The Johnson & Wales’ Campus Challenge: Be Creative!
By Cyndi Kahn
For the GPHN
The coronavirus pandemic and recent Black Lives Matter protests have laid bare systemic racism in Denver that make Barbara Berryman’s suggestions in the July issue about the reuse of Johnson & Wales campus especially compelling. Greater Park Hill Community board Chair Tracey MacDermott and board member Colette Carey articulated similar ideas last month.
Given the uncertain future facing higher education in Colorado, however, their best ideas may be to use the campus for affordable family housing and related services. Check out Loretto Heights College in southwest Denver. That campus has seen a succession of universities. Now, Pancratia Hall, built in 1929 as a convent for the Sisters of Loretto and later converted into a girls’ dormitory, will open in 2022 with 72 units of low-income family housing.
Greater Park Hill has an amazing history, not just about integration and quality schools. How many people know that the first black-owned shopping center in the country was the Dahlia Shopping Center? Now it is the Dahlia Wellness Center, supporting senior housing, teen mental health services, a child-care center only for 80207 residents, a gym, outdoor gardens, a remarkable hydroponic greenhouse and a teaching kitchen. All thanks to the Urban Land Conservancy and Dr. Lydia Prado, when she was head of family and children services Denver Mental Health Center. Dr. Prado is involved in the Loretto Heights project.
Park Hill is among the oldest intentionally integrated neighborhood in the US. Can you imagine how proud Fred and Myrtle Thomas, who first raised the alarm of segregated schools would be, if we grab the Johnson & Wales challenge? Or Denver Post education editor Art Branscombe, and his activist wife Bea. They recruited my husband and me to buy our first and only home in Park Hill in 1965, while blockbusting tactics were used to scare white families into selling cheaply.
Now Park Hill is facing serious gentrification. DPS, including some Park Hill schools, is more segregated than in 1973 when the Supreme Court ruled in Keyes v. School District 1, the first northern school desegregation case. Some families feel that single-family homes are under attack by upcoming proposals from Denver City Council.
As one of the founders of Scholars Unlimited, started 25 years ago under the aegis of Hallett principal Dr. Paul Hamilton, may I offer a few suggestions:
1. Convene a meeting of interested groups. For starters, I’d include Greater Park Hill Community, Inc., Park Hill Neighbors For Equity In Education, Together Colorado, Scholars Unlimited, African-American Health Center, religious organizations, and of course neighbors, to dream up creative solutions. Don’t wait for the City to act. Do better.
2. Convert the campus into a community land trust. Like Turtle Park at 23rd & Dexter, affordable housing at Johnson & Wales needs to be forever. Not just for 30 years, only to revert to market rate.
3. Focus on diversity. Think inclusively. Both the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and the Denver Housing Authority subscribe to the three-part rule: 1/3 for very low income; 1/3 for workforce housing; 1/3 for market rate. That helps create community.
4. Involve Denver Public Schools. DPS should have skin in the game. Stable housing is an educational issue. Teachers can’t teach and kids don’t learn, if families are transient. Toxic stress is real and poverty contributes to the achievement gap. DPS could provide bond money for staff housing, like the Roaring Fork School District, with less than 6,000 students, did five or six years ago. They built over 60 units of staff housing, which are all full now. Imagine what DPS with 92,000 students could do.
5. Give priority to homeless families who attend Park Hill schools. What would each school do to support homeless families? Families should be able to keep that housing until their last child graduates from DPS. Then it transfers to another family.
6. Find a developer/architect to help create the campus you want. When we started the Children’s Museum almost 50 years ago, 20 architects applied for the paltry sum of $2,000. We picked the most kid-friendly firm. There are developers out there who care about family-friendly housing. Their expertise from the beginning will be invaluable.
7. Don’t stop with Johnson & Wales. Find other suitable locations for additional affordable homes, whether on school, city or private property. Gary Community Investments, now headed by former school principal and state Sen. Mike Johnston, might be interested.
Berryman, MacDermott and Carey are right – Johnson & Wales is a fabulous opportunity. As Ibram Kendi argues in How to be an Anti-Racist – think big. Don’t just reform pieces of systemic racism, eliminate it! Park Hill can become again an innovated model for other communities in America. Think creatively and have fun!
Cyndi Kahn and her husband Ed raised a family in Park Hill, where she was active in many philanthropic projects. She was a founder of the Denver’s Children’s Museum, a founder of Summer Scholars at Hallett School, and was the 1993 recipient of GPHC’s Babbs Award. She and Ed now live downtown. Berryman’s July opinion piece can be read at greaterparkhill.org.