What do Residents Gain From Well-Intentioned Neighborhood Rebrands?

More than a decade ago, the Denver Housing Authority embarked on an ambitious redevelopment plan for Sun Valley, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. With construction scheduled through 2025, and 80 percent of the original residents displaced into other neighborhoods, what’s the value of the yet-to-be-completed utopic vision?

The new Gateway Apartments in the Sun Valley neighborhood of Denver. Credit: Gateway Apartments/Denver Housing Authority

Neighborhood rebranding can be contentious. It’s often seen as a bellwether of gentrification: everyone from big tech to real-estate developers have gotten side-eye for abruptly renaming longstanding enclaves in a corporatized image that best serves their commercial interests. Local governments can, and often do, join residents in refusing to use increasingly bewildering names that seem to have been spit out by chatbots. ProCro, Rambo, and BaCoCa are a handful of real-world examples of the phenomenon that’s been parodied by It’s Always Sunny and even Tina Fey’s Baby Mama. But for Sun Valley, which the Denver Housing Authority calls the city’s “poorest neighborhood,” a $240 million redevelopment will see the community retain its name and deploy a shiny rebrand as part of a revitalization effort.

Sun Valley is home to Denver’s first public housing project. After the neighborhood was rezoned for industrial use in 1925, its residential blocks fell into disrepair before being transformed into public housing as part of the original New Deal. Rail lines, highways, and a sharp economic divide—more than 80 percent of residents live below the poverty line—separate Sun Valley from Denver proper. The housing authority set out to demolish the outdated infrastructure in 2010 to build a mix of new “subsidized and free-market housing.” Additional improvements include “a public park, a community garden, a community-operated supermarket, and a job training center,” all anchored by a new brand identity and wayfinding system developed by local studio Wunder Werkz.

Sun Valley as an industrial zone, circa the 1920s.

No-nonsense and data-driven solutions, like signage with text in English and Spanish, along with universal symbols to account for the 21 other languages spoken in the community, all sound good on paper. But factor in reality: The redevelopment, which began in 2010, is still ongoing. To date, only two apartment buildings, the grocery store, and the community garden have been completed, and a mere 20 percent of displaced Sun Valley residents have been able to return, with a projected completion date of Q3, 2025. Reactions to the project have been mixed. Wunder Werkz acknowledges the impact of the community’s participation in the democratic design process, but some lament the yearslong loss of block parties and communal holiday celebrations synonymous with the neighborhood they had come to love. Others fear a future of gentrification—and one in which they’re priced out of accessible grocery stores.

In an interview with Collective Colorado, 23-year-old Sun Valley resident Selena Ramirez recounted being displaced from her neighborhood in 2018 due to construction. “This is where you’ve grown up your whole life and you want to hold on to that,” she said. “All these changes are happening around you, and you see it happening in other neighborhoods and it feels like gentrification.” She now manages the community’s grocery store, and has seen a slow and steady resurgence firsthand: “It’s different, but it’s grown on me.”

New identity materials created for Sun Valley by local studio Wunder Werkz. Credit: Wunder Werkz.
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