Downtown, Not Just for Yuppies

Tim Lopez walks along the 800 block of south Lincoln Street in the Baker neighborhood of Denver on a clear May afternoon. Trucks roar along a nearby highway, and the street is littered with broken flagstone, cigarette butts, and a flattened Miller High Life can. The block ends at Interstate 25, two blocks from an abandoned plant, Gates Rubber Factory, and when the wind dies down, the air smells faintly of sewage. The most disturbing thing about the neighborhood, 44-year-old Lopez explains, is not the noise, smell, or litter. It is hidden in the grass.

"It's a monitoring well," says Lopez, pointing to a metal plate sunk in the soil near the street. "They drill for groundwater and test for TCE," a suspected carcinogen called trichoroethylene.

In October 2002, fumes from TCE, an industrial solvent, were discovered in the area, and this block, says Lopez, turned out to be "one of the most contaminated areas." Lopez says executives with Cherokee Denver LLC, a real-estate development company that owns the factory and the surrounding 50 or so acres, as well as city officials, were initially sanguine. "The company was saying, ‘There's not a problem,' and the city was saying, ‘There's not a problem,'" he recalls. "We were saying, ‘There's a problem.'"

Cherokee Denver's president, Ferdinand Belz, claims there never was any threat to human health. Nevertheless, executives have overseen a cleanup of the area that is monitored by the public, partly because of pressure from community activists like Lopez. In addition, executives plan to knock down most of the factory and clear a space for stores, restaurants, supermarkets, and 2,500 apartments and houses, including 350 affordable housing units. The project will provide roughly 8,000 construction jobs and jobs in the retail sector once the work is done. In May, Robert Redford announced that a six-screen Sundance Cinemas movie theater featuring commercial-free films would open on the site in 2010.

In a reversal of fortune, this Denver brownfield has been targeted for a development project that will transform it into a neo-workers'-paradise. There is nothing new about a corporate takeover of an abandoned site, and Cherokee Investment Partners executives have much to gain from acquiring property located near a commuter rail in downtown Denver. But what is new is how much time corporate executives are spending considering the wishes of activists with organizations such as Save Our Section 8, Denver Inner City Parish, and 9to5, an organization that represents women in low-wage jobs.

Leaders of these groups, along with 53 other organizations, were members of a coalition that worked for four years to push Cherokee Denver to create a worker-friendly community. Their efforts culminated on February 6, 2006, when Cherokee Denver executives and city officials signed a development agreement ensuring that affordable housing and decent-paying jobs for people in the neighborhood would be included. This kind of "community-benefits achievement," as it is known, may sound quixotic. But it seems to be working here in Denver and in other parts of the country. The success of the Gates Rubber Factory project, say observers, is especially important because it has implications for activists in other conservative states.

"Denver is in a red state where [the] laissez-faire ideal has permeated all politics," says Madeline Janis, the executive director of the Los Angeles Alliance for New Economy (LAANE), which has led the community-benefits movement in California and elsewhere. "To have this kind of strategy working successfully here shows it can be done everywhere."

It is a late morning in May. Lopez is sitting at a table in a Winchell's Donut House on South Broadway, not far from where he had shown me the monitoring well, eating a bear claw. Across the street, a black MIA flag hangs over a VFW building, and an advertisement on a building next door says, "Joe Onofrio Pianos/No interest till Feb 2008." The nearby Samsonite Corporation factory, where Lopez's father worked for 44 years, has been shut down. Gates Rubber Factory, which once employed 5,000 workers, closed in 1995.

Apart from chains like Winchell's, the downtown seems to have few job opportunities. Approximately 40 percent of the jobs are in hotels, shops, and restaurants, and these jobs offer an average starting wage of less than $8 an hour. Lopez and his colleagues have been trying to fix that, and because the city of Denver has given financial support, in the form of tax breaks, to the project, Cherokee Denver is more likely to listen. In this way, activists are able to link growth to social justice in a legally enforceable contract.

The first community-benefits agreement was signed in 1998 in Los Angeles. A leading commercial developer, Trizec-Hahn, proposed a development on Hollywood Boulevard that would create a hotel, retail outlets, and other venues with the stipulation that employees in these places would be unionized. That agreement was the result of negotiations between LAANE members and developers. Since then, progressive activists have succeeded in pushing through community-benefits agreements over the development of Staples Center, a sports arena in Los Angeles, and the expansion of Los Angeles International Airport, along with projects in a dozen other cities, including San Diego, Milwaukee, and Atlanta.

In Denver, Lopez and others began addressing the contamination question after TCE fumes were found in October 2002. But things took off once they joined forces with a larger group of activists addressing other community issues around the development. These groups included the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Colorado Environmental Coalition -- all brought together by members of a Denver-based organization called Front Range Economic Strategy Center (FRESC), a group loosely modeled after LAANE. They got together in semi-formal settings at churches, private homes, and other venues to talk about what kinds of things they wanted to happen at the Gates Rubber Factory site.

Their concerns varied widely. Lopez pushed for -- and got -- an agreement from Cherokee Denver executives to allow the public complete access to documents relating to the testing of contaminants and the site cleanup; the documents are now kept at a local library, the Decker Branch, in Denver. A member of Save Our Section 8, Jim Kittel, felt strongly about the housing needs of the disabled in the development. Linda Meric of 9to5 pushed for an increase in sick days for workers employed in the new community. To be sure, these goals were not always universally agreed upon within the coalition. There was the inevitable bickering and turf warfare, and when a list of demands eventually emerged, some proposals, such as a sliding-scale day care center, were left by the wayside.

With list in hand, representatives from the coalition met with government officials and Cherokee Gates executives to hash out a formal agreement. During this time, corporate executives were working hard to win approval of government subsidies, which obliged them to listen to local taxpayers. Activists used this to their advantage, making it clear that the relationship could be mutually beneficial: Incorporate our demands and we'll help you win government subsidies. "We said, ‘If you're going to take our money, we need to have some buyback,'" Lopez explains.

The Gates Cherokee project was given roughly $85 million in subsidies from the city of Denver and $41 million from "special taxing districts," through tax-increment financing (this means, basically, that companies working to improve polluted or damaged areas receive financial support from a municipality because the improvements will presumably yield higher property taxes, which will benefit the city).

And in return, the Cherokee Gates developers made promises of their own: They agreed last year to provide jobs that pay competitive wages for local residents in both the construction and retail industries. An operating engineer with five years of training, for example, might earn between $18.52 and $21.92 an hour, according to FRESC's executive director Carmen Rhodes. Workers will also receive health insurance from their employer -- or a cash differential that allows them to pay for their own insurance. It is an important step for people who live near the former factory, especially since 36 percent of them earn less than $35,000 a year, according to 2000 U.S. Census data. Approximately 10,000 temporary and permanent jobs will be created over a ten-year period, according to Rhodes.

At a May gathering of FRESC leaders, along with other activists involved in the project, at Denver's Mercury Café, a dry-erase board in the back of the restaurant is covered with handmade signs including "ENVIRO CLEANUP" (in the shape of a leaf) and "HIGHER WAGES" (written on a dollar-shaped board). Rhodes, 30, who has chunky highlights in her dark hair and wears dangly earrings, looks at the signs -- representing the demands activists had made of the developers and of the city -- and then at a group of roughly 30 people, including activists and donors, sitting in the café.

"Isn't that awesome?" she says. "I just want to say that when we first introduced the list, they thought we were crazy. But we were able to jump off into a policy discussion."

The project has required pluck and determination -- which both Rhodes and Lopez seem to have in abundance. Rhodes, who graduated from University of Colorado-Boulder in 1999, had a 1997 summer internship in an AFL-CIO program and worked on SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaign. She learned the value of steady, sustained commitment to a project: It has taken more than two decades for janitors in downtown Denver, who once earned $3.00 an hour, she says, to a point where nearly all have unionized jobs. For his part, Lopez joined a union at age 16 and worked as a painter for the Denver public schools until 1987. That year, he broke his back in a work accident and lost his job. As a unionist and the son of a marine ("I learned to sing ‘The Halls of Montezuma' before I was two," he says), he is disciplined and plainly suited for the job of helping to organize a massive project like Cherokee Gates.

There have been plenty of obstacles. One of the biggest is that many of the new jobs Cherokee Gates is creating are in retail, an industry that offers mostly minimum-wage jobs with little prospects for advancement. Still, organizers are optimistic about the possibility for change. "Back in the '20s, people did not think that manufacturing could offer good jobs," says LAANE's Janis. "Retail jobs are the auto-manufacturing jobs of the 2000s. If we have a vision of retail, which means good jobs as well as unionized jobs, there are tools that can make it a reality."

Local organizers have helped draw up the final, written agreement that was signed, with a stipulation, for example, that stores larger than 75,000-square feet that earn more than 12.5 percent from groceries will not be allowed on the site. That means no Super Wal-Mart. In this way, organizers hope to help create a space for locally owned supermarkets -- places that have traditionally paid higher wages than chains like Wal-Mart. "It is going to take a long time in a place like Denver," Janis says, talking about their efforts to create higher-paying retail jobs. "But it's not going to take a lifetime."

Meanwhile, activists and developers have worked out agreements in other areas, including one in which "prevailing wages and benefits [will be paid] for every construction worker engaged in the publicly-funded construction," according to FRESC, and the "selection of a union construction manager and general contractor with a strong record of good wages, health care and retirement benefits." In other words, workers are more likely to receive the equivalent of union wages -- a big improvement over Colorado's $6.85-per-hour minimum wage.

A neighborhood-cleanup advisory board has also been formed to help oversee the monitoring of toxic solvents such as TCE. Levels of TCE had been found "in such high concentrations in the groundwater near the plant that it presented a potentially harmful vapor intrusion threat to the indoor air of homes" near the plant, according to FRESC. "The groundwater concentrations of TCE near the plant site were some of the highest found in the western United States."

This monitoring is an improvement over what had been done in the past, but some experts say it is not enough. Lenny Siegel, a Mountain View, California–based executive director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, has testified before the U.S. Senate on issues concerning the environment and community development. In a September 2006 report entitled "Gates Rubber Site," Siegel wrote that he did not believe the environmental standards of Colorado State are "stringent enough" and questioned the Cherokee Denver findings that residents are safe from contamination of TCE and other chemicals. Still, he said the strategy that had been put in place -- namely, cleaning up the ground water -- seemed more prudent than other approaches to the problem, such as trying to mitigate the potential damage in local houses.

The task of monitoring environmental damage and creating a large-scale community like the one planned for Cherokee Gates is monumental. Labor experts familiar with the project believe it offers an excellent chance to help create a community in which workers and their families will have good jobs and decent lives. The fact that public funds are being invested in the site gives activists and workers a chance to speak out for things that should be incorporated into this kind of urban-renewal project. It also forces political leaders and corporate executives to listen to their demands.

"It was very contaminated, old rubber factory, and [the activists] weighed in and said, 'This is a huge taxpayer investment. It will have profound implications, and we need to be really careful to do this project right,'" says Greg LeRoy, author of The Great American Jobs Scam: Corporate Tax Dodging and the Myth of Job Creation. "They succeeded in drastically reshaping the project. It's a really great story."

"Real change just takes so long," says Rhodes, late in the day, sipping a latte at a dessert bar (gluten-free optional) in the Mercury. "We describe this work as moving glaciers, and sometimes it's hard to see any change unless you say, ‘Look, the glacier has moved a centimeter.'"

This article, part of our series on "The Road to Good Jobs," was made possible through the generosity of the Ford Foundation.