No easy answers for residents of Elyria-Swansea community amid I-70 expansion

Family legacies face a continued threat from the bulldozer. The Colorado Department of Transportation continues its plan for I-70’s expansion under fierce criticism from Elyria-Swansea residents.

Pastor Robert Quintana, of the Pilgrim Congregational Church of Denver explains how the I70 project will impact many of the residents in the coming year. Photo taken Nov. 18, 2017. Photos by Brandon N. Sanchez

The affected area of the interstate will be the 12-mile stretch from Brighton Boulevard to Tower Road. Criticism of the project is directed toward a 2-mile stretch along this route where residents feel that the demolition of the surrounding homes is avoidable and could lead to gentrification of the area.

“We grew up here, my kids grew up around here,” said Kim Gratehouse, a former resident of the neighborhood. “That little liquor store Ciancio’s, the little lady who owns it, she knows all of us and my kids by name because we’ve been here for so long. This used to be a really good community, people watched out for each other.”

Though the renovation requires demolishing homes, residents like Gratehouse are certain that the change will pave a path for gentrification, causing the area to lose its current residents and sense of community.

The 2-mile stretch lies adjacent to the primarily low-income, Latino neighborhood of Elyria-Swansea in Denver. CDOT and Kiewit Meridiam Partners plan to demolish a 30-foot bridge and transform it into a ground-level tunnel. The construction will require more than 50 homes to be demolished, many of which belong to second- and third-generation residents.

That’s not to say that this is an unnecessary renovation, however. The highway was constructed in 1956 and the infrastructure last saw repairs in the 1980s. Now, over 60 years later, the base of the interstate’s bridge is collapsing. With concrete falling and support beams visible, leaving the framework in its current state is not an option.

“The need to get this highway going again, it’s critical,” said CDOT I-70 East Communications and Public Affairs Manager Rebecca White. “The repairs made in the ‘80s are failing, we’ve got a critical safety issue to address in our state.”

A home in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood like many others. Post signs to fight the I70 Project. Photo taken Nov. 18, 2017.

The job is expected to start summer of 2018 and reach completion in spring of 2022. It is projected to cost $1.3 billion, according to The Denver Post. CDOT will pay an upfront sum of $687 million and will have to make annual payments to the expansion’s contract company, KMP, to repay for costs of the initial construction, maintenance and upkeep.

In response to CDOT’s unwavering commitment to this plan, locals started the “Ditch the Ditch” movement in hopes of rallying enough community support to stop the demolition of one of Denver’s historic neighborhoods.

However, there’s no simple solution to pleasing both CDOT and Elyria-Swansea’s residents.

Robert Quintana, pastor of the neighborhood’s Pilgrimage Congregational Church, has been a member of the community for nearly 11 years. He is not without concerns over the imminent change to his home.

“Denver needs to expand. It’ll be repopulated in 10 years but what everyone’s missing is: what are we going to do with the poor people? And the elderly that live here?” he said. “It’s not that change shouldn’t come, and we should always want change. I don’t think people are really thinking about what they’re displacing when they change things.”

Though his home will be spared in the construction, his church’s congregation will see dwindling attendance, which already hovers at just around 60 parishioners at each service. He said he’s afraid that he and his neighbors have simply been forgotten about.

“I’m afraid that people who are in the know don’t care,” he said.

This feeling is familiar to other residents of the neighborhood.

Kim Greathouse, has been a Globeville resident since she was a child. Greathouse explains how her family has lived in the two homes that surround her home. Photo taken Nov. 18, 2017.

A common concern among the residents of Elyria-Swansea is added pollution to the neighborhood. According to ATTOM Data Solutions, Elyria-Swansea’s zip code, 80216, is the most polluted zip code in America. This reality is the base for a common concern among the residents of the neighborhood. With pollution from the Purina factory and the addition of construction, rerouting nearby trains and sitting traffic, Quintana is worried that the four-year construction period will only add to the contamination.

While some residents claim CDOT has not shown transparency in the project, White said the decision to lower the bridge and turn it into a tunnel was the best option for the community.

According to White, while the solution of removing the bridge and turning it into a tunnel is more difficult from an engineering standpoint, it was chosen with the best interests of the community in mind.With construction inevitably moving forward, residents like Quintana worry about the future of their community as the city of Denver continues to grow.

“Gentrification isn’t all bad, but it is in the sense that younger white people taking the place of older, hispanic families that have been here forever,” he said, “Now where are they going to go?”

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