Before I-70 project fills Denver neighborhood with noise and dust, home-repair program aims to protect residents

AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

Outside Brenda Lovato’s tidy two-story house in northern Denver, wind chimes compete with a nearby train’s horn. Just a block away, traffic rumbles past on Interstate 70.

That recurring soundtrack in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood has intruded into Lovato’s home on Josephine Street since she and her late husband bought it 37 years ago. So close to the I-70 viaduct, that’s not the only thing that finds its way inside.

“Living in this house for years, dust just walks in,” said Lovato, 60, in her living room on a recent morning.

But inside her house, the sounds are more muted these days, and there are fewer ways for dust to invade.

For that, Lovato can thank new insulation and nine new storm windows that were installed at no cost to her as part of a $3.8 million joint mitigation program for the upcoming I-70 expansion project, paid for by the Colorado Department of Transportation and the city.

The initiative, dubbed the Adelante Project, is managed by the nonprofit group Energy Outreach Colorado and several partner groups. It’s targeting 282 homes that lie within a block of the 1.8-mile viaduct. Those households are eligible for several types of upgrades, including home repairs and replacement window air conditioners and other appliances, that will come even more in handy this summer.

A surge of noise and dust is expected in late June or July when project team Kiewit Meridiam Partners kicks off four years of construction on the $1.2 billion highway project.

Along 10 miles from Brighton Boulevard in Denver to Chambers Road in Aurora, I-70 will be widened to add a tolled express lane in each direction, with room for a second express lane in the future.

The most intensive work will occur down the street from Lovato. In a multistage operation, crews will replace the 54-year-old viaduct from Brighton to Colorado Boulevard with a wider span that’s sunken below ground level, into an open trench. A few blocks near Swansea Elementary will be topped by a 4-acre parkland cover.

Along with the digging will come a cavalcade of trucks to cart out the dirt. That will mean plenty of racket and a lot of dust, though CDOT says its contractors plan dust-containment measures.

Since last fall, outreach workers, including several Spanish speakers from CREA Results, have signed up and consulted with homeowners, landlords and tenants in 246 homes. Nearly all initial energy and home safety assessments are now complete. (Three dozen households declined to take part, but those residents have until the end of this year to change their minds.)

Luke Ilderton (right), energy efficiency programs director for Energy Outreach Colorado, and Ralph Yatsko, program manager, check windows in the home of Deborah Florez on April 17, 2018.

Inside homes, program contractors have found varying conditions. Some older houses needed long-deferred repairs to seal them up. Others had outdated furnaces.

More than 65 percent of the program’s work orders are complete, program managers say, as costs per home have ranging wildly — from $1,000 to as much as $20,000. To deal with higher energy bills once air conditioners kick on, residents will get $25 monthly energy bill credits.

“This is really preserving these homes as affordable,” said Jennifer Gremmert, Energy Outreach Colorado’s executive director. “If we hadn’t been able to get in there and do this, I don’t know what the outcomes would have been.”

City kicked in extra money for program

CDOT long had planned a $2.3 million home-improvement program for Elyria-Swansea homes near I-70. In early October, the Denver City Council — after some members called CDOT’s plans inadequate — approved $1.45 million in supplementary city money for additional offerings, including the assessments, plus an agreement with CDOT in which the city took responsibility for the program’s oversight.

Lovato’s family has kept her 114-year-old house in decent repair. She appreciated the work done so far, including the installation of several energy-efficient LED light bulbs and two new smoke detectors — as well as the new windows that keep the outside air from getting in.

Her heating bill already has dropped noticeably, she said. Still on tap is a replacement for a refrigerator that’s an energy hog.

A few blocks east on Clayton Street, Deborah Florez moved into a ranch-style home four years ago with her family, including some adult children. She knew the highway project was coming, she said, but the home’s value and size were too good to pass up.

Her assessment resulted in extensive work that included two new furnaces, new air conditioners, 25 LED replacement bulbs and a programmable thermostat. Workers also fixed bad venting from a furnace.

“My son was going to school for HVAC, and he was going to fix the furnace,” said Florez, 49. But program managers offered to replace the one in question, which was 40 years old — double the typical lifespan.

On a recent morning, Energy Outreach Colorado’s Luke Ilderton and Ralph Yatsko checked new attic insulation and vent pipe sealing. They updated Florez on coming weatherization work, a replacement for her broken front door and a new refrigerator.

She doesn’t look forward to the hassles and street detours of the highway project. But once they’ve passed, Florez said, “I feel like it’s going to do better for us around here.”

A rendering released in August 2016 shows the section of an expanded Interstate 70 with a planned 4-acre cover on top.
Some have misgivings about I-70 project

Lovato, for her part, is conflicted about the I-70 project. Her 10-year-old grandson has asthma and won’t play outside when he visits, she said, because he can feel the mix of highway and industrial pollutants fill his lungs.

“I would rather they take the highway somewhere and just make this a big community,” Lovato said. “And make it nice, with the highway gone.”

Instead, the highway expansion will require the demolition of 56 homes and 17 businesses in the area.

Drew Dutcher, a neighborhood activist who has fought the I-70 project over health concerns, says he’s appreciated the work done at his house on High Street. But he has misgivings, including that the program stops a block from the highway. He thinks residents within two blocks should receive help.

And the protection is limited, he said.

“When you go outside, you’re exposed,” said Dutcher, the president of the Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Association. “I want to have a garden — it’s one of the things I like to do. If I want to have an outdoor garden this summer, I will be exposed to pollution — and that’s how it will be for the next four years.”

But the program has brought unexpected benefits for some residents.

Yatsko and Ilderton, from Energy Outreach Colorado, said the assessments have caught serious interior safety issues, such as gas and carbon monoxide leaks, in a quarter of the homes. Those sparked emergency repairs.

“When you tighten up a home and reduce the amount of exterior air infiltrating into the home, then you’re going to increase the levels of any type of indoor pollutants or dangerous situations,” Ilderton said. “We wanted to make sure our improvements didn’t have any unintended consequences.”

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