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Sun Valley, Denver Housing Authority receive grant to clean up Xcel site, making park plans possible

By Desiree Mathurin

The spot where three large storage tanks were removed from Sun Valley. June 26, 2023.
 Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Imagine living across from an industrial complex that houses an abandoned warehouse surrounded by polluted soil and three tanks each filled with 4 million gallons of diesel.

Imagine growing up with that complex obstructing views of Denver’s skyline and the South Platte River.

That’s been the reality for Sun Valley residents for decades as they lived in the shadow of Xcel Energy’s defunct Zuni Generating Station near the South Platte and W. 13th Avenue, where the utility processed coal, natural gas, and steam energy.

As Sun Valley’s neighborhood redevelopment, spearheaded by the Denver Housing Authority, continues and new housing is built, a plan to convert a portion of that station into an 11-acre riverfront park space is in motion.

But before that vision can be fully realized, the area has to be cleaned up — and the funding for that work is now available.

DHA announced Monday that it has received a $1,049,300 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to remediate eight acres of land at the old Xcel site to make it habitable for a park and potential housing.

“The EPA grant will allow us to remediate the soil and demolish the existing warehouse that’s there, that’s abandoned,” said Ashleigh Wheeler, the Development and Sustainability Manager at DHA. “From there, DHA is going to partner with the City of Denver to develop an 11-acre riverfront park all along the South Platte. We couldn’t have done this without the community…We’re really righting the wrongs of the environmental injustice that this community has been experiencing and we’re really excited to help implement that.”

Cleaning up the Xcel property has been in the works since John Hickenlooper was Denver’s mayor, but the process actually began when DHA purchased a piece of the Xcel Station, the Zuni Tank Farm, in 2021.

DHA purchased the property as part of the redevelopment plans of Sun Valley. In a multi-year project, DHA’s goal was to replace 333 units of the old red brick building housing Sun Valley Homes and add more than 950 new homes to house more than 2,500 residents.

The DHA homes made up the majority of the housing available in the neighborhood and, since the redevelopment began, many residents were displaced and the neighborhood has been filled with dirt, cranes and construction crews.

But DHA has already completed several stages of the plan with the opening of Gateway North, Gateway South, GreenHaus and Thrive, which directly overlooks where the park will eventually go.

Combined, the four complexes house 451 units of market-rate and affordable housing ranging from those making 40% of the area median income to 80%. As of June 15, a family of four making $49,640 hits the 40% AMI, while 80% would be $94,650. A portion of that housing was also reserved for residents who were displaced during the demolition of the older buildings.

DHA’s goal is to create a mixed-income neighborhood that suits Sun Valley residents’ needs, specifically residents who have lived in the neighborhood for decades.

Besides housing, DHA constructed and currently operates a grocery store, Decatur Fresh. The store was opened to address food access issues in the neighborhood.

The agency is also working on the infrastructure of the area with the 13th Avenue realignment project, which will bring a grid back to the neighborhood, creating new connections to the outside as well as new ways of movement inside.

Three additional apartment complexes are in the works: Sol, Joli and Flo. Sol and Joli will have 297 units and will house a food and business incubator, at the request of residents. Flo will be for residents 55 and older.

Adding a park is just another step for DHA to make the neighborhood a neighborhood, with long-term residents in mind.

“I’ve seen so many improvements made over the last few years and it is great to see the investment in our neighborhood,” said resident Craig Allen. “I can’t wait to see what’s next with the planned park and more housing.”

The EPA grant helps move the park plans forward.

The grant is funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and was awarded to DHA through the Brownfields Program, which funds clean-up projects of “contaminated properties” and “returns blighted properties to productive reuse.”

The Xcel Station is over 120 years old and the Tank Farm site, along with the diesel inside the large vats, used to be a “backup power source” for the city, according to Wheeler. It also used to be a landfill.

Wheeler said the land is currently cleaned to “industrial standards” and the grant will bring the property up to “residential standards,” allowing for the park and housing to be built.

Wheeler added that a small section of the property may be used for housing in the future but the immediate priority is the park, which could feature “environmental education, a water-feature play area, cafes, play fields and courts and multi-use trails.”

On Monday, DHA, city officials and some Sun Valley residents celebrated the grant at the residential building Thrive, which has a communal deck that overlooks the neighborhood, including Fairview Elementary, the proposed park and the river.

There, officials thanked residents for their resiliency as their neighborhood changed rapidly. Officials also acknowledged that the cleanup and eventual park are long overdue and well deserved.

“When you look out your back door or your front porch in Sun Valley and all you saw were industrial tanks and power institutions, you think that’s all your neighborhood is good for,” said City Council President Jamie Torres. “This is one of the ways that we’re making sure that we’re reinforcing to every resident that returns to Sun Valley that this is a neighborhood worthy of parks, of green space, of open space, clean water, clean air and we’re going to be building that for you.”

An opening party for Thrive and GreenHaus will be hosted by DHA on Friday from 12 to 2 p.m.

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