January 7, 2013
From The Denver Post http://www.denverpost.com/politics/ci_20153395/growing-green-valley-ranch-highland-neighborhoods-exemplify-denvers
By Jeremy P. Meyer
In northwest Denver, yogurt shops and trendy restaurants have replaced the Mexican bakeries and boutiques of a decade ago. Over on the northeast side in Green Valley Ranch, cul-de-sacs and two-story homes sprout where tumbleweeds and prairie dogs once thrived.
A massive transformation has occurred along Denver's northern side — from the changing demographics in the northwest to a population boom near Denver International Airport to the east.
"It has been amazing," said Bob Stretch, walking with his wife, Wanda, through his Green Valley Ranch neighborhood. "When we moved here, there was nothing much, just open fields. Now, there are homes everywhere."
In the past decade, Denver has added more than 45,000 people, mostly in far northeast Denver — a change that is forcing a contentious debate among City Council members on how to redraw the city's legislative districts.
Every 10 years, the council must use figures from the census to evenly carve up the city into 11 districts that members represent. The goal is to keep neighborhoods together and adequately represent "communities of interest."
The normally collegial council has found itself squabbling on the council floor, alleging racial politicking and drawing lines over proposed changes.
Today, a committee meeting with a public-comment session is expected to be passionate.
"You are looking at all the classic gerrymandering strategies," said Brian Timoney, who has been following the redistricting process. "The real story of Denver is what is happening in the north, especially the dramatic growth in the Green Valley Ranch and DIA area. When that area grows so dramatically as (compared) to the rest of the city, that is going to have a ripple effect."
No two communities better exemplify Denver's change than the Highland neighborhood in northwest Denver and Green Valley Ranch just south of DIA.
Booming near DIA
In 1973, the city and county of Denver annexed the 3,078 acres from Adams County that would become Green Valley Ranch.
By the early 1980s, in an effort to draw more homebuyers, the developer bargained with Denver's school board, offering a desegregation plan to the district, which was under a federal court order to integrate its schools.
If the district built Green Valley Ranch schools, the developer promised to "sell enough homes to minority groups to keep the court-appointed balance."
But the true growth happened only this past decade.
Between 2000 and 2010, Green Valley Ranch added 21,000 people for a total of 29,000 residents — far surpassing the combined totals of Stapleton and Lowry and roughly the size of Wheat Ridge.
With about 8,000 homes, Green Valley Ranch is still only about 40 percent built out. The demographics are almost evenly distributed among Latinos (37 percent), whites (24 percent) and blacks (28 percent).
"That is one thing that is great about Green Valley Ranch: It's not just all one type of people," said Pat Hamill, chief executive of Oakwood Homes, Green Valley Ranch's developer since 1989.
"When you can look in the whole metro area for growth, you can't go west, south is pretty much done and north is difficult because of water issues," Hamill said. "It is really the only place Denver can grow."
The land that was once the domain of jackrabbits and cattle now is Denver's most suburban-looking neighborhood, with model homes starting in the $100,000s, a highly rated golf course, new schools and one of the most popular libraries in Denver.
"It is the best-kept secret in Denver," Hamill said.
But Green Valley Ranch appeared to be on a disastrous path a few years ago.
In 2008, USA Today featured the neighborhood as one of the communities hit hardest by the country's foreclosure crisis. At the time, lenders had taken action on nearly 1,000 of the 8,000 Green Valley Ranch homes. Owners had defaulted on more than $171 million in mortgages, the newspaper reported.
Years before that, an ABC News segment on troubled schools called Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Green Valley Ranch the country's worst school, showing hidden video of out-of-control students.
Hamill said that segment forced him to get involved with improving the schools. Things have turned around, he said. New charter schools have opened, Martin Luther King Jr. Early College has been reformed, and an intense turnaround plan has been started for other schools.
Last month, Hamill said, Oakwood Homes sold 25 new houses in the neighborhood.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who has lived in Green Valley Ranch since 2004, isn't surprised by the recent growth.
"It's the affordability, the opportunity to have more house, and it's a growing community," Hancock said. "People want the newness. We like it because we can shop, eat and recreate without having to travel far from home."
On the other side of the city, a different kind of change is occurring.
Northwest Denver has lost population over the past 10 years, mostly because of an exodus of Latinos. The starkest example is occurring in the Highland neighborhood, an enclave that borders Federal Boulevard to the west, West 38th Avenue to the north, Speer Boulevard to the south and Interstate 25 to the east.
Nearly 4,000 Latinos left the neighborhood between 2000 and 2010, census figures say.
Now, 57 percent of the 8,429 residents are white — twice as many as were there in 2000.
Francisco Almanza III knew change was coming to the neighborhood when he noticed dog walkers carrying plastic poop bags passing by his family's Mexican restaurant.
"This area was always considered dangerous at night, and one night I saw a woman walking her poodle," he said. "And I thought, 'Are you crazy?' "
Patzcuaro's Mexican Restaurant has been an institution on 32nd Avenue since 1978.
Almanza's 68-year-old father, Francisco Jr., recalls the street closing down every year for massive Mexican Independence Day celebrations. On weekends, Mexican bands would pack the next-door Holiday Theatre, and numerous Latino businesses lined the block near his restaurant.
Now, 75 percent of the restaurant's clientele is white. The authentic Mexican cuisine is still being served under photos of Pancho Villa on the walls and Mexican soccer on the flat-screen.
The block that used to be called "Little Mexico" has changed as Latino-oriented businesses were driven away by tripled rents.
A yogurt shop has opened where a Mexican bridal shop once stood, an Italian ice-cream shop sits in place of a Mexican jewelry store, and the Holiday Theatre has been remodeled and is courting new tenants.
"There is both good and bad about the change," said Tom Bauer, who for three decades has lived across from Patzcuaro's in a house once owned by Adolph Coors. "It has lost a lot of the diversity that it once had. But it was a pretty sketchy neighborhood."
Years ago, Rebecca Hunt remembers seeing a body on the street in the Highland neighborhood. She feared drive-by shootings but watched everything slowly change after Coors Field was constructed a few miles away in the mid-1990s.
"Everything close to the field became a hot property," she said.
As property values climbed, families that had been in their homes for generations sold for top dollar. Younger, wealthier residents with smaller families moved in. They remodeled older homes or tore them down to rebuild. They demanded better schools and celebrated when a pedestrian bridge was built connecting the neighborhood to downtown.
Developers put in condominiums, and trendy restaurants opened to cater to the new crowd.
Hunt, president of Highland United Neighbors Inc., believes the neighborhood's population, which had dropped by 2,100 in 2010 to 8,429, will bounce back.
"We are in a weird period because we are going to boom," she said.
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