Colorado asks: Is there a better way to build a highway?

As plans to renovate I-70 continue, federal highway authorities, mindful of past patterns of bulldozing over the concerns of poor and minority communities, call the state transportation department's efforts to consult residents unprecedented. But people in affected neighborhoods have gone to court.

Donna Bryson
Artist Thomas Scharfenberg works on a mural under the Interstate 70 viaduct. He lives in the Globeville-Elyria-Swansea neighborhood.

Colorado’s transportation department has taken on some unusual responsibilities – including pledging to build classrooms and supporting affordable housing and job-training efforts. It’s even hired babysitters.

The sitters provided child care during neighborhood meetings the department, known as CDOT, held as it developed a proposal to renovate an Interstate 70 viaduct that broods for several blocks over the impoverished and largely Hispanic northeast Denver communities of Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea.

Federal highway authorities, mindful of past patterns of bulldozing over the concerns of poor and minority communities, have called CDOT’s efforts unprecedented. People in Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea are less impressed and have turned to the courts to push for CDOT to do more.

Indeed, across the country, as the ambitious infrastructure projects of the last century are nearing the end of their useful lives, the even more ambitious civil rights legislation of the same period is being brought to bear in discussions about 21st century roads and bridges.

For Evelyn Valdez, history is personal. Her parents moved from southern Colorado to Denver in search of work six decades ago, when she was 13. Her father got a job laying sidewalk curbs and her mother was a seamstress.

As Ms. Valdez remembers it, Elyria felt like a village. Neighbors greeted each other from their front yards and strolled to collect milk, eggs, fresh juice, and ice cream from the dairy.

“Oh, that ice cream,’’ Valdez says, a wistful note in her voice.

When I-70 and I-25, which intersect in her neighborhood, were constructed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, “we had to put up with the traffic, the dust. They took out a lot of houses. A lot of businesses went, too – good businesses,” Valdez says. “Now it’s even going to change us more. We don’t know where we’re going to land.”

Valdez’s corner of Denver was essentially “sacrificed for the transportation needs of the city,” as Zachary Lewis, a Colorado State University historian, has written.

“Other Denver communities that held more economic sway were able to avoid the growing web of roads, but many working-class neighborhoods were not,” Mr. Lewis wrote. In a 2016 speech, former Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said planners “have to acknowledge that the fabric that was woven into past decisions was not an inclusive fabric. But that doesn’t mean that’s how it has to be going forward. We can choose a different path.”

Some observers see the foundation for a different path in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, adopted the year the I-70 viaduct was completed over Valdez’s neighborhood.

In Texas, an agreement

In Texas, for example, residents of the predominantly African-American community of Hillcrest in Corpus Christi argued they would unfairly bear the brunt of a proposal to rebuild their city’s Harbor Bridge, which was built in 1959. They filed a complaint in 2015 under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in projects that receive federal funding. Federal funds account for $291 million of the total estimate of $700 million for the Harbor Bridge project.

After an investigation by the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Civil Rights, the Texas Department of Transportation agreed to increase the number of people it had planned to help move out of the neighborhood to make way for a new bridge. Other agencies pledged to ensure that low-income housing would be available for those displaced.

The construction of Interstate 37 in 1961 forced the relocation or demolition of homes in Hillcrest. Over the decades, refineries began to dominate the landscape.

“There’s no schools, there’s no stores, there’s no nothing,” says the Rev. Adam Carrington, whose Brooks AME Worship Center is in Hillcrest. He says that while residents feel a strong sense of community and connection, many decided the new bridge would bring more noise and pollution and make continuing to live in their homes impossible.

In the end, 160 to 170 residents were expected to be relocated, Mr. Carrington says. “My next battle is fighting for affordable housing,” he says.

Carrington says his community did not feel it was being heard until the civil rights complaint was filed.

“There are other cities that are going through this elsewhere,’’ he says, adding his advice to them is to “keep protesting. You have to keep going. Don’t stop until you get the result you want.”

‘All of our … fights are connected’

In Denver, Candi CdeBaca lives in the Elyria-Swansea house that her grandparents once owned. Ms. CdeBaca says her parents fought the viaduct in the 1960s, but “they didn’t have civil rights to lean on.”

Now, “I feel like there is a movement across the country and all of our little fights are connected,’’ she says.

For its part, CDOT says the highway needs renovation and widening to increase safety and reduce traffic congestion. Public discussion of how to achieve that dates back more than a decade.

Community outreach efforts have been undertaken by officials who acknowledge highway construction in the 1950s and 1960s hurt Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea, and who are aware of their responsibilities under civil rights legislation.

Among the ideas considered was a suggestion that the viaduct be replaced with a tunnel. If I-70 could not be moved out of the neighborhood, at least it would not be seen, and the exhaust fumes and noise could be lessened. In 2014, CDOT announced a plan to remove the viaduct and route traffic 30-to-40 feet below street level in the Elyria-Swansea area. But only a portion of the route, about 1,000 feet, would be covered, in part because of concerns about ventilation.

CDOT spokeswoman Rebecca White said in an interview that she remembered the head of the Elyria Neighborhood Association, Tom Anthony, bringing homemade renderings of a tunnel to meetings. She calls the proposal “Tom Anthony light.”

Mr. Anthony, for his part, calls the proposal “dysfunctional.” He said the plan has merits, including reducing traffic exhaust near an elementary school. But it does not go far enough to address neighborhood concerns, in his view. 

Though the covered section will be topped with a 4-acre park, some fear that the lowered highway, which CdeBaca describes as a “gash,” will divide the neighborhood even more emphatically than the concrete columns that now support the viaduct.

In a city with an affordable housing problem, the plan also requires that 56 homes and 27 businesses be demolished.

Offers of help, viewed with skepticism

CDOT has promised money and help finding new places to live and work for the people who would be displaced, as well as $2 million to help develop affordable housing in Elyria and Swansea. The reconstruction plan also calls for CDOT to build two classrooms for Swansea Elementary.

CDOT also raised the possibility of easing proposed tolls’ impact on low-income drivers, perhaps by giving Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea residents pre-loaded payment devices. And it said a second cover could be added at some point in the future.

In July, CDOT launched a training center in the Elyria-Swansea area.

An agency more used to partnering with cement contractors is working with a technical college to help prepare neighborhood residents for jobs on the I-70 project and construction careers beyond that. A community development foundation was brought in to provide counselors who will work with trainees long-term to ensure that issues such as child care, housing, and transportation don’t derail them from a path to a better future.

“We haven’t really done this level of support or thoughtfulness about workforce development before,” says Ms. White, the CDOT spokeswoman. 

Ruben Sanchez, a 17-year-old aspiring engineer who has grown up in Swansea, is skeptical. When he was younger, he stayed at home with his two younger siblings while his mother attended meetings about plans for I-70. “They didn’t pay attention to the community’s desires,” he says. And efforts such as the job-training center strike Ruben as an attempt to buy support from some and thereby divide and weaken the neighborhood.

Kenneth Mondragon, whose family has lived in Globeville, looks back on the years of discussion. “They have these meetings,” he says. “There are so many meetings, you get burned out. You can voice your opinion. But they’re going to do what they’re going to do. You’re not going to get what you agreed on. It’s going to be less.”

But in what is called a record of decision, federal authorities say CDOT has provided “an unprecedented level of public involvement and tailored to the low-income minority populations of the project area to find ways to improve the project and lessen its impact.’’

Robert Steuteville, whose Congress for the New Urbanism campaigns to encourage better city planning, says conversation is key to bridging the disconnect between what officials hope they are accomplishing with community meetings and the reaction of people like Mr. Mondragon.

“People want assurances that the views of the residents are going to be taken into account,” says Mr. Steuteville, who edits the Congress for the New Urbanism’s journal. “You have to listen very carefully.”

In California, unintended consequences

Even when the community gets its say, the consequences can be unpredictable.

In 1989, an earthquake struck the Bay Area and brought down the Cypress Freeway. When it was built in the 1950s, the freeway isolated a 4-square-mile, largely African-American West Oakland neighborhood.

The California Transportation Department, Caltrans, originally proposed rebuilding the quake-toppled freeway where it stood. The community pushed back and was supported by city and county officials. Caltrans worked with them to devise a new route to the west that opened in 1998. Federal transportation officials point to the years-long project as proof of “the potential for a transportation agency to work together with citizens to accomplish an enormous task while helping to revitalize a community.”

Art Shanks remembers when the freeway made his Cypress neighborhood feel like “a prison without walls.” He took part in the conversations that led to the freeway being moved. Then he saw the gentrification sparked by revitalization. Now, few of the working-class African-American and Hispanic families who were once his neighbors can afford to live in Cypress.

As part of the Cypress project, Caltrans also funded a neighborhood job-training center that prepared local residents to work on the freeway reconstruction, much as Colorado highway officials are doing in Denver now. The Cypress center still operates today, with Mr. Shanks as its director. Over the past quarter century, Shanks says, it has trained more than 6,500 workers and also provided services such as drug rehabilitation and mental health counseling, as its scope expanded from people directly affected by the highway project to people in need across Alameda County.

Striking a balance

When the impact on the immediate community and larger transit needs need to be taken into account, “it’s challenging to strike the right balance,” says Ryan Gravel, an Atlanta-based designed and planner. “Especially when bad decisions have been made in the past and the options are expensive.”

Saying that “a new kind of city is emerging,” Mr. Gravel notes that the urban infrastructure projects of the 1950s and 1960s are nearing the end of their lifespan just as many Americans are reimagining what they want out of cities.

Gravel has seen his community embrace his idea for an Atlanta BeltLine, first sketched out in his master’s thesis. It would turn a railroad corridor that rings the heart of the city into a loop connecting dozens of neighborhoods with parks, foot and cycling paths, and streetcars.

For models elsewhere in the country, Gravel, author of “Where We Want to Live: Reclaiming Infrastructure for a New Generation of Cities,” points to New York’s High Line, a park in the sky built on old elevated railroad tracks, and Salt Lake City’s S-Line Greenway, which transformed an old freight line into a streetcar route, public plazas, art, walking paths, even a bocce court.

Planners acknowledge, though, that old infrastructure can’t just be abandoned. In Colorado, I-70 is a key route for east-west truck traffic and urbanite weekenders headed to ski in winters and hike in summers. CDOT said what it has learned working in Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea will inform future projects. White says community outreach efforts will continue, including events like one in which street artists – some from Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea – were commissioned to use the viaduct's underbelly as a canvas. The work will be demolished along with the viaduct.

The muralists said it’s normal for their work to be erased, that they have Instagram and their own websites to archive it. But the poignancy of creating something that will be torn down was not lost on them.

No longer towns, but still a community

Since the late 19th century, an ethnic mosaic of laborers, factory workers, and families have made their homes in Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea. The neighborhoods were once independent towns: Globeville had the Globe Smelting and Refining Co. Elyria was a railroad and meatpacking hub. Swansea, known for its dairies, borrowed its name from a Welsh seaport where some of the first settlers started their voyage to America.

The dairy and groceries are gone, leaving a food desert. Globeville still has the National Western complex, home of an annual rodeo and cattle auction that has drawn visitors for more than a century. A Superfund site that resulted from the smelting was largely cleaned up by 2014. The neighborhoods are a mix of residential and industrial, with waste management and bottling businesses and, more recently, marijuana production houses scattered among the homes. An abandoned elementary school, once home to a community theater, is now being used as part of a housing and job-training complex to help military veterans who have been homeless.

For all the turmoil of the past and the uncertainty over the future, a community spirit endures.

Valdez, at 78 still running the liquor store her husband bought in the neighborhood decades ago, calls customers “sweetheart” and greets them with compliments about their hair. They call her Miss V. She is known for buying lunch for those she knows can’t make the necessary trip out of the neighborhood to shop for food.

Valdez says she will be retiring soon but plans to continue living nearby no matter what I-70 brings.

“I’m used to the neighborhood,” she says. “I’m used to the people. I take care of them and they take care of me.”

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