The first large-scale open meeting hosted by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless about its possible ownership of 59 undeveloped acres near the Federal Center in Lakewood on Feb. 8 at Alameda High …
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The first large-scale open meeting hosted by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless about its possible ownership of 59 undeveloped acres near the Federal Center in Lakewood on Feb. 8 at Alameda High School didn't offer much in the way of new information for concerned residents.
What it did offer, and what many of the more than 100 people in attendance took advantage of, was an opportunity to vent their frustration and anger about the proposed project to the coalition, the federal government and city council.
“You're going to bring in mentally ill people, drug addicts and who knows what else, all of whom have been chased out of Denver,” said resident Jerry Wilson. “When is enough enough?”
The coalition held the meeting as part of the application process to take ownership of the property.
“With housing prices going through the roof in the Denver area, we're seeing more and more people becoming homeless, especially families. For many, this is their first time experiencing it," John Parvensky, the coalition's president and CEO, said at the beginning of the meeting. “According to Jeffco schools, there are as many 2,700 homeless students in the school district, and we want to help all these people find a stable place to stay.”
Most of the speakers who opposed the proposal — many vehemently so — were less concerned about families than about homeless from other counties and cities gathering in one place in the middle of Lakewood. One speaker called it building a ghetto in the city.
Despite Parvensky's assurances that a priority would be given to homeless who already stay in Jeffco, residents said they were frustrated there would be no way to guarantee a person lives in the county.
Other concerns included fear of increased crime — especially car break-ins and retail theft at businesses in the area, which would take the time and resources of an already busy Lakewood Police Department — traffic woes and the addition of more children to neighborhood schools.
In response to several of these comments, Parvensky said most of the people and students are already in the area, and providing this needed housing, as well as mental health and vocational services, would help them get off the street and onto a better life.
But although most speakers commended the coalition for its goals and work, they came back to a universal concern — the proposed project's size.
The final plans are still in the works, but the coalition is looking at two phases: The first would be temporary housing options for about 250 homeless people on the site, and could include trailers, geodesic domes and large tents, as well as solar panels to help power the campus.
Down the road, the organization would like to build 500 to 600 permanent affordable housing units in apartment buildings on the site, capable of housing 1,000 people. The coalition is considering turning about 12 acres in the northern section of the property into a solar panel farm.
“The scale of this project is kind of terrifying,” said Shannon O'Hara, owner of the nearby Goddard School of Lakewood.
Perhaps the most cited concern of the evening was the environmental safety of the land. For many years, the northern acres of the site (where the coalition proposes to set up the solar farm) were used as a landfill for a variety of materials, including asbestos. While the materials have been buried, and the General Services Administration, which owns the property, said there are no restrictions to building on it, many residents worried about exposing the homeless to potentially dangerously toxic land.
“We cannot do our own land tests until we have a lease with the federal government, but we will do them if we get the lease,” Parvensky said. “We will not take ownership of the land if it is dangerous for people to live on.”
As an alternative to a use that is solely for the homeless, several speakers spoke in favor of a mixed-use housing project, which would blend different housing options. The 59 acres are zoned Mixed-Use Core Transit (M-C-T), which allows for high-density residential and retail.
Anger was directed at Mayor Adam Paul, who was on hand with several other city council members, for not advocating for this kind of project. Since it is now a federal matter, Lakewood has no say over the site or the decisions made there, despite many residents' wishes.
“I'm here like most of you are to learn tonight,” Paul said. “I have said many times before that I support the work done by the coalition, but I have many concerns about this project and do not support this use.”
The coalition's original injunction was filed under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which requires federal agencies to identify and make available surplus federal property, such as buildings and land, for use by states, local governments and nonprofit agencies to assist homeless people.
The coalition may not have received the same levels of loud applause as those who spoke against the project, but about five people did step up to advocate for the coalition's plan and work.
“I believe in my heart that everybody is worthy of dignity, and know the coalition would not build a housing facility that would hurt homeless people,” said resident Annie Carter. “These people are here already, so let's take care of our neighbors.”
Rick Roberts, with the Legacy Grace Community Development Association, a nonprofit that works to provide affordable housing options to those in need, even chided the audience for its reaction to the project.
“This is an indictment of all of us and our community, because it seems like we really don't care,” he said. “There is no simple or easy solution, and there's a lot of factors to consider. But if you don't like this plan, come up with something better.”
The coalition aims to hold more meetings as the project progresses, and with concerns about zoning ahead, even if it is approved, residents are gearing up for a long debate.
“I feel like I was hit in the face by a baseball bat, because we have no say in what you are able to do,” said resident Laura Magee. “If you think the community is going to lay down and allow this, you are mistaken.”
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