Left to right: Beverly Haddon, ULC board member; Elbra Wedgeworth, Denver Health; Councilwoman Carla Madison; and Terrance Roberts, Prodigal Son Initiative
It was a perfect spring day in Denver – warm and sunny. Three preschoolers gathered to plant flowers in a demonstration garden at the future site of Feed Denver, an urban farm and market, while dozens of neighbors, community leaders and government officials assembled to discuss a bright new vision for the corner of 33rd and Holly in Northeast Park Hill.
May 20, 2008 offered a vastly contrasting scene at that very same corner. On that day, the smell of smoke permeated throughout the Park Hill community and the residue of what was the Holly Square Shopping Center, just two days prior, lay mangled in a pile of ashes – gang activity suspected for the center’s demise and for the overall malaise overtaking the entire neighborhood. Hope seemed lost for many residents later that year when the suspicions were confirmed. Nine area gang members were indicted for burning down the shopping center, known to its’ Park Hill neighbors as “the Holly.”
Those gathered at the Holly last month had come to hope again. Urban Land Conservancy (ULC), a nonprofit supporting organization to The Denver Foundation which uses real estate as a tool to benefit urban communities, purchased the Holly on April 8. ULC President Aaron Miripol had called the community together along with Mayor John Hickenlooper; Councilwoman Carla Madison; Michele Wheeler, President of the Northeast Park Hill Coalition; and Terrance Roberts, Executive Director of Prodigal Son Initiative. Together, these community leaders announced the purchase and thanked the 450 residents, led by Marge Gilbert, who signed a petition blocking the development of a liquor store originally planned across from the site.
In his address to the crowd, Mayor Hickenlooper likened the Holly to a phoenix rising from the ashes and encouraged the community to come together after what had been a very difficult event and “Think Big” about future developments for the site. He stated that the City’s Office for Economic Development (OED) offered $200,000 in funding for the project – a $100,000 grant from Community Development Block Grant that is restricted for use in blighted areas, as well as, a $100,000 loan from OED’s Business Improvement Fund. ULC is funding $550,000 of the project’s cost. “With the confidence in a vision set forth by the community, the character of the site will be transformed bringing new uses which build on existing community assets such as the Public Library, the Hope Center and the Hiawatha Davis Recreation Center,” the Mayor stated. He also expressed hope for the addition of an educational structure.
Councilwoman Carla Madison recalled the day, one year prior, when she received a phone call informing her that the Holly was ablaze. “I felt a great deal of distress that day,” the Councilwoman stated. “But in retrospect, it may have been the best thing that could have happened to this community.”
For many residents, the Holly provided a backdrop for fond memories during their younger years. Terrance Roberts of Prodigal Son likened losing the Holly to losing a good friend. He encouraged stakeholders to restore it and the Park Hill Community to its former state of elegance – one that birthed stars such as Chauncey Billups, Pam Grier and Phillip Bailey.
Roberts acknowledged what had become a very dark undertaking at the shopping center. “I became a gang member here in Park Hill and was gunned down around the corner from the Holly. But I also became a community organizer here in Park Hill like so many others including Patrick Horvath, Sharon Alexander Holt, and Michelle Wheeler,” Roberts said.
The community will be encouraged to offer input into the plans for the new development. A stakeholder group is being assembled in partnership with the community and neighboring property owners and will be facilitated by The Denver Foundation’s Strengthening Neighborhoods Program. The first stakeholder meeting will take place in June. The process should take six to nine months to complete.
Editor’s note: For more information about the process, contact Patrick Horvath, Manager of Strengthening Neighborhoods, at 303-300-1790.