Growing Pains: Denver neighborhoods work to bring everyone to the table

Organizations don’t reflect diversity; some are working to change that

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When Tim Roberts first became president of the East Colfax Neighborhood Association, he noticed something that didn’t sit well with him. Although East Colfax has a wealth of diversity in the community — from Latin America to Ethiopia and Asia — the people consistently coming to the Registered Neighborhood Organization’s meetings did not reflect the demographics living there. 

“The RNO is absent as far as those communities appearing actively,” Roberts said. 

Considering that 40 percent of East Colfax lives below the poverty line and 70 percent are at risk of displacement, Roberts said, it was incredibly important to start bringing all voices to the table. 

In a growing city, some residents feel there are few tools at their disposal to create a cushion against the mountain wave of construction. But the city is trying to change that, creating community-based plans to preserve character and move individual neighborhoods into the future. 

As the city works on one end, a group of residents, including Roberts, have taken matters into their own hands in the hopes of including everyone.

Creating a plan 

In 2016, Denver, which counts 75 neighborhoods, started working on the Neighborhood Planning Initiative. Neighborhood plans are meant to help guide the community in creating a list of projects residents want completed. Those could include better park space, a new grocery store or support for local business.

The problem, said JJ Folsom, vice president of Progressive Urban Management Associates (PUMA), is that 42 percent of Denver’s neighborhoods have no plan to speak of and many others have plans created in the 1980s and ‘90s that are sorely out of date. 

With the Neighborhood Planning Initiative, city planners are dividing Denver into neighborhood clusters. For the last two years, PUMA has been working with the city on the plan for the east central region, which includes Uptown, Capitol Hill, City Park, City Park West, Cheesman Park and Congress Park. 

PUMA looked into the economics of those neighborhoods: what businesses are located there, where people are working, and what need exists for affordable housing. The answers to those and other questions started the basis of the East Central Area Plan. 

PUMA is also working on the plan for the eastern Denver neighborhoods, which includes South Park Hill, Hale, East Colfax and Montclair. The city is putting out a request for proposals from planning companies for each neighborhood, Folsom said. PUMA will apply for all the neighborhoods, he said, but it particularly wanted to create the east central area plan because its office is located there. Many staff members working on the project also live in the area. 

The company’s process has been to start with research and listen to residents through community open houses. Through online surveys and public comment, PUMA added suggestions and concerns. 

The plans "go through the planning board and they get adopted by city council. When a developer comes into the city with a proposal for a project, the city will point them to this plan,” Folsom said. “The beauty of this project is it’s community-led.”

The end result, Folsom said, will help give the neighborhood some teeth when it comes to new development going through city council. While Denveright city plans provide an overall plan for development in the city for the next 20 years, neighborhood plans are more specific. If any disagreements exist between the two plans, the neighborhood’s will take precedent, Folsom said.

“It will take the Blueprint Denver recommendations to a greater level,” Folsom said. “This plan will most likely the be the plan until 2040. The next five years is the most important piece of this plan.”

Blueprint Denver is a specific strategy of dealing with growth within Denver’s neighborhoods, such as keeping building development near transit centers and focusing on design quality to make sure projects fit the context of certain neighborhoods.

Building for everyone

Like Roberts, Folsom worried that scheduled meetings would not reach the full demographic of east central Denver. In addition to the planned meetings, PUMA did pop-up meetings to reach people in their daily activities at places like the Carla Madison Recreation Center near City Park. They went to churches and schools as well. 

Roberts said PUMA has received about 1,900 responses from the public and pop-up meetings. 

“It’s going to where people are,” Folsom said. “I think we’ve had more input going to people doing these workshops than we have had in these public meetings.” 

When Frank Locantore heard the city was putting together the Neighborhood Planning Initiative, he didn’t need a lot of convincing to participate in the planning process. Locantore, executive director of the Colfax Ave Business Improvement District, said that for him it’s not a question of whether the east central area will evolve. Instead, he said, it's how residents and city officials will decide the kind of evolution. 

“I’ve decided to put roots here. I’m going to live and die right here,” Locantore said. “It would be great to be able to give back and participate in the process that will continually help this area to evolve.” 

In 2013, when Locantore was president of Uptown on the Hill, he found a copy of the neighborhood’s plan from 1986. At the time, that was no process to update the plan, he said. And many projects in the plan were never completed. 

Having the expertise of the city and planning companies such as PUMA has been helpful. But if residents want changes in the way the neighborhood continues to develop, they need to be diligent, Locantore said. 

“If we want really big changes," he said, "they don’t happen overnight.”

But as far as housing goes, Roberts said the city needs to be moving faster. In East Colfax alone, he said he has calculated the need for 1,500 affordable units. But those projects often take a long time to pass city approval and then be built. Meanwhile, the city is losing those people as they move out because of economic challenges. The city can no longer take an “everything’s good” approach as small batches of affordable housing are approved, Roberts said.

“Everything’s not good, these people are gone. In five years from now they’re out,” he said. “If you really look at what the need is to prevent people from suffering in the immediate present, people right in front of us, it’s not happening.”

After Roberts saw a lack of diversity in his own Registered Neighborhood Organization, he decided to do something about it. He reached out to other neighborhoods asking if they saw similar problems. Amy Razzaque, the co-president of the Overland Park Neighborhood Association in south Denver responded, and the two began to build a mini-conference called Into the Neighborhood. 

“Our conference was more of a listening session to really develop the shared knowledge base, not only around the problems, but also around these things that are happening around the community that are working,” she said. 

One concern that Roberts and Razzaque have is the scant resources available to neighborhood associations. The organizations are meant to give residents tools and a voice when it comes to giving opinions to city officials. But Razzaque said that beyond the ordinance that allows the neighborhood organizations to exist, there’s not much guidance on how to run one. 

“Community organizing is not all that intuitive,” Razzaque said.

Trainings may be something that help in learning how to actively involve more residents in neighborhood meetings, she added. 

As the child of immigrants who came to the United States from Bangladesh, Razzaque said she is no stranger to the feeling of not belonging despite physically being in a community. Small things such as specialized foods from those communities, or businesses that cater to their needs, can go a long way in making a neighborhood more inclusive. 

But more than making everyone feel welcome, having more voices at the table benefits a city.

Meeting people where they are is often the key, Razzaque said. Providing different language and child care services can also help break down barriers for people who otherwise might not come to meetings. Outside of these barriers, there can also be cultural ones, Roberts said. Some cultures just don’t make a big deal out of neighborhood organizing, he said. That is why building relationships within the community is so important, Razzaque and Roberts said.

Many communities are also often only talked about in the ways that they are vulnerable, Razzaque said. While points of vulnerability are important to note, she said, the diverse perspectives that come with a more diverse community need to be celebrated, too.

“It is so critical to honor and celebrate how much strength and resilience they have, and really honor all the skills that they bring,” she said, “as opposed to taking this deficit-based approach.”

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