Growing Pains: 'We'll become another generic city'

Local businesses find ways to stay afloat during construction boom

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South Broadway is no stranger to development and change.

Over the past several years, whole stretches of the street have been under construction as bike lanes, housing projects and businesses have been added to the lineup. But the history of South Broadway’s revitalization goes back decades and now, in a growing Denver, business owners are looking to distinguish themselves from the pack.

The Metro Denver Local Development Corporation (MDLDC) has been behind South Broadway’s growth since it first started more than 40 years ago.

The MDLDC, which extends along South Broadway from Second Avenue to East Ohio Avenue, was first launched in 1978. Neighborhood activists and business owners banded together to form the nonprofit, which largely got its start by planting trees and beautifying the South Broadway area.

“Our largest asset is the trees,” said Anthony Gengaro, noting that MDLDC has about 400 trees on its area of Broadway.

Beautification is still largely the organization’s primary responsibility, said Gengaro, the corporation’s president and CEO. By creating a walkable area, more people are willing to frequent South Broadway businesses.

But about four years ago, the MDLDC added another task: the creation of a new brand. As development continues, not only on South Broadway, but also up the corridor and into other areas of Denver, Gengaro said it was important for the nonprofit’s coverage area to put its name out there.

“There’s so much new development coming online,” he said. “There’s going to be a change as those neighborhoods become more dense.”

Denver’s booming growth has stirred up a multitude of issues, from affordable housing to equitable neighborhood planning.But a key one — and an emotional one — resides in the birth-and-death life cycle of business that sees longtime places close because of rising rents and construction that hurts revenue. But new businesses also are welcome: They can create excitement in a neighborhood. Often, they fill unmet community needs such as small markets in a food desert or an ethnic restaurant that reflects Denver’s international communities.

And businesses along South Broadway and in Cherry Creek find themselves in the middle of it all, needing to adjust, rebrand or find new ways to bring people into their stores.

Building more business

Although the construction can be a burden at the time, better walkability and more apartments in an area can also mean more people shopping in the future.

Brian Phetteplace, director of economic development with the Cherry Creek North Business Improvement District, said that within the last year six large construction projects just wrapped up in the small shopping area. The Cherry Creek North district extendds from First Avenue to Third Avenue and from University Boulevard to Steele Street.

During construction, pedestrian traffic remained fairly steady, Phetteplace said. The fact that Cherry Creek was already walkable helped keep those numbers up, he added. The business district recently relaunched its brand with a new logo. Creating a stronger brand and hosting local events such as sidewalk sales and the upcoming Cherry Creek North Food and Wine, are some of the things the organization is doing to boost numbers as well.

People spend the most time in Cherry Creek North on the weekend with some heavier weekday traffic during the lunch hour, according to Phetteplace. The district recently installed sensors to help track pedestrian traffic, Phetteplace said. Now that construction projects are over, he’s hopeful more people will start to come out.

Development in Cherry Creek has also recently brought in several big name businesses to the shopping district, such as an Amazon store and Yeti coolers.

“The construction and the new space is proving to be an attraction,” Phetteplace said.

On top of those big names, Phetteplace said 50% of Cherry Creek North’s businesses are owned by women, and 70% are considered small businesses. The district promotes those factors to attract more customers, Phetteplace said.

Similar to Cherry Creek, the MDLDC has created a new brand for its shopping area: The Heart of Broadway. The name came from the intersection of Broadway and Ellsworth Avenue, which is the 000 block on both sides.

The revitalization started by the MDLDC in the early 1980s has had some downfalls, Gengaro said. The area now needs to balance its up-and-coming status with sustaining existing businesses.

“This was a blighted area and kind of seedy. These initial efforts a very long time ago have come full circle,” he said. “Back then (development was) what we needed, now it’s what we don’t want.”

Some businesses have had to leave the area because of rising rents and property taxes, Gengaro said.

Famous Pizza, which closed in August 2018, is one example. But not all business turnover is bad, Gengaro said. Although the area was sad to see a long-term staple like Famous Pizza go after 43 years in the neighborhood, it was replaced by Voodoo Doughnuts which opened in June. Gengaro said the company has already been working to create a presence in the community, such as participating in the upcoming Halloween Parade.

The Heart of Broadway will also help to potentially leverage funding for projects along the street, Gengaro said. Areas like River North and Colfax are receiving more city attention for revitalization projects right now because those areas are currently going through changes.

“We’re not necessarily the most squeaky wheel in the city,” Gengaro said. “These areas need to be revitalized, and in the city’s eye we’re kind of already revitalized and that’s what we did.”

Losing history

While construction impacts can squeeze the budgets of some Denver businesses, others are being completely erased.

Small legacy businesses, such as Shelby’s Bar and Grill, are being exchanged for new office buildings or housing projects. Shelby’s, which was located at 519 18th St., was a single-story building originally built in 1906. Although it started as a funeral parlor, the building spent most of its life as a local bar.

Antelope Real Estate, the building’s former owner, sold the property in March 2018, according to city records. Over the next several months demolition plans kept being pushed back before Shelby’s finally closed its doors in June of this year.

Bars and restaurants are often the target of new development because many are in one- or two-story buildings, said Tom Noel, a professor and associate chair with the history department at the University of Colorado in Denver.

“Any time you have a boom there’s always more of a threat,” Noel said of the risk to businesses.

Aside from the businesses themselves, Noel added that many older buildings in Denver have historical significance. He jokes that his doctorate is in Colorado bars since he has written a few books on the subject, which included information on Shelby’s. One area he pointed out that has historical significance is a stretch of buildings on Larimer Street in the Lower Downtown neighborhood that used to be part of skid row, or buildings on Market Street that were formerly brothels during Denver’s earliest days.

Many of the “the old-time favorite bars are gone,” Noel said, and without those businesses, Denver begins to lose what makes it unique.

“We’ll become another generic city,” he said.

The city’s landmark ordinance helps provide some buildings a layer of protection. Exterior alterations on historic buildings need to be approved, and once a building is protected it becomes extremely difficult to demolish.

Larimer Square is an example of how the landmark ordinance helped prevent development, Noel said.

Initial plans from Urban Villages wanted to demolish a historic building and add two taller buildings. Residents and preservation organizations such as Historic Denver opposed the project. Now, Urban Villages is working with the community to create plans that keep the historic character of Larimer Square. Finalized plans will need to go through the landmark preservation office.

“That’s been one way to try to counter growth,” Noel said. “Thanks to the landmark ordinance, we do have some protection.”

But at the same time, Noel worries the city might not be doing enough. It is very rare for the Landmark Preservation Commission to recommend historic status on a building when an owner opposes it.

That was the case with Bonnie Brae Tavern, owned by the Dire family since 1934.

Earlier this year, the family filed for non-historic status for the building, which makes it easier to demolish. The application went through unopposed. Although no development plans have been announced for the building, the non-historic application allows for plans to be submitted withing the next five years.

The Dire family did not respond to a request for comment on their business.

The business cycle

The birth and death of businesses will happen no matter what, Gengaro said.

But the goal of the MDLDC and its partner organizations, such as the South Broadway Merchants Association and surrounding neighborhood organizations, is to try and “defend” the ones that exist in their area. He’s also hopeful the city and those organizations can start to balance development and density in an equitable way so that everyone does well.

“We want to bring people to our businesses and keep our businesses thriving,” he said. “We also want to protect the scale, size and type of businesses. We created a destination.”

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