“You know, LeRoy, money always wins.”
At those words, LeRoy Lemos sprang into action. Lemos, a community activist and director of the PODER Project in Denver, Colorado, was organizing against a proposed expansion by the Auraria campus of University of Colorado-Denver (UCD) into the La Alma/Lincoln Park community, also known as the Westside.
The wounds between the Westside and UCD run deep. “We lost over 600 families and one-third of our land base to create the campus,” explains Lemos. “The business corridor in the last five years has barely recovered from the social, political, economic effects of the wholesale displacement and distraction of our community.”
But in April 1999, attempting to break promises it made almost 30 years ago not to further encroach upon the community, UCD announced a new housing development for its international students. This time, La Alma residents said “No!”
“The community – which is predominantly Latino, but also consists of African-Americans, Asians, and whites – has a right to control its own destiny,” says Lemos. “And we feel the Westside has given enough to the Auraria campus.”
Lemos recalls the situation as “David vs. Goliath.” PODER, along with NEWSED Community Development Corporation (PODER’s administrator), the PODER Advisory Council (PAC), and other neighborhood groups, went up against some powerful opponents, including the UCD’s Board of Regents, The McBroom Company (the developer), the Regional Transportation District (who owned the land), the chancellor and the administration of UCD (which hired the lobbyist who made the opening quote), and the nationwide lawyer and lobbyist firm Patton Boggs. The two people Patton Boggs hired locally were Denver Mayor Wellington Webb’s past campaign manager and Stephanie Webb O’Malley, the Mayor’s daughter.
“When they lined up the developer’s lobbyist, who also had a consultant contract with UCD, and Patton Boggs, it put us on notice as to how far they were willing to go,” says Lemos. “It forced us to evaluate our strategy, our position. The words used by McBroom early on were phrases like the ‘lines being drawn in the sand’ and ‘the swords being drawn.’ It was a battle.”
Do the Right Thing
PODER began the campaign by forcing people to decide what side they were on. They printed 1000 yard signs and placed them around the Auraria campus and on major thoroughfares. The following Monday morning, PODER, the college and the Mayor’s office were deluged with calls. The energy level for the campaign skyrocketed.
Next they organized residents through phone trees and door-knocking in the North Lincoln and South Lincoln housing developments – adjacent the proposed site. While petitions were circulating in both buildings, students on the UCD campus also began circulating petitions in support of the community’s efforts. A coalition of PODER, PAC, college and high school students, local business owners, and NEWSED staff got 3,500 signatures on petitions in three months.
“UCD and the developers tried to say that some of the signatures were invalid, as many signatures were kids – but we argued that the kids were residents as well,” said Lemos.
After a September protest at the site which included dozens of community residents, PODER fired off letters to the Regional Transportation District, UCD’s Board of Regents, the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, Mayor Webb, and the Auraria Higher Education Board of Directors calling on them not to support the university’s plans. UCD’s Office of Associated Students passed a resolution in October backing the community.
The developer and the lobbyist, sensing continually increasing community support, tried another tactic. “The UCD developer had the lobbyist take me to lunch,” recalls Lemos. “After insulting me by telling me that I was wasting my time working in the nonprofit world, they tried to entice me with the promise of a corporate position if I would back away from the campaign. At that point, I got up and walked away.”
With strong community opposition and unfavorable press for the project, eventually UCD and the developer abandoned their efforts. After considering two alternative sites, they let the contract elapse at the end of June.
“I think one of the lessons was that money doesn’t always win,” says Lemos. “It was a community decision that we didn’t want the student housing, and it was community activism that stopped it.”