For decades, City of Denver officials have poured resources into Denver’s Sun Valley neighborhood. First for Hope VI public housing renovations, then for increased access to the South Platte River and a bigger and better Rude Park Recreation Center. This month, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced that of 34 applicants, Denver’s Sun Valley would be one of five neighborhoods from across the country to receive a grant for further housing and neighborhood improvements.
Through the Choice Neighborhoods program, the U.S. Department of HUD selected Denver as part of its national urban renewal efforts. Denver joined Boston, Massachusetts, Camden, New Jersey, Louisville, Kentucky and St. Louis, Missouri in receiving awards. In a national press release, HUD Secretary Julian Castro said, “These game-changing investments will breathe new life into distressed neighborhoods and offer real opportunities for the families who call these communities home. What we do today will leverage private investment and bear fruit for generations of families looking for an opportunity to thrive in neighborhoods that are connected to the economic and social fabric of their communities.”
HUD was represented locally at the December press conference by Deputy Assistant Secretary Lourdes Castro-Ramirez. She joined Sun Valley Local Resident Council President, Lisa Saenz, U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, Region 8 HUD Director Rick Garcia, and Denver Housing Authority (DHA) Executive Director Ismael Guerrero, in making the announcement.
One hundred and thirty-two million dollars will be spread across the awarded cities. Each city received around $30 million except for Camden which will receive just under half that amount. Each location has offered partnerships, a local resource match and features a neighborhood that for one reason or another, hasn’t enjoyed the growth of other areas in the city. Sun Valley is no exception.
Travel through the 80 acre (60 football fields) Sun Valley neighborhood is nearly non-existent. The HUD project description calls the neighborhood “distressed and isolated.” Cut off from downtown by the Platte River on the east, Federal Boulevard on the west, Mile High Stadium to the north and 6th Avenue on the south, Denver’s lowest income neighborhood is often considered an island unto itself. With only public housing in the vast majority of the neighborhood, 83 percent of residents live below the poverty line and political and economic refugees are likely to find themselves in this part of the city.
The grant is designed to build 750 affordable and public housing units, an education center, and a fresh food market to address neighborhood food desert conditions. Planners hope that the additional investment along with the new light rail stop on Federal and Decatur becomes an incentive for additional “transit-oriented” private retail and housing investment. DHA Executive Director, Ismael Guerrero, stated that he anticipates further investment “… we expect up to another 1,000+ units that will be built here over time by other partners, other developers.”
For West Denver City Councilman, Paul Lopez, “This is a catalytic project. Not only does the project replace one for one all the public housing, but adds a blended neighborhood with more affordable housing and market rate units.” Having grown up in the West Side himself and attended West High School, the councilman looks forward to making changes to the neighborhood that will alter the way people see Sun Valley. “Now you won’t be able to distinguish between public, affordable and market rate housing. That’s the way it should be. Instead of creating islands of poverty in public housing, we will provide dignity. Sun Valley residents have always battled the stigma and scenario of judgement based on where you are live. This project changes that.”
The HUD investment has been met with a commensurate local investment. Rick Garcia, HUD Director offers, “This Choice Neighborhood investment is one of HUD’s single largest awards ever made in Denver. The award is viewed as seed capital which will attract other public and private funding partners to transform Sun Valley into a thriving community for all its residents.” The Denver Housing Authority has committed resources to help residents find medical care, prepare for job opportunities and assistance with alcohol and substance abuse issues. Denver Public Schools has committed to creating additional early childhood education slots, and the City of Denver will realign streets to facilitate travel in and around the neighborhood. Northern neighbor Mile High Stadium announced the creation of a new Entertainment District concurrent with the grant award. Their preliminary plans include a $351 million residential, retail and commercial district.
Beside governmental partners, several non-profits have pledged their support and resources for the neighborhood including the Mental Health Center of Denver, The Denver Foundation, and Servicios de La Raza.
During the summer of 2015, Sun Valley hosted Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Julian Castro, who announced a local-federal partnership to make the neighborhood an “eco-district.” One of nine neighborhoods to receive the assistance, Sun Valley joined cities including Washington D.C. and Boston, in becoming models of environmental efficiency with increased use of renewable energy with solar panels, xeriscaping and water efficient appliances. Castro’s visit was a harbinger of this year’s announced multi-million dollar investment to further improve the neighborhood.
The U.S. Department of Justice also tagged Sun Valley in 2014 with a Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation grant. In their report, they cited that the 1,500 residents in the neighborhood experience crime rates five times higher than the average Denver neighborhood and that gang-related crime increased 67 percent between 2010 and 2015. To combat the increased crime rates, the Denver Police Department partnered with the Department of Justice to increase targeted foot patrols, augment truancy intervention, and engage residents in self-help strategies including self-defense, family counseling and education programs.
With all the development over the next few years, Lopez hopes that locals are employed. According to the 2010 Census, the neighborhood was 54 percent Latino and 26 percent African American. “Our hope is whatever development happens - construction, service sector… Sun Valley residents are a huge part of that. It would be a shame to invest $30 million and create all those opportunities and not include residents. These are prime opportunities for working families.”
In one fell swoop, the lowest income neighborhood in Denver just became one of the most anticipated projects of 2017. The entire project should take around ten years. Lopez looks forward to the transition. “This is a huge win.”