Sun Valley and La Alma Lincoln Park residents still want the defunct Zuni plant to become a public market

They’re just waiting on Xcel Energy and the city.
7 min. read
Xcel Energy’s defunct Zuni generating station in La Alma/Lincoln Park. July 26, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Almost a year ago, residents of Sun Valley and La Alma Lincoln Park were ready to engage in a partnership with Xcel Energy.

Their goal was to work with the utility to preserve and transform the Zuni Generating Station near the South Platte River and W. 13th Avenue. They envisioned a community hub that would include a farmers' market-type space with access to fresh foods and booths for local entrepreneurs.

Initially, Xcel had plans to demolish the plant and possibly turn it into a substation, which converts high voltage power from large power lines into low voltage power that gets disperse throughout the city.

But at the request of neighbors, City Council and Historic Denver, Xcel agreed to halt their plans for at least a year so the utility could come to an agreement with residents and the city on what to do with the plant.

The plans stalled in November 2021. Xcel reiterated that they would pause for at least a year in August 2022. Now, it's May 2023 and no significant progress has been made in that proposed partnership.

"There hasn't been any real conversation about any future use," said Jeanne Granville, president of the Sun Valley Community Coalition registered neighborhood organization. "It seems like there's this stalemate. We don't know how to really move the conversation...because it does seem to be a lot about partnership and risk and the community is just sitting here waiting."

Xcel Energy's defunct Zuni Generating Station on the edge of Sun Valley. May 26, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

The 120-year-old Zuni site was retired in 2015 and was decommissioned in 2021. Xcel received approval from the Colorado Public Utilities Commission in January 2021 to "decommission, dismantle, and demolish all structures, and remediate and restore the former plant."

The PUC approved a budget of $22 million for the project and, as it stood, Xcel would be responsible for the above, plus any environmental abatement required to bring the plant up to "industrial standards."

With residents still expressing a desire to reuse the plant, different plans had to be put in place. If Xcel decides to sell the plant, the city will now gets first dibs, known as right of refusal.

There's also the cleanup aspect. If Xcel goes through with demolition, they'd need to perform environmental abatement projects, including asbestos removal. But if it sells, responsibility for the cleanup would need to be sorted out.

Then there's the power issue. As the city grows, so does its need for power. In that area alone, several development projects are already underway and being proposed. Denver Housing Authority is redeveloping Sun Valley and has completed four buildings with a combined 451 units and more on the way.

Xcel Energy's defunct Zuni generating station in Sun Valley. July 26, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Finally, there's the proposed River Mile redevelopment, Ball Arena redevelopment and less elaborate plans for housing in the south parking lot of Empower Field at Mile High Stadium.

Denver's goal is to eliminate its need for natural gas and make the city 100 percent electrified by 2030. For Xcel to meet that goal, they will need more substations.

Councilmember Jamie Torres, whose District 3 includes Sun Valley and La Alma, previously said the city was working with Xcel to find space for these substations and create more in-depth plans on how new developments will provide power to their residents.

While these plans are "moving," residents are making moves of their own. With the help of Historic Denver, residents submitted an application to nominate the site for the Most Endangered Places list that is published annually by Colorado Preservation, Inc., or CPI, a nonprofit that advocates for the preservation of historic places through out the state.

They've also started a petition to save the plant.

On Thursday, neighbors and stakeholders held a forum to discuss what the plant could look like in the future if things go their way and how other groups have accomplished those same plans.

At Raíces Brewing Company many nonprofit organizations, such as Historic Denver, and community leaders gathered to hear about Beloit Powerhouse in Wisconsin, a steam plant that was reused and turned into a recreation center for neighbors and students to use at Beloit College.

The patio at Raices Brewing Co., Sun Valley, Oct. 26, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Dan Schooff, vice president of advancement at Beloit, hosted the presentation and discussed the college's path to reusing the building.

Schooff said the plans started in 2014 when the college was discussing a need for a new fitness center. Right next to the school was the defunct Blackhawk Generating Station, which was shut down by Alliant, the utility company, in 2010.

The school approached the plant to purchase the site and the deal eventually went through. The former plant now houses a swimming pool, fitness center, an elevated indoor track, 160-seat auditorium, study areas, a café and fourth-floor event space for 200 people.

But Schooff said the effort required that many community partners support the school and that the utility company be open to helping, especially when it came to costs, cleanup and liability issues.

After the presentation, a member of the crowd asked Schooff if the project would have been a success without the support of the utility company. Schooff didn't give a definitive yes or no, but he said it would have been harder to accomplish because ultimately the site belonged to the company.

The same can be said for the Zuni plant. Regardless of how many supporters the project has, Xcel can do what they like with the site.

At the forum, Grace Lopez Ramirez, the senior area manager for community and local government affairs with Xcel, said the utility is still adhering to the moratorium and that they are still willing to work with community members.

Residents expressed concerns about new scaffolding and bricks outside the plant, but Lopez Ramirez said that was all part of the asbestos abatement project.

The Zuni Generating Station in Sun Valley. Nov. 9, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Lopez Ramirez added that Xcel is also in a waiting period as discussions continue on who would purchase the site and what next steps would be on future substations.

"We're committed to continuing those conversations with the city and county of Denver," Lopez Ramirez said. "The city is exploring different things. We continue to brainstorm how this is going to work but realistically, we're still in those conversations and we're going to be for some time."

Granville said she's looking forward to any future conversations, if they come. The goal of the forum was to inform more people of the possibilities of the site but also to nudge Xcel and the city into accelerating the conversation.

She'd like to see residents get a seat at the table in the form of a steering committee but for now the Sun Valley and La Alma RNOs have taken a stance on the plant and they want to see it reused for their benefit.

"We'd really like to see Xcel as a partner in all of this," Granville said. It's a real opportunity for Xcel in terms of climate justice...This and our petition is a start. I mean anything to nudge and push things forward because the community is asking for it. But it's a tough needle to move."

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