The Federal-Colfax Interchange Is a Huge Barrier for West Siders

Sun Valley residents Mary Lovejoy, left, and Lisa Saenz, right. Photo: David Sachs
Sun Valley residents Mary Lovejoy, left, and Lisa Saenz, right. Photo: David Sachs

Mary Lovejoy just moved into the Sun Valley neighborhood after being homeless for more than a year. She revels in having a community — people she knows beyond “talking for one second at the mailbox,” as she puts it.

“It’s so nice because it’s a community and you actually get to meet people and you get to hear what’s going on,” says Lovejoy, 55, from a couch at the Sun Valley food pantry where she volunteers.

Lovejoy says she made Sun Valley home at just the right moment. The neighborhood is Denver’s poorest, but just received a $30 million infusion from the federal government to catalyze massive investments in housing — affordable and market rate — jobs and places for people to play and shop. The neighborhood is in the spotlight now, but for a long time, it was in the shadows. One of the reasons is the “cloverleaf” interchange at Colfax Avenue and Federal Boulevard.

The massive, above-grade concrete structure is singular to the city, relatable only to freeway interchanges for I-70 and I-25. The Colorado Department of Transportation built it to connect west and east Denver. It works, somewhat, for people driving cars through Sun Valley and West Colfax. But for neighbors, it’s a barrier.

The cloverleaf is out of place, Lovejoy says, in a neighborhood that has the potential to be a walkable, bikeable and rich with convenient transit. The bustling Decatur – Federal RTD light rail and bus transfer station is right there, which means a lot of people — including school kids — walking to catch a ride.

“Having the transportation is great, but with the cars kind of competing with buses to get over, it really does make it really unsafe for people walking,” Lovejoy says. “It’s like they forgot that people would have to cross the street there.”

A rough rendering of how an at-grade intersection might look. Image: Design Workshop
A rough rendering of how an at-grade intersection might look. Image: Design Workshop

“What’s its purpose?” says Lisa Saenz, president of the Sun Valley Local Resident Council. “It’s just a pain in the neck.” A distracted driver almost hit Saenz’s 13-year-old son while he rode his bike in the area. “That terrified me, and he was scared. . . . It’s not safe for the kids.”

Safety and connectivity are two reasons that neighbors, business owners, elected officials and transportation advocates hope CDOT is ready to get “over the Colfax clover.” Another is that the structure, used almost solely to move cars, is trapping 29 acres of unused land underneath. Each “leaf” could be used for homes, parks, or any other kind of neighborhood asset.

Lots of talk, little action

Chatter about redesigning and even demolishing the cloverleaf has not been idle for a long time. It’s been mentioned in at least six initiatives, including the city’s Federal Boulevard Corridor Study and the Decatur-Federal Station Area Plan. The above-grade intersection doesn’t seem justified even to carry cars. Far fewer vehicles pass through it on an average weekday — 18,715 —  than the at-grade intersection of Colfax Avenue and Colorado Boulevard — 27,018 — according to traffic counts from Denver Public Works.

Most agree the cloverleaf is a barrier out of the 1950s. What’s been lacking is money and will.

“I think it’s intimidating,” says Gosia Kung, founder and executive director of WalkDenver. “It’s been talked about for a long time but here’s never been enough political will to move it forward.”

No one really knows just how much it would cost to say, make the interchange an at-grade intersection and restore the original street grid. The West Colfax Business Improvement District and WalkDenver are trying to come up with that figure, but first they need a concept. The organizations are heading a planning and design process called Over the Colfax Clover. The goal? Collaborate with community members and key partners like CDOT, RTD and Denver Public Works to come up with a design and identify “creative funding solutions.” The group will even host an event in one of the clover leaves this summer to show its potential.

The “other” side of Colfax

City Councilman Paul Lopez says fighting to bring the west side of Denver into the citywide conversation has been “the story of my life.” The cloverleaf is no different. He called the structure  “an antiquity” that “belongs with the Tyrannosaurus Rex in a museum.”

“Colfax is the longest contiguous street in the United States, yet it ends here for us,” he says. “And that’s why you see such a difference between West Colfax and the rest of the city.”

Lopez imagines a walkable and bikeable west Denver with bus rapid transit, sans the cloverleaf as we know it today. He sees the Colfax viaduct resembling the Brooklyn Bridge as a gateway to downtown. He also knows that little can be done without CDOT’s buy-in. Incidentally, the department is moving its headquarters right next to the cloverleaf. “I would challenge them to walk and bike to work using Colfax,” Lopez says. “It’ll be an epiphany for a lot of people at CDOT headquarters.”

Lopez also knows it will cost big money. He committed to advocating for money as an elected official and after his term is up.

“I actually walked into the mayor’s office to talk to him about redesigning the viaduct and the cloverleaf,” Lopez says. “And right away he looked at me and said, ‘You know that’s going to be expensive, right?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely, but it’ll be worth it. This will forever change the west side for the good.'”

Cross-posted from Confluence