Spending Gives New Nightlife to a Half-Dead Downtown

Times Staff Writer

It's not hard to see why the favorite downtown of National Hockey League players is said to be this one.

Bars and restaurants in the heart of the city where the league's teams come to play the Avalanche are so thick that they compete with elaborate decorating themes, live music and such old-fashioned appeals as "ladies night."

One establishment on a frequently rollicking street not far from basketball and hockey's Pepsi Center and baseball's Coors Field boasts, "Cold beer, fine food, live snakes."

There are about 280 restaurants in downtown's 120 blocks, feeding office workers, residents and visitors fare that ranges from lobster to buffalo burgers. A dozen years ago there was a fraction of that number of eateries, and very few residents or visitors.

It scarcely seems to matter now which came first -- the restaurants or the diners -- but the reemergence of downtown Denver nightlife after fallow decades has been more of a carefully crafted comeback than an organic evolution.

Among the levers that lifted the city were the formation of a downtown business improvement district in the early 1990s, the opening of Coors Field in 1995 and the ongoing doubling in size of the convention center.

The change hasn't been seamless, and years of spending downtown has produced striking contrasts between the old city and the emerging one. In the historic LoDo (for Lower Downtown), the Rocky Mountain Seed Co. does business across Market Street from Executive Tans tanning salon and a P.F. Chang's bistro with uniformed valet parkers. On a recent weekday, a rusted-out convertible Volkswagen beetle was parked next to a late-model Volvo sport utility vehicle with vanity plates reading "NO GLT," as in "no guilt."

But the energy in this revitalized downtown puts it ahead of many -- ahead of Los Angeles' by at least five years, some real estate observers say -- in its quest to grow from a high-rise office park that empties at dusk into a 24-hour city.

Among the people swept up in Denver's pull toward the center was Jena Stanford, 31, who loved her school years in San Francisco and wished she could afford to buy a home in an urban center that felt like a real city. A graphic designer for the Denver Art Museum, she found a century-old house on the northwest outskirts of downtown for $250,000. "It's not like San Francisco," she said of home prices in the city. "You can live downtown or around the general area and be able to afford it."

Prices are going up, however, as homes in the neighborhoods around downtown are snapped up by young buyers like Stanford who want to be part of Denver's urban renaissance. Prices for condos and lofts in LoDo run from $130,000 to $1.5 million. Apartment rents range from $675 to $1,500 per month.

Driving the market is downtown's emerging street scene, which is powered by large-scale attractions such as fancy retro-style Coors Field and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, where patrons can find as many as four different live shows a day ranging from ballet to comedy.

Other big-ticket attractions in or near the historic core include Invesco Field, where the Denver Broncos play football, and Pepsi Center, home to professional basketball, hockey and lacrosse, plus performances by popular entertainers. There's even a Six Flags amusement park with roller coasters and other thrill rides.

While some cities have been disappointed by the amount of business lured to their neighborhoods by new professional sports venues, the gamble has paid off for Denver, which put up $435 million in voter-approved public funds over the last decade to help lure pro franchises to the central city.

It has succeeded to the extent that Sports Illustrated, in its assessment of the good and bad of being a hockey player on the road, reported last fall that Denver's LoDo is the favorite of players in the league and that their favorite hangout is the ChopHouse -- where appetizers include buffalo carpaccio.

"When I first moved to Denver 10 years ago, downtown was a ghost town on the weekends," said real estate developer Casey Gebhard. He traded a three-bedroom house in the suburbs for an 800-square-foot downtown condo in the late 1990s because, he said, he "wanted to be closer to all that action."

The opening of Coors Field in 1995 brought a pop in real estate values and "a whole bunch of nightlife" to LoDo, said Gebhard.

Only about 6,800 people live in the downtown core, but the population count rises to 65,000 in a 1 1/2-mile radius that includes gentrifying neighborhoods like Highland, where Stanford lives, and upscale Cherry Creek to the southeast, where townhouses sell for as much as $4 million.

While the arrival of Coors Field marked a tipping point in downtown Denver's comeback, efforts to buck up the city center go back decades, as civic leaders struggled to remedy the flight of residents and businesses to the suburbs that swept the region in the 1970s and 1980s. Perhaps the first major step was taken in 1982, when the city closed 16th Street, a major artery that connects Union Station with the gold-domed Capitol building.

The street-turned-mall has been more successful than similar experiments in other cities, perhaps in part because it is served by frequent, free hybrid-fueled buses that are the only vehicles allowed besides New York-style horse-drawn carriages and the occasional bicycle-powered pedicab. Restaurants on the mall range from fast food to white tablecloth joints, and store wares run the gamut from trendy high-end fashion to kitschy tourist fare.

Also in the early 1980s, the city declared LoDo a historic district in the hope that it would spur redevelopment of buildings dating to the mid-19th century. At that time, the area was Denver's skid row. Plans for a revival stalled in the mid-1980s as the oil industry, one of the region's biggest economic engines, collapsed. Office vacancy ballooned to 30%.

In the early 1990s, as the economy started to improve, the city created an urban renewal authority to encourage renovation downtown. Property owners formed a business improvement district to assess themselves extra taxes for upkeep and improvement. The group, now known as the Downtown Denver Partnership, has focused on keeping the area free of graffiti and litter while looking for other opportunities to improve the streetscape.

Among them is a $3-million program on 17th Street that brought matching decorative lampposts, benches, trash receptacles and newspaper rack "corrals" -- green metal enclosures that fence off the news racks that once overran the street.

"We have a standard vocabulary of downtown elements," said John Desmond of the improvement district.

The improvements spoke to George McKerrow Jr., president of Ted's Montana Grill, an Atlanta-based restaurant chain co-owned by former media magnate Ted Turner.

"We felt it necessary to be downtown because of the synergy all of the redevelopment has created and because of the younger generation's influence down there," said McKerrow. "We think it's going to be vibrant area for a long time to come."

He acknowledges that Ted's business serving buffalo burgers and other casual fare could be better, however. The restaurant in a 150-year-old brick building on Larimer Square grosses less than other outlets of the chain in suburban locations, he said, and one of the problems may be parking.

"For a $6 hamburger, you are paying eight bucks to park," he said. He hopes Denver's new Mayor John Hickenlooper, who made parking prices a campaign issue, can lower rates.

Parking revenues help the cash-strapped city, but it is dependent on sales tax, said Desmond. To help garner sales taxes, hotel taxes and other revenues from visitors, the city is again spending to attract more tourism. A $268-million expansion of the convention center will double its capacity to 770,000 square feet when it is completed in December 2004. It will be supported by a new convention center hotel with 1,100 rooms that is being financed by $350 million in public revenue bonds.

The effort to expand the convention center took about six years, said attorney Steven Farber of Brownstein Hyatt & Farber, who acknowledged that getting such major public-private projects accomplished has usually been a struggle.

"Some of these deals fell apart two, three, four times," said Farber, who helped negotiate the convention center expansion as well as construction of the football and basketball arenas. "So often in other cities, people don't have gumption and determination to keep pushing these things and go back to the table."

In Denver, he said, "there was political will. It's a city with great political leadership."

Mutual fear and dread can also bring negotiators back to the table. The one-two punches of the energy industry collapse and the savings and loans crisis hobbled the region's economy during the late 1980s and 1990s.

"That was the No. 1 driving force," said business leader Ray Baker, who chaired committees to build the baseball and football stadiums. "People circle the wagons and say, 'Let's get together and solve these problems.' "

For resident Gebhard, the influx of newcomers is building the kind of urban center he wants to be a part of, though it still has a ways to go before it will be a round-the-clock city. And while there is no shortage of restaurants, there is still no major grocery store downtown.

Denver, he said, is not a 24-hour city, but "it has gone from eight to 18."

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