New city official says her goal is to “keep a lot of what makes Denver Denver”

State Sen. Irene Aguilar of Denver will be the director of the mayor’s Neighborhood Equity and Stabilization Team, or NEST.

District 32 Senator Irene Aguilar. The first day of the Colorado state legislative session. Jan 11, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

District 32 Senator Irene Aguilar. The first day of the Colorado state legislative session. Jan 11, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Donna Bryson. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The newest member of Denver’s leadership team chuckles at suggestions she’s the anti-gentrification tsar or a miracle worker.

What she aspires to be, Dr. Irene Aguilar told Denverite Tuesday, is “the person who makes sure we keep a lot of what makes Denver Denver.”

Aguilar, a state senator from Denver who is barred from seeking reelection by term limits, spoke shortly after the city announced that the Denver Office of Economic Development (OED) had hired her as director of the Neighborhood Equity and Stabilization Team, or NEST. The task force Mayor Michael B. Hancock sketched out in his 2018 state of the city speech and in his 2019 budget  comprises staff from OED, Denver Human Services, Denver Human Rights and Community Partnerships, Environmental Health and Community Planning and Development. Aguilar also will reach out to nonprofits like Mile High United Way.

The idea is to find new strategies as well as better coordinate existing programs like emergency rental help, property tax exemptions and homeowner counseling to ensure that when older neighborhoods are transformed by development, benefits are felt by both newcomers and established residents — who often are impoverished, minorities and long-neglected.

“I see that as the goal, to try to find where the win-win can be,” Aguilar said. “It’s going to take buy-in and resources.”

“I absolutely love this city and in many ways am glad for its economic prosperity,” she said. “But I am also concerned about it losing its culture and color.”

She said her priorities would include Globeville and Elyria-Swansea.  The Colorado Department of Transportation’s  I-70 expansion and renovation project has disrupted Globeville and Elyria-Swansea and displaced some residents, even as new commuter rail lines and plans for redevelopment of the nearby National Western complex have led to concerns gentrification is imminent.

Aguilar said she was familiar with that part of the city and its people from her work at Clínica Tepeyac. She’s also familiar with Denver’s sometimes heated conversation about gentrification, saying she knows many feel the city’s growth has been driven by developers without enough attention being paid to ordinary people.

“I don’t know that that’s true or not,” she said. “I certainly hope to find out.”

Aguilar is a Chicago native who moved to Denver in 1985 for an internal medicine residency after studying at Washington University in St. Louis and receiving her medical degree from the University of Chicago-Pritzker School of Medicine. She’s worked for Denver Health and now serves on its board of directors. As senator for southwest Denver’s District 32 since 2010, Aguilar was known for working on health care issues and in support of people with disabilities and the immigrants.

She acknowledged Tuesday that her new job takes her into unfamiliar territory. She said she would bring a new, “analytical” perspective that might prove useful.

“I think there are lots of people to listen to and learn from in this process,” she said of her approach to leading NEST. “People who feel they haven’t been listened to should feel confident trying to reach out to me. I’m a big believer that you never know where you’re going to get your best ideas.”

She backed that up by offering her email address: irene.aguilar@denvergov.org.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized Aguilar’s position, which is an employee of the City’s Office of Economic Development.