Spotlight on Sustainability: Denver's Sun Valley plans for brighter tomorrow

Sun Valley
Sun Valley neighborhood listening sessions. Photo via the Decatur-Federal Station Area Plan.

Denver, CO’s Sun Valley has a new chance to overcome many hurdles towards economic vibrancy thanks to a new light rail line and a Community Challenge grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Sun Valley near downtown Denver is a remarkably diverse neighborhood home to a large immigrant and refugee population. The area is also one of Denver’s poorest, with an average annual income of $8,000 per household. More than 9 out of 10 of the area’s residents live in public housing. In addition to these demographic challenges Sun Valley is alo isolated geographically, cut off from Denver’s urban core by the South Platte River to the east, Sports Authority Field at Mile High to the north, and major roads to the west and south.

A new initiative will help Sun Valley overcome these chalenges and become a better place to live for current residents and future ones. At the heart of this work is the Decatur-Federal Station Area Plan, a transit-oriented development strategy for the larger Sun Valley region. Created by the Denver Department of Community Planning and Development and the Denver Housing Authority, the plan centers around a newly-completed RTD FasTracks light rail line. The line extends west from the heart of downtown Denver to Golden, CO, and connects Sun Valley to Denver’s economic opportunities and employment centers.

“We had to shift our thinking as a city and start looking at how we balance the needs for pedestrians and cars,” said Councilwoman Judy Montero. “Denver is built on a lifestyle around cars. Now we have a chance to build a community centered around transit, where people can walk, can connect to the nearby college, and get back to the cultural and historic values of Sun Valley.”

Working together to restore a community
A HUD Community Challenge grant will help make this project go even further. In addition to helping create the Station Area Plan, the grant gave Denver resources to design an inclusive planning process.

“The grant opened the door for us to have quality conversations with the people who live there today,” said Councilwoman Montero. “It let us talk about developing this area as a sustainable neighborhood, allowed for the conversation to discuss job creation, allowed for the conversation to discuss the need for a healthy lifestyle.”

“Five languages were spoken at the local outreach meetings,” said Ismael Guerrero, Executive Director of the Denver Housing Authority. “The grant allowed us to engage with the community on a personal basis.”

“There was the perception that this was a forgotten neighborhood,” said Steven Chester of the Department of Community Planning and Development. “Where before, the City had said that there was not the ability to do transit-oriented development, HUD’s grant enabled us to have the time and money to do what we wanted to do.”

The project’s coalition involved all of Sun Valley’s stakeholders. Along with Sun Valley’s families, Excel Energy and the Denver Broncos were brought into planning discussions. “We had to take on major property holders and find the common elements they are all looking for,” said Guerrero. The open dialogue helped project organizers do just that.

Now affordable housing, access to education and fresh food and investment in local business are all part of the reinvestment approach. Project partners hope that the new light rail line will catalyze the community’s revitalization by connecting residents to jobs and improving local economic conditions, enabling residents to remain in the neighborhood.

Next steps for a brighter Sun Valley
The Decatur-Federal Station Area Plan was adopted on April 22, 2013 and just four days later the new light rail line began operating. The project’s partners now must identify funding sources to ensure their plans are fully implemented and as the project enters its next phase, support from the Denver community will be essential to Sun Valley’s success.

The Decatur-Federal Station Area Plan was made possible by a HUD Community Challenge grant, a part of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. The Partnership is a collaboration between HUD, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  The Partnership helps communities across the country grow in economically vibrant ways. If you want to see more projects like this happen, speak out to support the Partnership today.