Suburbanites Lured Back to Downtown Denver : Colorado: The shift is to a renovated area full of apartment lofts, art galleries and restaurants. The gritty Skid Row district now presents a shiny face as LoDo.


Who would have thought it could happen? Denver’s gritty, industrial lower downtown district has survived decades of neglect to emerge as a hip, urban neighborhood and cultural center.

Once the city’s Skid Row, LoDo--as the neighborhood is known locally--is attracting upscale residents, dozens of art galleries, trendy businesses and at least two new entertainment centers.

“It’s a combination of the best of Aspen and the best of the French Quarter in New Orleans,” said developer Dana Crawford, one of the pioneers of LoDo.

“I think there is a generation of baby boomers out there like me who are tired of mowing the lawn and commuting downtown,” said developer John Hickenlooper, owner of LoDo’s Wynkoop Brewing Co., Denver’s first brewpub.


“It’s starting to become a national phenomenon, that dissatisfaction with suburban areas. You can only expand so far. It’s only natural for people to gravitate back to the inner city.”

LoDo, a 25-square-block area on the southwest side of downtown, began as a small settlement of tents and shacks at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek in 1859. It grew into the original core of downtown Denver.

Four- and five-story warehouses began springing up in the area with the arrival of the first train in Denver in the 1870s.

The warehouses survived several boom-and-bust cycles until the 1940s. World War II, the development of the modern automobile and improved roads and highways reduced the nation’s dependence on railroads and threw LoDo and its warehouses into a period of decline that would last into the 1970s.

During that period of decline, the neighborhood became the dark heart of Denver’s street culture. Prostitution was rampant in the area through the 1950s, and pawnshops and taverns replaced warehouses as the chief form of commerce.

The neighborhood took on a seedy character as drunks, drug addicts and the homeless flocked to its shelters and vacant buildings.

Urban renewal helped breathe new life into the area in the 1960s and ‘70s, but then about 20% of the buildings in LoDo--abandoned, neglected and forgotten--were torn down to make way for newer structures and parking lots.

A speculative boom in the late 1970s and early ‘80s brought a renewed interest in the district, but then property values plummeted with the recession of the mid-1980s.

The lower property values actually sparked the rebirth of LoDo. Artists searching for low rents and high ceilings began converging on the area in the late 1980s, bringing with them a strong sense of historic preservation.

The area’s classic Victorian and Art Deco architecture made it an ideal project for historic preservationists. The architectural features--ornamental iron columns, gargoyles, glass storefronts, faded brick with ornate arches and tall, narrow doorways with stoops--also attracted a new class of residents.

“It’s gritty physically,” said Marilee Utter, regional vice president of Trillium Corp., one of the key LoDo developers. “That’s part of the appeal for the people that live here. They like it because it makes them feel avant-garde.”

But there is nothing gritty or industrial about what goes on in LoDo. It has an estimated 370 pricey loft apartments, about 35 art galleries and nearly 50 restaurants, bars and nightclubs--including three brewpubs. The neighborhood holds its own blues festival each year and is within walking distance of Denver’s fine arts complex and the core downtown area.

The high cost of housing in the area--a 1,700-square-foot loft apartment sells for around $425,000--means LoDo’s denizens are largely upscale, but there is wide diversity and few barriers separating rich and poor.

Flannel and street hikers are as common on the streets of LoDo as pin-stripes and wingtips.

“It’s an eclectic mix of turn-of-the-century buildings with an even more eclectic mix of people,” Hickenlooper said. “There is a tremendous variety of individuals that have staked their claim on lower downtown and have a sense of pride about it.”

“What people like about it down here is that everyone doesn’t look alike,” Utter said. “You don’t want to be talking to the same people every day.”

LoDo has also attracted large-scale commercial development--Coors Field, the city’s new baseball stadium just to the north of LoDo, and Elitch Gardens, a 104-year-old amusement park moving near LoDo from north Denver. Both are scheduled to open next spring. A new arena for the Denver Nuggets and a television and movie production facility also are in the drawing-board stage.

While most Denverites welcome the additional revenue those projects will bring to the area, LoDo residents are concerned too much development and traffic will ruin the local flavor.

“The historic district itself is home base for Denver in terms of community development,” Crawford said. “People are attracted here now because of the artistic and historic significance. We have an overlay of attractions coming with the amusement park and sports, and history remains to be written on that.”

Business owners are considering a possible LoDo sales tax, voluntary rent caps and contributions from the city and state to help keep the arts community alive in LoDo.

“Will it turn out to be like Aspen? Jeez, I hope not,” Hickenlooper said. “But it’s very hard to control those kinds of forces in a free market society. If people are willing to pay the price . . . “

“It’s very addicting to be down here,” Utter said. “I don’t think the attraction will go away. . . . It is its own place.”