I-70 viaduct demolition means dusty summer for Denver residents

The jack hammer-like pounding reverberated throughout the neighborhood below — ricocheting down the alley and bouncing off houses a block away, almost making it unclear from which direction it originated.

Workers using excavators and other equipment tore apart concrete and steel rebar above Josephine Street on a recent hot afternoon — producing a grating cacophony that’s moved through northeast Denver’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhood for seven weeks. The demolition of the old Interstate 70 viaduct has been the most consistently noisy stage of the $1.3 billion Central 70 project, a necessary step to replace the now-defunct structure with a 1.8-mile section of new highway.

But what has bothered some neighbors most hasn’t been the racket so much as the fine-grained dust kicked up by the destruction.

“I want to say dust,” said Yadira Sanchez, 44, who lives two blocks north of I-70, “but ‘dust’ isn’t appropriate because ‘dust’ refers to dirt — and it isn’t dirt that’s flying around. It’s cement. It affects your health. My asthma and my kids’ asthma hasn’t been very well for the last weeks. It’s already compromised (during the project) as it is. If you add more, it just makes it 10 times as hard.”

Across the neighborhood, many have been eager to see the death of the longtime eyesore and barrier, which has divided the neighborhood for 57 years. But the visceral effects of the demolition — dust collecting on car windshields and making residents cough, the bangs clanging in their ears — have made this summer tough.

The good news: Crews are making quick progress.

Stacia Sellers, the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Central 70 project spokeswoman, said more than half of the viaduct is already down, and most segments adjacent to residential blocks should be done in the next several weeks.

“It’s moving a lot faster than we had originally scheduled,” Sellers said.

Still, a few tricky sections will take until September to finish, as originally planned, according to the latest schedule. They involve spans above railroad tracks and some of the new cross-street bridges built during the project.

The project is widening I-70 for nearly 10 miles between Interstate 25 and Chambers Road in Aurora, with plans to add a tolled express lane in each direction. The project’s east section is done and the central section is wrapping up soon, with final paving this month. But the west zone, where the viaduct is coming down, has more than a year of intensive construction to go.

Through Elyria-Swansea, CDOT’s contractors, led by Kiewit Construction, are building a mostly open-air roadway that’s depressed below ground level between Brighton and Colorado boulevards. The northern half is done and now carries both directions of traffic. The southern half — the eventual eastbound side — will be dug where the viaduct’s remnants stand, with major work finishing up in late 2022.

Mixed reviews for demo mitigations

During the demolition, the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment says it’s received no noise complaints. But nearly three years into the project’s disruption of the neighborhood, that appears to be more a reflection of noise fatigue than a sign of tranquility.

Sanchez and her family, who own the Panaderia Sanchez bakery and restaurant just south of the viaduct at Thompson Court, are among those who have used informal routes to lodge complaints. The project has a 24-hour hotline and email box. At times, people have leaned on Kiewit, as well as CDOT’s project office, to amp up the use of water spray crews and misting equipment to wet viaduct debris and tamp down the dust.

Sellers confirmed that such prodding has resulted in adjustments to mitigation efforts in recent weeks.

Demolition crews typically work on multiple sections at once. Project leaders have said they aim to finish work in a given area within a week or two so that neighbors aren’t affected for too long.

Overall, residents who spoke to The Denver Post gave Kiewit and CDOT mixed reviews.

Drew Dutcher, the president of the Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Association, said the noise didn’t turn out to be a big problem, especially since most work has occurred during the day. Kiewit put him and the other nearest residents up in hotels when noisy work was planned overnight, as required by its city noise variance, which is up for renewal next month.

But Dutcher called the dust “a very significant issue.”

“There were frequently large plumes/clouds of fugitive dust throughout the neighborhood,” he wrote in an email. “All of our cars, houses and yards were covered in a layer of dust. That has somewhat subsided,” he added, since the demolition moved past his area in June. He lives on High Street less than a block north of the project zone.

Sellers said the CDOT office has tried to ensure nobody near a section that’s coming up for demolition is caught off guard. Car-wash vouchers also have been available.

“We’ve done significant outreach with all our demolition,” she said. “From the residents, we really have not heard any complaints. Obviously, they want us out of the area as soon as possible.”

Sanchez said her family’s restaurant has struggled during the demolition, despite a couple large taco orders from construction crews. The disruption has been tough for several businesses along 46th Avenue, which had run under the viaduct, and those that lease their buildings still must pay their monthly rent, she said.

CDOT offers assistance to property owners when crews need access to their land, as required by law, but Sanchez suggested the agency should provide small businesses with help, too. Sellers said that occurs only in rare cases when road access is closed due to project needs.

Bittersweet feelings about viaduct’s demise

For families who have lived in Elyria and Swansea for generations, the viaduct was the original sin of the construction of I-70 — so its demise isn’t mourned by many.

But some have complicated feelings about it, centered on the change the project is bringing. The side-by-side neighborhoods, still a patchwork of industrial and residential blocks and now home mostly to Latinos, were divided by the vertical barrier when the highway was bulldozed through Denver in the 1960s.

At the same time, it’s been part of the neighborhood’s fabric. Alfonso Espino, 25, remembers walking underneath the viaduct nearly every day during his childhood.

Tearing it down comes at the cost of a much wider highway that required the bulldozing of 56 homes and 17 businesses to make room for it. That makes Espino, now a community organizer with the Globeville Elyria-Swansea Coalition, shrug off the disruptiveness of the demolition.

“To be honest, at this point, to me, the whole work is less concerning than just the reality and the consequences of a billion-dollar project in your neighborhood happening,” he said. “It’s whatever at this point, honestly.”

After the project is done, part of I-70 will be covered by a park. But it still will ferry thousands of exhaust-emitting vehicles a day through the neighborhood. Espino and others worry about the health consequences.

Dutcher said the construction noise hasn’t been as concerning as the recurring use of bone-rattling “Jake Brakes,” or engine brakes, by semitrailer drivers on I-70 and area streets. That problem predates the project and should be targeted for enforcement, he said.

“As I am typing I can hear trucks through my house,” Dutcher wrote in his email. “I actually think they are noisier now because they are closer and at ground level.”

Looking ahead, Espino sees the removal of the viaduct as the latest marker of change, portending a likely wave of gentrification.

He calls the demolition “almost the perfect visual for what’s going on,” with speculators known to offer cash to buy houses in the neighborhood. Another major government-led project is underway on the west side of Elyria-Swansea, where the city is building out the National Western Center, complete with a stop on the new N-Line commuter rail.

He wonders who will be able to afford to live in Elyria-Swansea in a few years.

“You can tell it’s finally coming,” Espino said. The neighborhood is “being reintegrated into the city. But us, the working class — we’re being left behind.”

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