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Few events in the life of a city are as relentlessly cheerful as a groundbreaking for a new school building.

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It's a time for back-slapping congratulations and lofty, forward-looking speeches; for misty-eyed reminiscences about the eternal struggle to advance educational ideals; for bold declarations about the opportunities and challenges facing the students of tomorrow. Best of all, it's a chance to see well-tailored politicians and administrators don shiny hard hats, plunge pristine shovels into a ceremonial mound of dirt, as if threatening to actually break a sweat — and then freeze, tight-grinned, in a kind of onerous half-crouch, to oblige the flashing cameras seeking to record this peculiar, history-making moment.

See also: - Auraria campus expansion: See plans for new athletic fields and more - Auraria as it used to be: Photos from a long-gone neighborhood - Auraria neighborhood "doomed," predicted campus impact study. As public theater, the University of Colorado Denver's groundbreaking for a new edifice a few weeks ago offered all the essential rituals.

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It's the biggest construction project in the school's forty-year history — and also the first building devoted exclusively to UCD students on the bustling Auraria campus, which also hosts the Community College of Denver and Metropolitan State University of Denver in its maze of shared classrooms and study areas. The new building also promises to be a strategic bit of branding by the university. It's located on the edge of campus, replacing a parking lot at the corner of Larimer Street and Speer Boulevard — not far from the spot where Denver began, and where 25, motorists streaming by every day will see the prominent CU logo.

It allows us to consolidate our student services and to make the student experience much more pleasant, much more efficient. For students to register today at University of Colorado Denver, they have to go to five or six different buildings. It's going to be one-stop shopping. At the groundbreaking, there was much chatter about one-stop shopping among the assembled university regents and honchos, city officials and downtown business drummers.

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A video presented various faculty and students talking about the new building as a "gateway" and as an urgently needed space on the campus, which was deed to accommodate 15, students when it opened in and now serves nearly three times that. CU president Bruce Benson, who's been involved in the growth of Auraria in various capacities over the years — even serving as chair of Metro State's board of trustees, back when Metro was content to refer to itself as a college — reflected on the rough-and-tumble early days of UCD, when classrooms were scattered downtown and pregnant women were discouraged from taking courses involving the use of toxic laboratory and computer equipment.

Other speakers noted that UCD's undergraduate population has grown by 50 percent in the last decade and that it now confers more graduate degrees than any other institution in the state. Denver mayor Michael Hancock, UCD grad and honored guest, feigned shock when someone mentioned the annual budget of the CU system as a whole.

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During his mayoral campaign, Hancock added, he often cited the Auraria campus as an example of successful economic development in the heart of the city: "If we activated and brought the intellectual capital of this campus to integrate itself into the city, that becomes the greatest economic opportunity that we have. Ironically, the current boom in higher education has been, at least in part, the result of a failing economy.

Collegians have waited out the grim job market of the past few years by staying on campus longer, and layoffs have sent older workers back to school to retool. Tough times can be good for academia, and this is a particularly dynamic period of growth for Auraria. Construction projects are sprouting across the complex; UCD's new building is only the latest in a series of expensive new flagships launched by the three institutions as they stake out their respective "neighborhoods" on the campus. The project was paid for entirely by student fees; nearby is a SpringHill Suites Hotel that houses Metro's Hospitality Learning Center, the result of a public-private partnership deal with Marriott that provides the hotelier a prime location downtown while offering future hotel executives a hands-on education.

The latest version of the Auraria Higher Education Center's master plan, issued last year, calls for more public-private partnerships and "strong physical and programmatic connections from the campus to Denver's core.

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It also means moving past the edge, beyond the boundaries of the present campus. This month, Metro began work on a multimillion-dollar conversion of contaminated industrial land south of the Colfax viaduct into athletic fields, including tennis courts, a soccer field, and possibly baseball and softball fields, too.

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Its courts were sacrificed to the hotel project, and planners anticipate that other fields on the north end of campus can be put to better more urban use. Yet while several community leaders are supporting the project, some residents with long ties to Auraria are eyeing the expansion with unease.

It brings back bad memories, they say, of the way the campus was created more than four decades ago. Before it was a seat of intellectual capital and wraparound services, Auraria was a neighborhood, made up mostly of modest houses and small businesses. The people who lived there didn't call it Auraria — a name that dated back to when the area was its own town, briefly, in the late s.

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Most residents called it "The Bottoms" or simply "the west side. That upheaval lies heavy on the hearts of some Chicano activists and historians, who say that city officials made several promises about the future operation of Auraria in an effort to win support for the project: that there would be scholarships available to the children of displaced residents; that there would be a Hispanic cultural center on the campus; that the land would not be turned over to commercial developers; that Auraria would never expand south of Colfax.

AHEC officials have said they've never found any documents spelling out such agreements — though the institutions did start offering scholarships to "displaced Aurarians" after much lobbying by activists in the s. The elusive promises trouble Gregorio Alcaro, an urban planner who believes the current surge of development on campus is steamrolling over its past. No one wants to talk about them.

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Alcaro's grandparents arrived in Denver in They operated the Casa Mayan Mexican restaurant out of their home in Auraria for decades, until the creation of the campus shut them down. The building still stands, one of a block of original homes granted landmark status and preserved in Ninth Street Park on the south end of campus. Alcaro co-founded a nonprofit, Auraria Casa Mayan Heritage, that gives tours of the area and is engaged in researching and preserving Auraria history.

He and landscape architect Karen Kalavity have also spent many hours with AHEC officials, trying to interest them in alternative development plans that emphasize historic areas and green spaces, with little success. It doesn't have any cohesion. Their master planning is being done by real-estate people, and they don't follow it anyway. They end up taking the least-used parking lot as the site of the next building.

After the speeches concluded at the UCD groundbreaking, the dignitaries grabbed their hardhats and gleaming shovels and headed to the parking lot to complete the ritual. They posed over a modest patch of dirt that had been dumped on top of the asphalt, just enough to provide a cushion for the shovels while the cameras clicked.

Nobody was actually breaking any ground that day, and that's probably a good thing. Dig too deep into the rich strata of Auraria, and there's no telling what you might turn up. When Greg Alcaro takes visitors on a stroll around Ninth Street Park, he sometimes hears how amazingly "realistic" it all seems. Some of his guests assume that the houses there, prime examples of middle-class residences in late-nineteenth-century Denver — and the oldest block of restored homes in the city — are Disneyland-like reproductions. It's part of a larger disconnect between the park and the campus that surrounds it.

Although the houses are now used as campus offices and conference rooms, most students have little interaction with the place, unless they're ducking into the former grocery store on the corner for a quick sandwich or coffee.

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They forget they wanted to demolish it. These buildings were saved at the last minute, and that was it. They put in a little marker, and that's our history. It's a tombstone. It's difficult to get a feeling for the old Auraria neighborhood from this one preserved block; placards outside the houses provide only bare details about the original owners. That's why Alcaro likes to tell visitors about his grandparents' journey here. Auraria began as a gold camp staked out on the west bank of Cherry Creek by two brothers from Georgia in ; by the spring ofit had been absorbed into Denver's west side.

Over the next few decades, the area attracted an influx of German, Irish and Jewish immigrants, followed by Mexicans fleeing the violent revolution in their native land. The couple didn't speak much English at first and had trouble getting housing. But inCaroline was able to obtain a loan to purchase the Smedley house, a handsome two-story clapboard home that was the oldest Victorian on the block.

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They rented out a carriage house behind them to Irish families and eventually converted the lower floor of their house and a patio into the Casa Mayan restaurant. The food was popular with Anglos, who would slip local kids a few coins to "watch the car" while they tucked into their enchiladas. The restaurant soon evolved into a kind of cultural center.

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There were sewing classes, dance classes, meetings of the Guitar Society of Denver. It was all part of the melting-pot experience that was Auraria, which by the s had come to encompass 38 blocks of working-class homes and light industry, including a dairy, a Rainbow bakery, a pickle factory, a cookie factory and a potato-chip factory.

There was also a synagogue, a bar and three Catholic churches — one for the Irish St. Leo'sone for other immigrants St. Cajetan'sand one for the better-off whites St. That's not the true story. It was always a mixture of communities and industries. It was definitely old, but it wasn't a slum. City fathers were also searching for a permanent site for Metro State, CCD and a proposed Denver campus of CU; at the time, Metro was a cramped, fast-growing school of 4, students holding classes in seven rented spaces around Civic Center and 27 other buildings in five counties.

Close to downtown and "underutilized" from a real-estate perspective, the Bottoms neighborhood was a prime target. What followed was a skillful campaign to win public support for a bond issue to create the Auraria campus — and, at the same time, wipe out a community some considered an eyesore.

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The Denver dailies quickly got behind the effort, running large photos of weed-choked auto salvage yards and declaring that redeveloping this "run-down area" would be the key to stopping the rot threatening Denver's core.

Dick Johnston of the Denver Post described the neighborhood as "a generally blighted mismatch of small houses, salvage yards, railroad tracks, small businesses, junk cars, showing clear s of age and long bypassed by new development.

DURA claimed that three-fourths of the houses in Auraria were "dilapidated or damaged beyond repair" — and that many of them were vacant, anyway. One survey reported that the of occupied homes in the target area had dwindled from in to in Other researchers insist that there were still to families living in Auraria in the late s and more than businesses operating there. But I do think there was a conspiracy to get rid of the neighborhood. Although outgunned and outspent, residents and business owners tried to fight back, asking where they were supposed to go.

Pete Garcia, the priest at St.