Denver, Environment, Featured, Peter Blake, Politics

Blake: How long until 'sustainability' becomes eminent domain?

Watch out, Sun Valley. The government is knocking on your door and it’s here to help. Again.

One of Denver’s poorest neighborhoods, just south of whatever Mile High Stadium is called these days, Sun Valley has just been designated as an “eco-district” by the Denver Housing Authority (DHA) and its development partner, a nonprofit called EcoDistricts of Portland, Ore.

The latter seems to be an offshoot of CGI. which in this case is not computer-generated imagery but something disturbingly like it: the Clinton Global Initiative. That’s the former president’s foundation.

What, you may ask, is an eco-district? You’re not likely to find out much by reading the releases or even the news stories, which are filled with vaguely positive but slippery abstractions.

Its goal, says EcoDistricts on its Web site, is “creating sustainable cities from the neighborhood up.”

Or, as EcoDistricts boss Rob Bennett told The Denver Post, “We want to more systematically embed sustainability into urban-regeneration projects.”

Got it? In any case, “sustainable” is a favorite word, recurring again and again in the literature.

It seems that eco-districts are the latest incarnation of urban renewal. That’s a concept that has been around since the late 19th Century, when civic reformers wanted to do something about the inner city slums that came along with the industrial revolution in Britain.

Urban renewal has gone through many phases in the U.S., often featuring eminent domain, destruction of slum properties, the eviction of residents and the construction of public housing or more lucrative private development. There often being a racial element, author James Baldwin famously called it “Negro removal.”

Are eco-districts just an updated version of the same policies, with an up-to-date greenish name? Not if you believe the proponents, but the concept is still too new to tell how it will play out.

The Denver project first surfaced last November, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that DHA would be given a $500,000 planning grant to improve the housing, mostly public, and rejuvenate the neighborhood.

No, the money doesn’t go to the residents, although an air drop of a half-million in small bills might do them more good. The money goes to DHA planners, and they were given 16 months to develop a comprehensive strategy. It’s reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s observation in “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” an essay from the late 1960s when he observes, “Everybody but the most hopeless lames knew that the only job you wanted out of the poverty program was a job in the program itself. Get on the payroll, that was the idea. Never mind getting some job counseling. You be the counselor. You be the neighborhood organizer.”

Sun Valley, bordered roughly by 20th Avenue on the north, the South Platte River on the East, the 6th Avenue freeway on the south and Federal Boulevard on the west, has been “improved” many times before. In 1942, as World War II was bringing the nation out of the Depression, the brand-new DHA opened the 184-unit Las Casitas housing project along Federal Boulevard.

The houses were cinderblock and concrete, wrote reporter Tina Griego of The Denver Post in a three-part series on Sun Valley four years ago. Within 15 years the DHA built two more projects in the area, 600 units in all.

“Sun Valley is what happens when federal housing policy collides with public planning,” she wrote. “In that way, the neighborhood is both a creation of government and an indictment of it.”

The Las Casitas project was torn down in the late 1970s.

EcoDistricts has targeted several other cities in addition to Denver, including Atlanta, Boston, Cambridge, Los Angeles and a couple of capitals: Ottawa and Washington, D.C.

icon_op_edDHA can’t elaborate much on specifics because the program is still in the early stages. But it said in a news release that the aim “is to have a truly holistic, transformative and sustainable [that word again] solution” for the entire 100-acre neighborhood. Goals include “district-scale energy infrastructure (photovoltaic, geothermal, steam etc.),” renewable and sustainable energy, wastewater solutions, water quality, recycling etc. The current population of 1,500 may be quadrupled, according to the DHA.

Also sought are other standard-issue progressive goals: “Multi-modal transportation options and healthy locally grown food.” The light rail system’s West line has a stop at Sun Valley.

EcoDistricts’ Bennett told the Post that urban environmentalism formerly concentrated on open-space projects and individual buildings. But now planners want to transform entire districts. Residents don’t have to be forced out, he maintained.

Eco-districts seem to be a strategy designed by environmentalists to show they aren’t interested in just middle-income liberals who worry about ozone, air, water and climate change, but really want to do something for the poor.

But how that will translate is anybody’s guess. It’s not clear where the money needed is coming from, or who will get it.

There is no talk yet of subsidies and eminent domain. But when those words appear — if they do — instead of “sustainability” we’ll have a clearer idea of what eco-districts involve.

Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes Thursdays for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at pblake0705@comcast.net You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com.

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