Park opens atop I-70 in Denver as final milestone of big project

Standing just south of Swansea Elementary School in Denver, the din of freeway traffic is muted and distant, a far cry from the roar it used to be. The once-imposing highway is out of sight — replaced by the view of a park plaza, newly planted trees, astroturf soccer fields and a sparkling playground.

At least along this roughly 1,000-foot stretch of the remade and widened Interstate 70, children who play in one of Denver’s most polluted neighborhoods will have fewer visceral reminders of the highway that has bisected Elyria-Swansea for nearly six decades.

I-70’s raised viaduct long had towered over the neighborhood and school. Now the arterial’s traffic courses more quietly through a tunnel beneath the new 4-acre park, which officials opened Wednesday in a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

As construction wraps up on the $1.3 billion Central 70 project after more than four years, the event marked the final major milestone. It celebrated the biggest attempt along the 10-mile project zone, which extends east to Aurora, to mitigate the project’s impact on a wary community.

Colorado Department of Transportation project director Bob Hays puts the ballpark cost estimate for the highway cover structure and park at $125 million — or roughly 1 in 10 dollars spent.

Residents and community leaders in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea battled with CDOT over the project for more than a decade before its 2018 groundbreaking, filing several lawsuits. Not all opponents were satisfied with the final designs, which came with a host of other mitigations, including major upgrades for Swansea Elementary.

Now that the project is nearing its end — with express toll-lane testing and ancillary work remaining in coming months — the park’s opening evinces similarly conflicted feelings.

“The history of this is going to be, y’all added two toll lanes and took a bunch of homes … and I guess you got a park out of it,” said Alfonso Espino, 26, who stood to the side during Wednesday’s event.

The community organizer lives a block off the highway nearby and remembers attending heated community meetings about the project as a teenager. Ultimately, crews bulldozed 56 homes and 17 businesses to make room for the expanded highway between Brighton and Colorado boulevards.

Contractors, led by Kiewit Construction, tore down the viaduct and replaced it with a depressed highway that’s open-air except where it crosses beneath the cover park. East of Colorado, widening work that goes all the way to Chambers Road in Aurora required much less intrusive construction.

Some neighbors excited for park, but others resent overall project

Despite his misgivings, Espino says he might play soccer on the new fields. Some neighbors of the park were more eager to spend time there.

“I can’t wait for the first walk over there to be able to play on the playground,” Deborah Florez, 53, said of plans with her grandchildren. She lives less than a block away on Clayton Street and has faced health problems, making long walks difficult. “I’m excited about the park.”

CDOT and the contracting group, Kiewit-Meridiam Partners, are hosting a community event at the cover park, which is between Columbine and Clayton streets, from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday.

Denver Parks and Recreation will manage the cover park, which hasn’t yet been named. Swansea Elementary has an agreement to use the new fields for its gym classes during school hours.

“This cover is a major asset to both the school and the community,” Swansea Principal Vanessa Trussell said during Wednesday’s ceremony. “Our students, teachers and the entire community look forward to using this amazing soccer field and having our families enjoy the events lawn and other spaces this park will provide as it bridges the gap over I-70 and connects our communities.”

Other residents who opposed the I-70 project view the park’s opening as little consolation for the project’s years of disruption.

“From my point of view, this never should have happened,” said Drew Dutcher, the president of the Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Association.

He noted that since green-lighting the Central 70 project, CDOT has reevaluated its approach on major urban highway projects — a point that CDOT executive director Shoshana Lew echoed in her remarks Wednesday, if from a different perspective. She said CDOT learned from the project and now better considers air quality effects and other community impacts in its project planning, under recently adopted greenhouse gas rules.

One recent result of that was the tabling of a potential widening project for Interstate 25 through central Denver.

“But they did that after they widened a highway through a minority, working-class neighborhood,” Dutcher said, referring to Elyria-Swansea’s high concentration of Latino residents. “It’s about seven or eight years too late to come to Jesus on this. It still is a harm. You’re going to increase traffic (and) increase pollution — this is going to be the result. … So I really can’t celebrate.”

Others lament the impact of redevelopment elsewhere in the neighborhood, including the National Western Center project. More changes are afoot: Elyria-Swansea now has an N-Line commuter rail stop at 48th Avenue, providing a direct link to Union Station, and housing speculators have descended on the neighborhood, pushing rents higher and property values up.

“I think the only thing I’m excited for is to have some of the construction slow down,” said Yadira Sanchez, 45, who lives on Adams Street, about two blocks north of I-70.

She suggested crews were hurriedly planting trees this week in frigid weather to rush the finishing of the park ahead of the ribbon-cutting ceremony. (Hays says those trees are expected to survive the winter but will be replaced if they don’t.)

Sanchez’s family owns two businesses just south of the park, a restaurant called Casa de Sanchez and a butcher named Carniceria Sanchez. Both have struggled to make it through the construction project, she said, and she worries about other forces ahead.

“The gentrification is going to continue to be here,” Sanchez said. “It’s a scary feeling. I don’t know how to be happy over a so-called bridge,” she added, referring to the cover park.

Officials celebrate park while acknowledging highway impact

On Wednesday, Gov. Jared Polis cited the cover as an “innovative mitigation,” and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and other speakers celebrated it as a triumph that helps reconnect the community. Several elected leaders, including U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, similarly applauded the park and cover structure during a visit to the construction site in late June with Mitch Landrieu, an infrastructure adviser to President Joe Biden.

“It’s really one thing to have seen this drawn on paper years ago,” Polis said. “It’s another to be standing here, with a field on one side, in an amphitheater, a state-of-the-art playground on the other side — really seeing the power of community and the power of connectivity.”

But amid the celebration, some speakers gave a firm nod to the highway’s divisive effect on the neighborhood for decades.

“We can’t turn back time and change the fact that a highway was built through the middle of this neighborhood, an emblem of how infrastructure was built in the 1950s and 1960s,” said Stephanie Pollack, the Federal Highway Administration’s acting administrator. “But we can be very clear as we move forward: The purpose of transportation must always be to connect, not to separate.”

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