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Talking Headways Podcast: Rethinking Denver Along the South Platte River

Who even knew there was a river in Denver?

Photo: Denver Housing Authority|

The Sun Valley project, looking west from the river. Yes, the river.

This week, we’re joined by Erin Clark, the chief real estate investment officer of the Denver Housing Authority for a conversation about the redevelopment of Sun Valley, a public housing project built in the 1950s. Finally, the area is being reinvigorated by new investments in public housing, parks, and community.

The best news? If you don't like listening to podcasts, we provide a full transcript here, plus an excerpt below the audio player:

Excerpts:

Jeff Wood: It sounds like a lot of infusion of health principles and kind of the social determinants of health overall. Thinking about what the neighborhood was before and how it was cut off and then connecting it to these services and food and everything that’s needed to create thriving community.

Erin Clark: That’s exactly right. I grew up in Denver. I didn’t really realize the South Platte River was there. We turned our backs to it for so long. It was where the freight rail lines would run, right? And industry and warehouses were along the river. It’s only in more recent years that were finally turning around, turning to face it, making it our front door instead of our back door and recognizing it, embracing the river as an amenity. And so I think it’s really interesting and exciting that Sun Valley gets to be a part of that renaissance for downtown Denver because right on the other side of the river is downtown Denver, and Union Station, which in the past decade had a major historical renovation and and a whole lot of new development there.

Our downtown is intended to expand by many acres in the coming 20-plus years because we have a basketball/hockey arena that has a bunch of surface parking that’s going to be redeveloped. We have an amusement park that’s downtown and that’s set to be redeveloped. All of these things are going to bring more housing. Sun Valley is also redeveloping in somewhat of a similar way but with the priority on a community that was already there and on affordable housing. So the 950 plus units that Denver Housing Authority is building in Sun Valley, around 60 to 80 percent of them are income-restricted units.

So they are, you know, forever affordable housing. The housing authority continues to own the land. So we are maintaining that affordability in perpetuity. And then we have some level of unrestricted units there as well with the intention to have people have options, right? You love this neighborhood but you shouldn’t have to be locked into it as long as your income stays exactly in this small band for compliance purposes of affordable housing. And if you get a different job if your income goes up, if your family composition changes you’d have to leave. We want people to have options to move around within the same neighborhood and still maintain your ties to your kids’ friends and to childcare and, and all of the things that that you would be used to having in and near the community that you know.

And so I think that’s a really exciting thing. And so we as the Denver Housing Authority are keeping a close eye on some of the other big developments that will also be along the South Platte River and trying to weigh in on what affordable housing can look like there. And so that’s feeling also like it’s going to end up being somewhat of a social experiment and seeing kind of when we have predominantly affordable housing with some unrestricted and vice-versa and you know, we just wanna make sure that however these things are done, it’s done in a thoughtful way that people are thinking about the end result and how this is going to feel as a community.

Jeff Wood: Yeah and it’s really interesting because you know, before when you look at the rail lines and the projects and the FastTracks system overall, you see one line goes directly into downtown and then one line kind of skirts the edge and goes around towards Union Station. But the interesting part about this project and the other ones that you mentioned, Elitch Gardens and the redevelopment of the parking lots, if you pull these together into like a string of pearls, you’re giving people access to all these new opportunities when you have those major redevelopment projects finished. And so it might be longer than people wanted from FastTracks, you know, connecting people with places.

But it really ties in these neighborhoods together, which is a really fascinating outcome of this project. But also the potential connections between the other two and Union Station because you’re bringing three massive redevelopment projects. I mean 3,000 units is a lot, but then you get another 3,000 units, another 3,000 units, you get into 10,000 maybe 15,000 units in the future. That’s a real big connection for the communities that exist in Sun Valley to connect with these other communities that are going to be popping up as well. As well as downtown and other job opportunities and things like that. So it really is this amazing thing that’s been planned forever, hopefully coming to fruition.

Erin Clark: Absolutely. I mean it really is all happening. The plans are being worked on and the zoning being put in place and all of these different things so that when they are ready it will be an opportunity to, again it’s extending downtown, there’s Spear Boulevard as a large road that divides where the central business district is and then these areas right next to the river.

The idea is that downtown will be extending to across Spear and to these areas. And then we at Sun Valley are on the other side of the river from those areas. And so how can we, you know, in the future have some additional connections across the river as well to help knit all of this together. It’s an opportunity to stitch some things back that were historically intentionally segregated land use wise as happened in every city in the U.S. when we created our interstate highway system and all these types of things, right?

That this is Sun Valley represents being on the wrong side of the tracks and being separated from the core of where the offices were, where the restaurants were and we were just kind of home to warehouses and, and things that people were not looking at as desirable, but we’re we’re changing that.

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