In the spring of 1987, I was hired by the Downtown Denver Partnership to open a storefront office in the Barth Hotel to advance revitalization efforts in the decrepit Lower Downtown district. At the time, Denver was reeling from a real estate depression triggered mostly by a bust in oil and gas. Lower Downtown had taken on the worst, with most of its old warehouses sitting empty. Many had been purchased at inflated prices with the expectation that high rise office development would continue down 17th Street to Union Station. But those hopes were dashed by the economy — the area was more than 50% vacant and banks owned about 40% of the buildings through foreclosure.
Today is a very different story. Guided by a series of civic interventions, energized by visionary entrepreneurs and sustained by new powerful market forces, LoDo is the strongest sub-market within Denver’s resurgent downtown. Last year, Union Station reopened as the icing on the cake, and next year the transformation should be complete with the opening of new commuter rail lines, including one to the airport.
I’ve had the opportunity to watch it all outside my office window for 28 years – first for the Partnership, then the subsequent 22 years as I located my consulting business one block from the Barth in the Oxford Annex.
The formula for LoDo’s revitalization was part policy and part happenstance. On the policy side, Mayor Federico Pena, his administration and other community leaders provided the neighborhood’s vision within the 1986 Downtown Area Plan. Reversing decades of “urban removal” to scrape blighted buildings, the plan was to capitalize on the area’s collection of Victorian warehouses and create an historic district. Infrastructure would reinforce the strategy, removing viaducts and creating new access. An “economic engine” was proposed, perhaps a convention center, to help bring life to the district. The plan was bold, particularly since there was absolutely no market support for it – “millennials” of the 1980s had no interest in the center city, everyone was still fleeing to the suburbs.
Pena then implemented the vision. The historic district was established over substantial opposition from affected property owners. Funding was secured to replace the infrastructure. New streetscape was installed to fortify the historic theme. My job was formed by the Partnership to help recruit new businesses and investment.
The collapse in LoDo real estate prices (90% in some cases) lured new owner-users and entrepreneurs. Banks were selling warehouses as low as $10 per square foot. The first of the late 1980s “pioneers” included a printing company and an antiques showroom that bought buildings. An unemployed geologist cobbled together a variety of resources to create the city’s first micro-brewery in a warehouse that initially charged him one dollar per square foot in rent. Per year. Then the historic district was formed, and, providing certainty the buildings would remain, investment accelerated.
There were many individuals to credit during this time, but a few stand out as particularly influential. Dana Crawford, who was part of the Partnership panel that interviewed me for the revitalization job, is a key visionary who expanded her reuse concept from Larimer Square to the 22-block historic district. The geologist brewmaster John Hickenlooper become our Mayor and now our Governor. Jennifer Moulton, who passed away too early, was the activist leader at Historic Denver that fought for the historic district and later kept it all moving as Mayor Wellington Webb’s city planner.
The “economic engine” envisioned in the 1986 plan came later in the form of Coors Field, which opened in 1995. The baseball stadium sped up the momentum leading to LoDo as we know it today.
What took a generation in LoDo is happening today in a flash in Highlands, RiNo and other emerging neighborhoods. While we searched far and wide for market support, today’s urban areas are benefitting from demographic and lifestyle trends that are creating a tsunami of investment. We tried to accelerate development, but the big challenge for these neighborhoods may be slowing it down.
It was with mixed emotions that we moved our office earlier this month to scrappy East Colfax about ten blocks east of downtown. But P.U.M.A., and I, had run our course with LoDo. The business had outgrown our executive suite-style space. And I had become increasingly detached from what has become a very different neighborhood anchoring the exciting evolution of Denver. Perhaps it was the opening of Yet Another Hipster Coffee Shop in the lobby of our building that was the final straw. Certainly a different vibe than the quirky Soviet/Cold War era art gallery that preceded it, or the original Terminal Bar across the street that offered a 7:30 a.m. Happy Hour for post office workers ending the graveyard shift at the Terminal Annex. Neither, of course, exists any longer.