Zoned Out

When most people drive by the north Denver neighborhoods strung out along Interstate 70--including Globeville, Elyria and Swansea--they assume the area is entirely industrial and don't notice the hundreds of homes tucked in between the factories and junkyards. If told that the neighbors are angry because trucks roar down their streets in the middle of the night or because a scrap yard is burning piles of aluminum, they often shrug their shoulders and say residents must have chosen to move there.

To that, north Denver community activist Lorraine Granado has a simple reply: "Screw you."

"My family has three generations living in this neighborhood," she explains. "This is a real neighborhood. Sixty-two percent of the homes here are owner-occupied, and 66 percent of the families are two-parent families. This is a stable community, but it's noisy and increasingly polluted."

Granado says the number of industries in north Denver has grown exponentially since the 1980s. To help the neighbors cope, in 1991 the Denver City Council passed a new industrial-zoning policy for the area. That law requires buffers between new industries and homes, bans junkyards, places restrictions on trucks driving down residential streets, and mandates landscaping and fences around industrial facilities.

But the new zoning isn't much good unless it's enforced, and Granado says the neighborhood has been unable to get the city zoning department to take north Denver seriously. "There's no [full-time] zoning inspector assigned to this area," she says.

Instead, a lone inspector must cover north Denver as well as several other neighborhoods. Kent Strapko, the city's acting zoning administrator, says there are only five zoning inspectors for the whole city, and three of them are assigned to the areas north of Sixth Avenue. Strapko adds that a single inspector is assigned to the entire area north of Alameda between Colorado Boulevard and Broadway.

"Quite a few neighborhoods want more help, but who is going to pay for it?" he asks. Adding a full-time inspector would cost the city about $40,000 per year, he estimates.

Strapko acknowledges that north Denver has special problems because of the proximity of the residential and industrial areas, but he says neighborhoods along Broadway and Alameda are also adjacent to industry. "There are certainly areas in Denver that have bigger problems than other areas," he says.

City councilwoman Deborah Ortega, who represents north Denver, says she has been trying to get an inspector assigned full-time to the area for the last two years. "Some parts of the city have far greater violations than others," says Ortega. "Globeville, Swansea and Elyria constantly have violations that infringe on the neighborhood."

Ortega says a group of residents did a quick tour of the neighborhood and came up with a list of 100 zoning violations. She says the current zoning inspector is simply overwhelmed. "Given the sheer volume of violations and calls, one inspector is not enough to deal with an area that has far more complaints and violations," Ortega insists.

According to Ortega, she tried to get funding for a new north Denver inspector in the city's 1996 budget but was unsuccessful.

Another issue that rankles neighbors is the continuing presence of junkyards. Ortega says the 1991 zoning policy specified that all junkyards would have to be out of the neighborhood within five years. However, she says some of those businesses managed to evade the law by getting the city to reclassify them as "automotive recyclers."

"They found a back-door way to allow these to exist," says Ortega.
For her part, Granado vows to keep pushing Denver to enforce its own laws. She says the long-neglected north Denver neighborhoods have made great progress in the last few years, simply by forcing the city to recognize that thousands of people live along the I-70 corridor. "We have clearly put ourselves on the map," Granado says. "We fight because this is our home.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers