Strengthening Neighborhoods Program and Urban Land Conservancy Play Key Roles in the Redevelopment of Holly Square
On a Saturday afternoon in late April of this year, the sun broke through hovering clouds just as community members began arriving for the Holly Area Redevelopment Fair at the Hiawatha Davis Recreation Center located just across from the site of the former Holly shopping center. Over 500 members of the Park Hill community came not only to celebrate hope for the rebirth of the site, which had been burned down two years prior by arsonists, but to review potential designs and to share their opinions for its future.
"This has been a deliberate, concerted effort for the past year to have the community at the table at the front end and not once the plan has already been completed," says Aaron Miripol, President of the Urban Land Conservancy (ULC), the organization that purchased the land for redevelopment. A supporting organization of The Denver Foundation, ULC is a nonprofit organization that uses real estate as a tool to benefit urban communities by purchasing community assets and preserving them for community benefit. The City of Denver’s Office of Economic Development helped ULC with the purchase.
The four design concepts shared at the Holly Fair represented an important step in keeping a promise made by ULC to engage the community in the redevelopment of the site. The process began with a town hall meeting attended by 100 people last August. Two subsequent community design meetings brought together another hundred residents and community leaders. Those community leaders established the Holly Area Redevelopment Project (HARP) Steering Committee to oversee the visioning process and plan the April Fair. The Denver Foundation’s Strengthening Neighborhoods Program has worked with the Steering Committee to facilitate and fund the community engagement process and to fund the Holly Fair.
Fair participants were asked to rate the designs on several criteria, such as which represented the best of Northeast Park Hill, and which would be the best fit for the neighborhood. The design concept that received the highest marks includes a campus-like redesign of the former Holly Square, with multiple interconnected spaces for community meetings, educational uses, and small-scale retail, as well as expansion of public spaces, including a new plaza on the site, expansion of the Rec Center, and redevelopment of Skyland Park. The plan that was a close second features a simpler redesign, focusing more on adding public spaces on the Holly site itself, including a large public plaza, a playground, and a community garden.
While many speculations have been made about future tenants for the site, including a charter school or a facility that would house nonprofits, Urban Land Conservancy says that the final decisions are not yet determined. A much-desired and discussed option by residents is a grocery story because Park Hill is a considered a “food desert.” But, Miripol says, because there isn't a main thoroughfare, the site won’t attract a big chain grocery store. A smaller grocery store or farmers’ market is still a possibility, however.
Several private and government development and planning experts also met to discuss the realities of the possible designs. While the experts did not rule out any of the possibilities, they acknowledged that the complexity of a chosen design would directly affect the amount of development dollars and time necessary to complete the project.
Additionally, the Holly Redevelopment is being observed as a possible community reinvestment model throughout the nation. Approximately 40 African American Foundation Executives from across the country, who were in Denver for the national Council of Foundations Conference, toured the site during the Holly Fair and heard details about the project from a panel of stakeholders.
Although excitement around the future of the center is building among residents, some still express frustration over the pace of the process. "Whatever happens, I want to see it happen quickly because I'm tired of seeing it the way it is," said Shanta Harrison, a lifelong Park Hill resident.
Signs of Hope
While the entire process will indeed be a long-term effort, progress is already visible. On July 6, in preparation for the painting of a mural on the site along with the erecting of new basketball courts on the Holly site, dozens of volunteers from the nonprofit, PeaceJam, gathered to clean the site. A prayer and dedication ceremony also took place featuring Nobel Peace laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Brother Jeff Fard, Rev. Leon Emerson and other community residents and leaders.
“This needs to be a diverse place of solidarity among people,” Menchu said through a translator. “All of you who are going to help build this place, and all of your children growing up here, must learn to show that solidarity among all people.”
“That a mural will be painted on the very place that was the scene of a crime is a great symbol of hope for this community,” says Terrance Roberts, Executive Director of Prodigal Son and a lifelong resident of Park Hill. “The basketball courts will also be a great development; there are literally dozens of kids out here on any given day.”
A Vision Plan has been compiled as a result of the work of the Steering Committee and the input from the neighbors. The ULC will use the results to determine what ultimately happens on the site.