The neighborhood on the west bank of the South Platte River is finally approaching the end of its decade-long redevelopment.
DENVER – Thursday, November 2, 2023 – By Catie Cheshire
On a chilly Thursday morning in November, the Denver Housing Authority held a celebratory groundbreaking for the third phase of its major redevelopment in west Denver’s Sun Valley neighborhood.
The project — nearly a decade in the making — aims to usher in a new future for what has historically been one of Denver’s poorest and most diverse neighborhoods by adding housing options alongside better infrastructure and food systems.
“I live right here in the neighborhood, and it seems like every time I look out from the hallway, there’s something new,” Sun Valley resident and DHA boardmember Craig Allen says of the ongoing work. “To me, it’s exciting to see all the progress that we’ve made here in Sun Valley.”
It’s been quite the winding road to get to this point, with the final three of seven DHA-developed buildings starting construction this year. The agency launched the project in 2014 after receiving a planning grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Even before then, residents had been talking for years about how to make their neighborhood better.
“I have to respect the people who had the vision to think about what the future could look like for this community, because it’s not easy to envision,” says Grace Buckley, DHA board president. “It started a long time ago, but it took a lot of vision.”
In 2016, DHA won a $30 million HUD Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant that it is using to construct six of the Sun Valley buildings. The HUD Choice Neighborhoods program attempts to transform “struggling neighborhoods with distressed public or HUD-assisted housing,” according to its website.
Since the 1950s, DHA has owned property in Sun Valley, where it had Sun Valley Homes — a 330-unit, barracks-style affordable-housing complex. After the current project is completed, it will have about 970 public-housing units across seven buildings, according to Erin Clark, chief real estate investment officer for the housing authority.
It’s not just housing, either.
“We’ve been designing a Riverfront Park,” Clark says. “We’ve been redoing roadways.”
DHA has used some city bond funding to help with roadway construction. It’s also invested in sidewalks, water pipes, bike lanes and storm sewer lines across the neighborhood, which sits between the South Platte River and Federal Boulevard and includes the Denver Broncos’ stadium, Empower Field at Mile High.
The area wasn’t originally designed with an urban street grid; it had curving streets that further isolated it from the rest of Denver. Through this redevelopment, DHA is creating a street grid to help build more ways to get in and out of Sun Valley.
“There was a pretty famous article written by a Denver Post writer many many years ago about the physical nature of Sun Valley and how you couldn’t get out of it,” said City Council President Jamie Torres, who represents west Denver, at the November 2 groundbreaking. “You couldn’t leave. You felt like you were trapped, and we are now standing at the intersection of future roads in this neighborhood. They get you in and out and help you see your path through, and into, this community.”
DHA has partnerships with residents and experience with neighborhood-scale redevelopment; working with longtime community members, it’s been able to personalize this project to the needs of the people who live in Sun Valley.
“They have a lot of multi-generational families who needed more storage, needed more counter space in the kitchen so that everybody can really gather and have sufficient room to prepare meals,” Clark says the community told DHA. “Every unit now has a washer-dryer in the unit. Those are things that were not there before. We want to be really thoughtful about who our residents are and make sure that we’re meeting their needs.”
The in-unit laundry is a huge plus, Allen confirms.
“To me, [this groundbreaking] means getting more people off the street into great housing,” he says. “There are so many amenities here.”
The development is also mixed-income, with income-restricted units and market-rate units all in the same buildings. According to Clark, the philosophy on public housing has changed over the years to move from warehousing people to actually building homes.
“We want to make sure that we’re not in the business of concentrating poverty,” she says. “It’s to have a true community. To have people from different walks of life all able to share in these buildings, share in this neighborhood.”
Construction on the final three buildings — dubbed Joli, Sol and Flo — officially began in April. Flo is the only building in the development that is 100 percent income-restricted; it’s designed to serve seniors and non-elderly disabled residents. The building will be the tallest of the bunch at twelve stories, with over 200 units.
“We worked with the neighborhood to rezone that property so that it could be taller,” Clark explains. “Everything else is no higher than eight stories.” The housing authority did this to give additional density to the neighborhood and more units for Flo’s target populations.
Joli and Sol are both mixed-income communities. Joli will be home to the Food Incubator project, which will be a food hall that will provide education to residents who want to explore career paths in food entrepreneurship. The Decatur Fresh Market, which is on the ground floor of the first DHA building to open in Sun Valley, joins the Food Incubator in working to change the neighborhood from a food desert to a place where good grub is easily accessible.
Both Joli and Sol have units ranging from one to four bedrooms; Joli also has two five-bedroom units, as DHA heard from the community that those were also useful. The goal is for Joli to open by the end of 2024, and for Flo and Sol to open in the first half of 2025.
DHA’s self-developed buildings are expected to be completed by then, but it won’t be the end for Sun Valley’s revitalization.
The housing authority is under contract with third-party, market-rate developers for three parcels of land that will add about 1,000 units to the neighborhood. It’s also working to create a Riverfront Park that will start construction next year and to clean up a former Xcel Energy plot of land that is designated as an Environmental Protection Agency brownfield site. Such sites need remediation from hazardous materials before they can be developed.
“We will still be very much engaged in the development of Sun Valley,” Clark says. “Also, as the neighbors move back in, just continuing to engage with them, having events. … We just really want to make them proud.”
To complete the construction, DHA relocated the residents of the Sun Valley Homes across metro Denver. As each building is completed, DHA contacts them to see if they want to come back and what type of unit they might be interested in.
Danny Stange, a Denver Chicano who offered tobacco to the four directions for the future and to heal the past at the groundbreaking, has had many family members relocated. His wife Desiree Stange’s family lived in Sun Valley going back four generations.
“Some of the other younger ones, they feel a loss of that familiarity, but they have a hope for something new, something that would be welcoming to other members in the community,” Danny says.
His family was worried about gentrification displacing former residents for good, but they’ve since grown comfortable with DHA’s mission and intention as the project has gone on. “I’m very hopeful and feeling like it’s going to be a positive change,” he says.
Allen notes how the community has stayed strong through the displacement, with Christmas toy drives and Thanksgiving breakfast baskets still being shared by former and current residents.
They’ve also started a group called Sun Valley Inspirations, which hosts breakfast every Thursday, as a way to keep everyone connected.
“It takes a long time to build a new community, and that’s really what this is,” Buckley says. “You have to pull it together and keep at it for years to make it happen. For people to move in — and move back in — and feel like it’s starting the beginning of the end of the process of getting there and actually being here.”
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