Neighbors are plenty steamed about the fate of the Zuni Generating Station, which sits on a seven-acre plot of land owned by Xcel Energy
on the east bank of the South Platte River at West 13th Avenue.
Built in 1900, the facility was a coal-burning plant before it was transformed to a steam plant in the 1940s and then a natural gas plant in the late 1970s. It was retired altogether in 2015, and in January
2021 the Public Utilities Commission
approved a plan to decommission the plant for good and conduct environmental remediation at the site. The plan also called for demolishing the building — but many people missed that detail at first.
2021, Denver City Councilmember Jamie Torres
and nine of her colleagues sent a letter to Xcel asking the company to delay demolition and work with the Sun Valley and La Alma Lincoln Park neighborhoods to figure out an alternative plan.
“I think it was well known among folks in the area that they were going to officially decommission that plant,” Torres says. “That was not a surprise. It was just the demolition that was a bit of a surprise.”
wrote a similar letter in October 2021 to Mayor Michael Hancock, noting that the building was likely eligible for landmark designation and a candidate for adaptive reuse; it also offered to help Xcel examine the possibilities.
The Zuni steam plant has been around since 1901.
Masonry of Denver
Many nearby residents, including members of the Sun Valley Community Coalition, had visions of the old plant becoming a community space, maybe a public market or food hall. But this spring, they noticed extensive work going on at the property and realized that Xcel was going ahead with plans to destroy the building. Not only that, but the plan called for replacing it with an electricity substation.
“They were dismantling things at a pretty alarming rate,” says Jeanne Granville, president of the Sun Valley Community Coalition. “We felt like we needed to take a position…just making phone calls wasn't enough to have it rise to a level of action on the part of either the city or or Xcel itself.”
In the past, the Greenway Foundation
, a nonprofit that protects the waterway, has worked to get substations removed from the banks of the Platte; it successfully advocated for removing a substation near Confluence Park, across the street from REI. New Greenway CEO Ryan Aids isn’t ready to fully commit to opposing this substation, however.
“The Greenway Foundation will always advocate for what's best for the river and what's best for the communities adjacent to the river,” he says. “So if a substation is not what's best for that community, then we will not be in support of it, but I'm still at the information-gathering stage.”
The foundation will first examine the possible negative environmental impacts of a substation, he says. From there, it will explore the possible impacts on the neighborhood.
But some people aren't waiting for more study before taking a position. “It just seems so inconsistent with everything, whether it's the Greenway Foundation, or the redevelopment there, or River Mile, or anybody that's developing along the river,” says Susan Powers, president of Urban Ventures, which redeveloped a historic building across the street from the plant into STEAM on the Platte, a multi-use space for community and business. “No one would think that putting substations on the river property in 2022 would make any sense.”
On July 26, the Sun Valley Community Coalition membership voted almost unanimously to support preserving the building and transforming it into a space that supports the needs of the community. With that same vote, the group agreed to oppose a substation at the property.
The interior of the Zuni steam plant.
At the meeting, Grace Lopez Ramirez, the new senior area manager for community and local government affairs for Xcel, announced that the company will put a one-year moratorium on the plant’s decommissioning in order to gather community input. “What I can understand in the six months I've been here is that we haven't been at the table as much as we should,” Lopez Ramirez said. “We're committed to making sure that we're listening and we're working with you in the community, in the city, on the future of this planet.”
But in the short term, Xcel needs to generate enough electricity to support increased development and electrification; putting a substation on the plant site could help.
“I absolutely empathize with the position that [Xcel is] in when large developments go up,” Torres says. “There is no requirement for them to think about where they're getting power from. ... We've got to be talking about, do we do things differently within the city? Are there other ways to have these large development conversations? It doesn't get asked in our development conversations through city council: Where's the power coming from? It becomes this growing responsibility that we've all got, and we can't just put it on the backs of Xcel to figure it out.”
Granville notes that there is already an Xcel substation in Sun Valley, on the west bank of the Platte.
“We just feel that that that's too much to ask of our neighborhood,” she says.
According to Felix Herzog, president of the La Alma Lincoln Park Registered Neighborhood Association
, the area has a long history of hosting facilities that create pollution while allowing other areas to thrive.
“This really offers a great opportunity for the city, as well as for Xcel, to look at the history of what's happened on the highway, in adjacent neighborhoods and take a step in a different direction and really think of it as more of a chance to understand damage that's happened in the past,” he says.
Powers says the current revitalization plan by Denver Housing Authority
that aims to provide more housing and business opportunities to Sun Valley residents makes a substation at the Zuni location nonsensical. She hopes Xcel will finish the cleanup in a way that preserves the building and then turn the area over to the city, which can facilitate development that benefits the community and the river.
Herzog is an electrician from Germany. There, he says, they have many substations underground and, in Anaheim, California
, there is an underground substation with a park on top. He hopes Xcel can look into that solution as a potential compromise.
“Denver has huge air-quality problems,” he says. “The possibility of using the aboveground space for public parks is fantastic, especially in neighborhoods that have not had a whole lot of green space.”
Solutions like Herzog’s will be discussed over the next year; Torres says she’s open to helping the neighborhoods connect with Xcel to make the most of the moratorium. In the meantime, the La Alma Lincoln Park RNO plans to hold a vote on a resolution similar to Sun Valley’s in late August or early September.
“We're not opposed to letting [Xcel] accomplish what they want to accomplish,” Herzog says. “All we really want is that they accomplish their goals in a responsible way, and I think that that is a really, really reasonable standpoint.”