In late August 2014, the Colorado Department of Transportation quietly unveiled a plan to radically overhaul a stretch of Interstate 70 as it passes through Denver. The project would add four toll lanes and sink two miles of the highway through the neighborhoods of Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea, whose grids of modest homes and mom-and-pop shops constitute some of the last majority-resident of color areas in a city that is fast becoming whiter and more affluent. The CDOT’s plan would condemn 56 homes and 17 businesses—a more extensive use of eminent domain than was required for the construction of the highway in the first place. It would also sever the neighborhoods during the decade of construction and open them to land-grabbing by developers.
Despite broad public opposition, the “Central 70 Project”—as it is now known, after several rebrandings—received approval from outgoing Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on January 19, 2017, the last day of the Obama administration. Three weeks later, over 100 opponents of the project crowded the Swansea Recreation Center, preempting what was supposed to be an orderly presentation by the CDOT with yard signs, black anti-pollution masks, and a counter-presentation advocating for rerouting the freeway around the city. Nevertheless, CDOT director Shailen Bhatt insisted that his agency would push ahead unless the plan was stopped by a court order.
Bhatt’s response was dismissive—equivalent to that familiar schoolyard taunt, “So sue me.” And that’s exactly what the residents did. On a sunny morning in early July, some 60 protesters gathered outside the federal courthouse in downtown Denver wearing blue T-shirts that read, “Ditch the Ditch,” for a press conference announcing a lawsuit against the Federal Highway Administration.
Central 70 is only one of several urban freeway renovations taking place nationwide. Houston has fast-tracked a $4 billion downtown freeway expansion and burial; in Dallas, an overhaul of I-345 is under discussion. The projects are at a scale that hasn’t been seen since widespread protests pushed urban freeway construction out of fashion 50 years ago. Why have such projects returned, and why now?
The resurgence of urban highway expansion comes at a moment of demographic transition. After decades of exodus, affluent white residents are returning to city centers. The demographic is appealing to cities: Its members spend money and tend to be young and childless, so they don’t require costly social services like schools. But across the country their arrival triggers the displacement of low-income communities, especially people of color. The fight in Denver, the fastest-growing city in the country, is therefore not just about a single freeway or neighborhood; its outcome could set a precedent for other battles over the right to the city in this new era.
After World War II, the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) enabled unprecedented rates of homeownership. Yet the agency systematically “redlined” neighborhoods with a majority of residents of color, excluding them from insured home loans, and favored insuring mortgages in white-exclusive suburban developments. Historian Kenneth Jackson writes that the ensuing suburbanization was as significant a demographic trend “as the movement of eastern and southern Europeans to Ellis Island.”
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Freeways quickly became the vectors of white flight. But what’s more, their very construction was explicitly tethered to the demolition of poor neighborhoods.
“The association of ‘blight’ with communities of color was strong and unabashed. Displacement was rampant,” says Margot Lystra, a doctoral candidate at Cornell University who studies urban freeway design. As the late University of Alabama at Birmingham professor Raymond Mohl once noted, “When I-94 displaced one-seventh of the African-American population of St. Paul, Minnesota, a critic wrote that ‘very few blacks live in Minnesota, but the road builders found them.’”
The Denver neighborhoods impacted by the new highway project—Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea—embody the typical profile of neighborhoods selected for urban renewal. Originally company towns for smelters, their first residents were immigrants from eastern Europe, some of whose descendants still live there. With continued immigration in later waves of industrialization, the area—together referred to as GES—became the predominately Latino communities they remain today.
The neighborhoods were not only redlined and cut in pieces by two interstates (I-70 and I-25) but also neglected wholesale by the city. They went decades without a neighborhood plan. In 2016, northeast Denver’s zip code, 80216, was deemed the most polluted in the nation.
“They were always under siege. They knew they never counted to the city,” says Dennis Gallagher, a former city auditor who has been vocally opposed to the Central 70 Project since he refused to sign its intergovernmental cost-sharing agreement, calling it a “sop for Denver.” His successor, however, approved it.
Denver’s city government and the CDOT rationalize the highway project by saying that the current viaduct is crumbling, that the plan to submerge it will increase connectivity in GES and reduce congestion.
Locals refute those arguments. A nationwide survey of structurally deficient bridges in The Washington Post this year did not include the “crumbling” viaduct. Where the current viaduct is passable by cars and pedestrians at every intersection—crucially, for children who attend school across the freeway from where they live—drivers will be able to cross the cap of the submerged freeway only at a limited number of intersections, and the neighborhoods will be completely divided during the decade of construction. Finally, residents point out, the new toll lanes won’t fix the bottleneck at I-70’s interchange with I-25.
Instead, residents see the project as aiming at the same type of “renewal”-by-displacement as 20th-century urban freeway projects. In the last four years, Denver mayor Michael Hancock—himself a graduate of northeast Denver’s Manual High School—has overseen the transformation of the formerly industrial RiNo and Brighton Boulevard areas, which span the distance between downtown and Globeville, into art galleries and local-food hubs. It seems that the city hopes to expand that attractive “clean slate” for developers into northeastern Denver.
It already appears to be working. In addition to direct displacement by eminent domain, home values in GES have increased by 68 percent in the last two years (compared to 30 percent in the rest of Denver). This has displaced the neighborhoods’ renters, who are uniquely precarious—over 50 percent have no lease at all—as well as longtime homeowners who cannot afford the increased property taxes. The stormwater component of the plan also places Globeville back into the 100-year floodplain, making homeowners ineligible for FHA loans. The redlining returns.
“They had a reroute alternative, and instead they picked the option with the most displacement,” says Candi CdeBaca, who lives three blocks from I-70, in a Swansea house that once belonged to her great-grandparents. CdeBaca leads the Cross-Community Coalition, one of the groups fighting Central 70. She and Brad Evans, a local bike activist who founded Ditch the Ditch, are two of the key activists in the opposition efforts.
Evans is a plaintiff on the NEPA lawsuit, part of what he calls a “multi-pronged approach” to fighting the plan. Ditch the Ditch has also partnered with the Sierra Club on a Clean Air Act violation lawsuit against the EPA, on which CdeBaca is a plaintiff. In 2016, the Cross-Community Coalition partnered with the Colorado Latino Forum and the Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Association to file a Civil Rights Act Title 6 Complaint with the US Departments of Transportation and Justice and the Federal Highway Administration, arguing that the project had a disproportionate impact on communities of color. The agencies’ response was that while there would indeed be a disproportionate impact, it was not disproportionate enough.
“I’m not sure how much more disproportionate it could be than specifically affecting three greater-than-80 percent Latino neighborhoods,” says CdeBaca.
The substance of the July 10 lawsuit alleges that the City deliberately obscured the connection between Central 70 and the concurrent Platte to Park Hill drainage plan, allowing the approval of an incomplete environmental impact statement (EIS). While news articles about the projects as late as 2015 refer to an explicit connection between the I-70 and the drainage projects, the CDOT and the city have since gone to great lengths to rhetorically disconnect the two. This enabled the Central 70 Project to be approved without analysis of the planned drainage component, which includes building an open channel through a Superfund site. The plaintiffs’ evidence includes an internal memo from 2014 stating that the CDOT could not include the open-channel project as part of the I-70 project because the agency was “unwilling to jeopardize…progress on the EIS.”
I-70 was built through northeast Denver in 1964, during the heyday of urban freeway construction. In the decade that followed, nationwide protests turned the tide against such projects. According to Lystra, the protests began after the construction of Boston’s Inner Loop and San Francisco’s Embarcadero highways, both of which severed historic neighborhoods, in the early 1960s. “They were shocking to residents—an affront, an aesthetic offense,” she says. As the decade progressed, the protests continued, and spread to other cities. Eventually, she says, “politicians started to understand and say that urban dwellers have a right to a healthy environment, and to not be threatened by displacement.”
CdeBaca’s family participated in fighting the initial construction of I-70 through GES. “But at the time,” she says, “there weren’t civil rights or environmental protections to work with.” Indeed, all the regulations on which the activists’ lawsuits depend were passed since the construction of I-70: the Civil Rights Act (1964), the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), and the Clean Air Act (1970).
What is different now, compared to urban renewal-era projects of the past, is privatization. Where funding for 20th-century highways came from the federal government, the Central 70 Project will be financed by a public-private partnership (P3). The city will pay the CDOT $83 million in cash and waived fees to hire a private contractor—to be selected this summer—who will be responsible for design, construction, operations, and maintenance of the project. The contractor will keep all the tolls collected, so any taxpayer who chooses to pay the toll will essentially be paying for the project twice.
This scheme means that, although the project had to be approved at the federal level, its administration and control takes place at the local level. Not only is Denver paying the CDOT, the city is also responsible for condemning the homes and businesses surrounding the viaduct, the land beneath it, and the land for drainage.
Denver’s light rail and airport were also built with public-private partnerships, and local officials have become well known as their champions. Mayor Hancock and Governor John Hickenlooper (himself a former Denver mayor) were featured speakers at the 2016 P3 conference in Dallas. But this has also raised flags about corruption: Hancock, especially, is widely accused of being in the pocket of developers.
“The city gets nothing out of this project. They pay, but they get no revenue. That’s what makes it look so shady with kickbacks,” says CdeBaca.
“No one knew who Hancock was when he announced his campaign,” adds Gallagher. “He had been a Denver Broncos mascot. Then one day I get a call from Pat Hamill [CEO of Oakwood Homes, Colorado’s largest privately held homebuilder], saying, ‘I hope you’ll support Hancock.’ They knew they could shape him.”
Indeed, while Colorado mayoral races have a $3,000 contribution cap, that limit applies per person, PAC, or business; Hamill managed to contribute six times the limit to Hancock by giving through five different businesses. He also served as Hancock’s campaign finance chair in 2015, when the campaign received $159,000 from developers. When Hancock was sworn in for his second term, protestors gathered outside Denver’s Ellie Caulkins Opera House chanting, “Sí se puede desviar el I-70.” Yes, we can divert I-70.
Perhaps the most disturbing consequence of the privatization of public infrastructure is the way it undercuts legal recourses available to residents. As they attempt to demonstrate that the city prepared and the EPA knowingly approved an incomplete environmental impact statement, the privatization of the project has prevented GES residents from gathering evidence needed to enforce environmental and civil rights regulations.
“Our attorney CORAed [Colorado Open Records Act, similar to a FOIA request] CDOT to get financial records and cost projections for the project, and was denied because it was ‘not in the public’s interest,’” says CdeBaca. “The attorney for the city park drainage lawsuit was denied access to 7,400 documents.” The privatization of infrastructure renders proprietary information that belongs in the public sphere.
The scale of the activists’ claims, the archaic aura of the city’s plans, and the civil rights and environmental-justice stakes of the Central 70 fight make it hard not to see it as a test for Denver, and perhaps even for American cities writ large. At a moment when fundamental political norms and processes are being theatrically eroded at the national level, Denver has the opportunity to treat regulation, participatory democracy, and the legal system with integrity—or to choose not to. If the city government can summon the courage to listen to residents, it would make a strong statement about who cities understand their constituents to be, and how they serve them.
Margot Lystra, the doctoral candidate at Cornell University, sums it up best when she says, “I think of these freeways as something that happened and we should have learned from, in terms of the rights of different races and classes of urban dwellers to have some sense of safety and security in where they live. It’s striking that this conversation is even happening.”