk-in customers, eliminating half our parking certainly would be detrimental," says Dutton, whose historic restaurant is the oldest in Denver.

A few blocks away at Auraria, student groups such as the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan fear that the proposed housing center would set a precedent that could change the character of their school.

"This campus is a commuter campus," says Paul Lopez, MEChA spokesman. "That's why we came here. So we won't have to deal with dorms. If this is built, it will move in that direction."

So here's the bottom line, concludes Lemos: The UCD project is in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people.

"We already lost over 600 families for the development of that campus," he says. "Our community is on the upswing now, and I can't imagine what the negative effects would be in ten to fifteen years if we allow the campus to take anymore. If the center comes in, we'll hear about another housing development in a few months, then a parking lot, then a classroom and then who knows what. We're just trying to ensure that the north part of the neighborhood does not become an extension of the campus.

"We say, 'No.'"

McBroom doesn't get it. He's fully aware of the bad blood between UCD and the displaced Aurarians who moved into La Alma/Lincoln. That's why he's attended five community meetings and made more than 150 contacts with neighbors. Where other developers might have kept the project secret until the last possible minute, he has done just the opposite.

"There are serious wounds there," he says. "We are not insensitive. That's why there have been eighteen months of honest, high-road negotiations and offers to heal the past."

And healing the past, McBroom says, has meant compromises. When opponents said the center was too big, he reduced the number of beds from 445 to 300. When they said the center would conflict with neighborhood character, he agreed to design it in a style fitting La Alma/Lincoln. When they worried about parking, he added more parking.

Not only that, but he has promised to try to fill the three to five jobs created by the center with people from the neighborhood. McBroom is also open to the idea of housing a Montessori school, a child-care center, a convenience store, a community outreach agency or a technical-training office at the complex. He's even discussed a neighborhood history park.

UCD, meanwhile, has agreed to open the center to west-side students and allow students who would live there to earn college credit by working with west-side children.

"All their issues have been addressed," McBroom says. "We've been open to a lot of things and have compromised at every step of the way. But you can't advance those things with people who say, 'No project.' You've got to build the project before you can make deals."

But Lemos and other members of PODER and NEWSED don't seem interested in talking, McBroom insists. Instead, they've rallied activist groups, held demonstrations and opened wounds from the past.

"There is this small, very vocal faction that is championing 'No project,'" he says. "What they object to is that this is not a NEWSED project. These people don't want to heal. If you want to heal, you look at meaningful ways to partner and create a future. But if you allow them to stand in the way, we'll never move forward."

Contrary to neighborhood fears, McBroom says, the proposed center is a special-needs project. It does not signal the beginning of a UCD land grab. It does not mean Auraria will become a campus of dorm rooms. It does not mean anyone in La Alma/Lincoln will have to pack his bags and move away. (UCD chancellor Georgia Lesh-Laurie declined to comment for this story; her aide referred calls to McBroom.)

"We're not taking anyone's house," McBroom continues. "This is vacant ground. It's overgrown with weeds right now. There is no displacement."

McBroom also challenges the notion that UCD has turned its back on the west side. The college has provided scholarships for the families of Auraria residents and given grants for community outreach. It also offered to form a committee with the neighborhood to examine other programs, he says, but PODER declined.

"UCD has made significant investment in this neighborhood and has offered to do more with this project," McBroom adds. "I don't see this as a broken promise. This is not about UCD. This is about affordable housing and neighborhood partnerships. This is the kind of project that can showcase light rail. That's a terrible thing to waste and not support."

Pat Vigil agrees. He grew up in Auraria, and his family was displaced when the campus was built. Although he doesn't live in the La Alma/Lincoln neighborhood today, he worked there most of his life, most recently as executive director of the GANAS family center. "I tend to lean on the side that says this is a healthy thing," he says. "I hope it changes the character of the 'hood. There have always been inordinate numbers of high teen pregnancy, high crime and gang activity here. I am in pain that we have so many people living in economic poverty and dropping out of school. The basic purpose of the project is to house college students. And UCD has committed to having these students commit to a one-year internship to work with the people of this community. That's positive. If you can get more people educated and not addicted or pregnant and committing crimes, then it will change the character for the better."

Besides, there are worse ways to use that land.

"There was talk of a jail going in there," Vigil points out. "Having an international student center would be infinitely better than that."

Geraldine Hodges is a lifelong resident of La Alma/Lincoln. Although she initially had doubts, she's now behind the center.

"It can be a win-win situation," she says. "I don't believe it will displace anyone, and I think it would enhance the community as long as it's made available to the residents and doesn't push away the feeling and identity of the inner-city neighborhood. And I think they can make it fit. Maybe I'm an eternal optimist, but I think it could work."

She thinks that, she says, because of the way McBroom and UCD officials have handled themselves.

"They've gone about it the right way this time," she says. "They really made an effort to see what the community wants and how to work together instead of just ramming it down our throats. We can either have an open dialogue or continue to fight it. I'd rather have an open dialogue. Because if they don't put this up, what's to stop someone coming in and putting up something without talking to the community at all?"

Although Laurie Harvey, executive director of the Center for Women's Employment and Education, worries about gentrification, she, too, believes the student center could help the neighborhood, particularly if it becomes the gathering spot McBroom envisions.

"That's something we don't really have," says Harvey, who works three blocks from the site. "It's a positive way to develop the area around here, which is pretty much kind of abandoned warehouses."

But even with supporters like these, McBroom isn't sure whether to move ahead and submit plans to the city. He says he'll decide within the next few months.

"We're frustrated," he says. "We see the merits. We feel we've made compromises. But we've got to determine if it will still work given the concessions we've made. At some point you kind of throw your arms up and say, 'Let the project stand on its merits and let the chips fall where they may. You can take a horse to the water, but you can't make him drink.' What more can we do?"

Josie Acosta has a suggestion: Build the student center somewhere else.

Compromises or no compromises, she's heard it all before. "I don't trust these people," she says. "They all say one thing and do another. You give them an inch and they'll take a foot. We're not overreacting. Look what they did already."

Acosta, past chair of PODER, knows the benefits of light rail and stopping urban sprawl. But she also knows that she likes her neighborhood the way it is, poor as it may be. Her neighbors have spent many years sinking roots and nurturing families. They don't want to hand that over to a campus that has already taken so much from them.

"This is the only barrio left in the whole city of Denver," she says. "We want to keep it the way it is. We don't want anyone coming in here and telling us, 'This is for your benefit.' We know what's for our benefit, and this isn't."

And so, as she did over two decades before, Acosta will attend meetings and wave protest signs and stand before microphones. She remembers the past, she says. And she has learned from it.

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