Antiquated to Elevated: Is a Flashy New Bridge Really What Elyria-Swansea Needs?

This is part two of the Streetsblog Denver series covering the Elevate Denver General Obligation bond. Every Tuesday, we’ll be looking at and dissecting different biking, walking, and transit upgrades across the city. We’ll explore the planning aspects behind key projects in addition to considering how these changes will affect the lives of people in the communities where they are located. Read part one here

In 1875, Matthew Webb swam across the English Channel without any artificial aids for the first time in history, showcasing the incredible power and resilience of the human spirit. This triumphant feat not only brought Webb great notoriety, it also helped people on both sides of the channel reevaluate how closely they were connected to one another, resulting in many subsequent successful swims. It’s shocking, then, that it took until this year for two sides of Denver’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, separated by only a strait of train tracks, to be connected. The City of Denver recently installed a bridge over the Union Pacific tracks near 47th Avenue between York and Claude St., funded through the Elevate Denver GO bond. The bridge was designed specifically for people walking and biking, in hopes of eliminating the daunting gap splitting the neighborhood.

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“Bridging the Community / Uniendo a la Comunidad” and was created by Anthony J. Garcia Sr., through Birdseed Collective and is a public art project through the Denver Arts and Venue – Denver Commission on Cultural Affairs.

Like twisting vines, two bike ramps wrap their way around steep staircases to the covered bridge, which spans hundreds of feet over the railway. While this bridge offers stunning views of Downtown Denver and the Rocky Mountains, it also gives us an idea of what might be in store for Elyria-Swansea under the Elevate Denver GO Bond. 

Before completion of the bridge, Elyria-Swansea residents only had access to a single at-grade rail crossing, located along York Street. “Crossing” is somewhat of a misnomer, as the sidewalks on York simply ended where they met the tracks. Just a few blocks north of I-70, this portion of York Street is a busy one-way with commercial vehicles barreling down at all hours of the day, particularly now with the massive Central I-70 expansion project. Other than at that dangerous intersection, the only places to traverse the railroad are more than a dozen blocks away, with the next nearest crossing for people located on the other side of the interstate. 

The difficulty of crossing at York has been a discussion among residents for generations, and the city recently joined that conversation. In the 2015 Elyria-Swansea Neighborhood Plan, a safe crossing at this site was identified as a top priority for the neighborhood. Two years later, it was funded through the Elevate Denver Bond package and has become one of the first relatively large-scale transportation and mobility projects from the bond to be completed. 

This crossing also proves vital for some of our most vulnerable road users: schoolchildren. According to the City of Denver, with the construction of this bridge, around 100 kids will now have safe passage to Swansea Elementary School, on the east side of the railroad. Previously, getting to school would have required a trip in a vehicle or braving busy, one-way York and the train tracks. 

While this project provides a safe connection over the railroad, there is still plenty of work to be done in its immediate vicinity. There are dozens of safety upgrades that need to be addressed in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood. Many streets, including York, lack sidewalks entirely, and many that are in place are narrow and crumbling. While there are other portions of the GO Bond that aim to fix these holes in human infrastructure, many of those projects are still in the planning phases. 

While District 9 Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca acknowledges that this new bridge is “generally a decent addition to the neighborhood,” she questions the intent behind the project. “It felt like scraps being thrown at the community,” CdeBaca said in an interview. While the bridge does help connect two parts of a partitioned neighborhood, it does stand relatively alone, surrounded by dangerous streets, freeways and busy train tracks. 

“There were a lot of other demands and a lot of other transportation challenges in the neighborhood,” expressed CdeBaca. 

It is easy to see why a showy new pedestrian bridge in a traditionally underserved neighborhood would make a great headline for the city: addressing equity concerns, investing in safe infrastructure, improving walking and biking for residents. But how much can this bridge accomplish if a majority of the neighborhood still lacks basic infrastructure like sidewalks, safe areas to bike, and quality transit stops? It begs the question of when this neighborhood is going to see other key safety upgrades along with their $9 million+ bridge. There is funding through the Elevate Denver bond for other projects, but these other important changes have yet to materialize. Nearly a third of the way into the bond’s lifetime, residents hope to see these improvements implemented before it is too late. 

Since this bridge has only been open for a few months, it is difficult to say how profoundly it will reunify this community and bring together the people that live there. Just like Mr. Webb swimming across the English Channel, this bridge might be the first human link across a treacherous divide, and should at least pave the way for more – and more significant – crossings. However, at the end of the day, this project only begins to scratch the surface of what needs to be done to “elevate” Elyria-Swansea to justice in terms of mobility. If a bridge alone is meant to transform connectivity in this part of the city, Denver has only superficially attempted to bring about equity to this neighborhood, failing to fully address the needs of its residents. 

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