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Revitalize, Not Gentrify: How Art Is Helping To Breathe New Life Into Denver's Sun Valley

Stacy Nick
The former location of Ready Foods will be renovated into the Latino Cultural Arts Center.

When Art Comes to Town: This story is the second in a series as KUNC arts and culture reporter Stacy Nick explores the impact art has on Colorado communities — and the impact those communities have on the art that comes out of them.

Sun Valley is one of Denver’s poorest neighborhoods. More than 80 percent of households live below the poverty line and 70 percent of residents are unemployed. It also has the highest violent-crime rate, more than five times the citywide average.

But between a public-housing initiative, a proposed mixed‐use neighborhood near the home of the Denver Broncos and several arts destinations moving into the area, Sun Valley is set to see more than a billion dollars in investments in the next five years.

Sitting outside of Rude Park Early Learning Center, Sun Valley resident Lisa Saenz said she’s excited.

“The changes that are coming, I just know they’re good changes,” said Saenz, a single mother of two. “And probably five years from now -- maybe 10 -- it’s not even going to look the same. It’s going to be showcased (...) in a good way, not a negative thing anymore. Positive. Prosperous.”

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Lisa Saenz stands in front of a mural in Sun Valley.

She didn’t always feel that way about Sun Valley. When she moved to the neighborhood eight years ago, she was escaping a violent marriage and homelessness.

“I kind of hid in my house, kept my blinds down, didn’t let the kids outside,” Saenz said. “Then I just got tired of what I was seeing and started getting involved and going to meetings. Making phone calls. Helping out my neighbors.”

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Dolls from Adrianna Abarca's collection

Less than half a mile away, underneath the I-70 viaduct, is a row of pastel buildings along Lower Colfax Avenue. It’s the former headquarters of the custom food processing company, Ready Foods.

Adrianna Abarca’s family started the company here in 1972. She has fond memories of Sun Valley.

“Just driving over the viaduct as a kid on the way home from downtown and seeing the old Star Bread sign lit up, it was always very exciting to me,” Abarca said. “This was our neighborhood; we had a lot of connection to it.”

Ten years ago she and her father, Luis, began storing the family’s ever-growing Mexican art collection in the office. The plan was to eventually turn the building into the Latino Cultural Arts Center.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Latino Cultural Arts Center Founder Adrianna Abarca stands by a portrait of her father, Luis.

“I knew that I would have to create a museum specifically for the Abarca family collection because if I were to donate it to other institutions, most of it would end up in permanent storage,” Abarca said. “It would rarely see the light of day.”

Abarca is now making that plan a reality. Phase one will include space for permanent exhibitions dedicated to Mexican heritage and Latin American art, a resource library, a 100-seat black-box theater, a restaurant and a store selling works from local artists.

Abarca thinks her dad, who passed away in 2012, would be pleased with the plans.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Part of Adrianna Abarca's collection

“He never saw himself as a collector,” she said. “He saw himself as a friend of the artists; he would encourage them, support them, buy some of their work.”

The $12-million project is slated to open in 2020, but it’s not alone.

Big projects bring big change

“We’ve been putting a lot of work into finding our next site, and Denver really grabbed us,” said Meow Wolf CEO/co-founder Vince Kadlubek at a January press conference announcing the Santa Fe arts collective’s expansion to Colorado in 2020.

The four-story, 90,000-square-foot permanent exhibition will spring up between the I-25, Colfax Avenue and Auraria Parkway viaducts on the eastern outskirts of Sun Valley. It’s anticipated to bring approximately 1.5 million visitors to the area each year.

Credit Courtesy of Meow Wolf
Once constructed, Meow Wolf will sit on a triangle-shaped plot of land -- likened to resembling a “droopy slice of pizza” -- nestled between the viaducts of I-25 and Colfax Avenue.

“Hopefully we can create some jobs, and we can generate some profit, and that profit can go right back into the creative communities of Denver,” Kadlubek said. “Because that’s where our heart is. That’s our social mission. That’s what we care about.”

Further down the line is the possible Stadium District Master Plan.

The nonprofit venture between the Metropolitan Football Stadium District and the Denver Broncos Football Club is exploring a new, mixed‐use neighborhood destination on the south end of the property at Broncos Stadium at Mile High. The sprawling sea of parking lots are currently used only during games and special events.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
The south end parking lots of Broncos Stadium at Mile High are part of the Stadium District Master Plan.

“This is a unique opportunity for the district to become a year-round destination with places to live, eat, shop and enjoy,” said Mac Freeman, chief commercial officer for the Denver Broncos, in a March press announcement of the plan. “Similar to what many other sports teams around the country have done, this is a great chance to turn empty lots into family-friendly spaces that draw visitors throughout the year.”

The first opportunity for the public to weigh in on the proposed plan was at a June 27 workshop at the stadium. To encourage a diverse group of attendees, organizers provided food, childcare and Spanish language interpreters.

Revitalization, not gentrification

Adrianna Abarca said she isn’t worried about a negative impact on Sun Valley from Meow Wolf, which has already reached out to the Latino community and its artists to work with them. That, she said, already shows that the community of Sun Valley -- which is roughly 50 percent Hispanic -- is a priority, not an afterthought. However, she is a little hesitant when it comes to the Stadium District.

“The vast majority of the development in Denver is very white-centric, and I find that very disturbing,” Abarca said. “So, I would hope that they would want to integrate other communities into their efforts.”

Sun Valley needs revitalization, Abarca said. What it doesn’t need is gentrification.

“Grocery stores, child care facilities, community centers, that’s how you keep a community vital and alive,” she said.

Credit Courtesy of DHA
Denver Housing Authority Executive Director Ismael Guerrero

That’s why five years ago the Sun Valley Community Coalition and Denver Housing Authority began to work together, creating the six-phase, $240 million redevelopment plan that kicked off this summer.

“We have strategically been going through our larger and older family communities, like Sun Valley Homes, with an eye toward not just improving the housing that’s there, but really transforming the neighborhood completely,” said DHA executive director Ismael Guerrero.

Beginning this year, all 333 units of Sun Valley Homes, Denver’s oldest public housing neighborhood, are being strategically replaced to ensure that residents who want to stay, can. DHA is also tripling the number of available homes with additional workforce and market-rate housing.

“Which just makes it a more viable, more diverse, often a safer and more vibrant community,” Guerrero said. “That’s why our model is not to just replace the existing housing, but to really look at it at a neighborhood level, and how do we create a diverse, economically sustainable, healthy neighborhood.”

One way that’s already happening is through the Choice Neighborhood Initiative.

Part of the $30 million HUD grant includes hiring Sun Valley residents. Residents like Lisa Saenz, who was recently hired to be on the Choice Neighborhood Initiative People Team. As a community coordinator, she reaches out to people in the neighborhood to help them access things like transportation, day care and job training.

Some new companies coming into Sun Valley have also made agreements to offer employment opportunities to neighborhood residents before opening it up to the rest of the city. That includes CDOT and Lyft, both of which recently established headquarters in the neighborhood.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

Working with, not against

In the shadow of the soon-to-be decommissioned Xcel Energy Steam Plant sits one of Sun Valley’s early creative endeavors. When it was originally built in 1917, 1401 Zuni Street was a rag-baling business. After the Platte River flooded in 1965, the building was abandoned, becoming home to an illegal marijuana grow operation and the unofficial clubhouse for a biker gang.

“It had a very spotty past,” said Susan Powers, president of Urban Ventures, which purchased the property four years ago.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Urban Ventures President Susan Powers looks out the window STEAM on the Platte. The building was originally a rag-baling business.

Redeveloped into the mixed-use space STEAM on the Platte, it now houses a variety of businesses, including Lyft and Bold Beans, a coffee shop run by Girls Inc. of Metro Denver as a way to teach girls entrepreneurial skills.

Smack in the middle of the building is its original rag-baling press. Instead of removing it, Powers said they chose to incorporate this little piece of history into the design. In a way, the building’s radical change anchored by its past, is an example of Sun Valley’s revitalization.

“There are so many new businesses moving in and opportunities for jobs, and for partnerships between the Meow Wolfs and residents that are artists that happen to live in the neighborhood,” Powers said. “I just think it’s a different mix that is a little bit more controlled, and not as much market-driven in ways that it gets out of control.”

That’s not something Denver is used to seeing. Powers, who also is working with the Latino Cultural Arts Center, pointed to the overwhelming influx of new businesses, new money and new housing cropping up throughout the city, particularly in the River North District, known as RiNo.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
A mural in RiNo

“I’m not blaming folks in RiNo,” she said. “I was an early developer there and would never have expected what’s happened there. There’s some really wonderful businesses and art there, but it happened so quickly. It doesn’t seem quickly when you look it over five to 10 years, but it was a pent-up demand and you can’t react and change that direction and that’s what’s happening in a lot of neighborhoods in Denver.”

In December 2016, after a fire at a DIY arts space in Oakland, Calif.killed 36 people, several similar spaces in RiNo were shut down and the artists evicted. The closures prompted outrage in Denver’s arts community and began a city-sponsored effort to help those living in unpermitted locations bring those spaces up to code. However, local artists are still often priced out of Denver neighborhoods specifically because of the fast-paced growth.

Powers said she doesn’t believe that will be the case for Sun Valley.

“This one in particular just seems like it’s just more deliberate,” she said, adding that it embraces the people who are here and the neighborhood’s history.

Community excitement -- and trepidation

Credit Courtesy of Mary L. Lovejoy
Mary L. Lovejoy

“Everything starts with a sketch,” said Sun Valley artist Mary L. Lovejoy. “You have to plan stuff out.”

That’s Lovejoy’s philosophy anyway. Not just in art, but in life. It’s part of the reason she’s working with Meow Wolf as part of a committee advising them about their new neighborhood.

“What do we think would be good in our community, how would hiring practices go, what do we want to see in our community, what would be beneficial to our community,” she said.

But it’s not the norm.

“To have a company come in and say, ‘Hi guys, this is us and we’re moving to your neighborhood and we really want to be beneficial to your neighborhood,’” Lovejoy said. “The fact that they did that is just extraordinary, and I think it sets them above the rest.”

Specifically, Lovejoy is helping Meow Wolf make itself accessible to people in the neighborhood, particularly its children. More than half of Sun Valley’s population is under the age of 15.

“So they can see that being an artist isn’t just a dream,” she said. “And you can have a career at it. And you can be successful, but you can make a living, too.”

But not everyone is sold on the promise of the new Sun Valley. As she helps sort produce at the community food bank Glenn’s Kitchen, resident Cassy Leaks said the new additions to the neighborhood are exciting but admits to being unsure.

“I like that there’s lots of programs coming in so our community has something that they can do, but I’m kind of nervous that they’ll forget about the actual community,” said the 25-year-old mother of four. “Because we’re so diverse, there’s so many different languages and I hope that they cater to that.”

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Sun Valley resident Cassy Leaks helps sort produce at the neighborhood food kitchen Glenn's Kitchen.

Leaks is particularly hopeful that all these additions will translate to more grocery options in Sun Valley, which is a food desert. Besides the food bank, their only access to groceries in the neighborhood is a 7-11. The local Family Dollar was recently torn down as part of the expansion of Federal Boulevard.

Since moving to Sun Valley six years ago to escape homelessness, Leaks said she’s found a tight-knit community.

“I feel like it’s family here, because so many of us come from different backgrounds so we know the struggle of being here, and I think that’s beautiful,” she said.

That’s part of the reason Adrianna Abarca is putting the Latino Cultural Arts Center here. Because just as she didn’t want her family’s art collection relegated to storage, she doesn’t want Sun Valley’s history and culture erased.

“That history and tradition -- the buildings, the homes, the businesses -- is being completely wiped out with no real respect or acknowledgement of the history and culture that was previously here,” she said.

Eventually, the Latino Cultural Arts Center will expand to another of Abarca’s properties seven blocks away. The Sun Valley Academy of Latino Cultural Arts will focus on performing, culinary, music and spoken-word art, as well as affordable live/work space for artists.

The academy will have a target age range of 16-24, Abarca said. The goal is to get young people either on a higher education or career path.

“More than anything, it’s about educating our youth and our future generations to be curious and to have a strong sense of self-worth and to be proud,” she said. “But not an empty pride -- a pride that they can’t back up. I want it to be a pride that they can back up with knowledge and stories and tradition.”

Lisa Saenz said she’s already noticing a new energy and optimism among Sun Valley residents.

“Most of them are staying here and that’s a big change,” she said. “Most of them wanted to pack up and leave. But they don’t feel that way anymore.”

Credit Courtesy of Ink Monstr
With the help of graphic design shop Ink Monstr, Sun Valley kids redesigned a Denver Police car to pay tribute to the diversity of the neighborhood.

Block parties are now the norm. Neighbors talk to neighbors. With the help of local graphic design shop Ink Monstr, local kids redesigned a Denver Police Department patrol carto pay tribute to the diversity of the neighborhood.

“I don’t know if that happens everywhere, but I know that this is something new that is happening now here,” Saenz said. “And when I see the kids happy and their parents happy, that makes me happy. They’re not scared to come outside anymore. They’re out there living their life.”

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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