It Takes a Greek Town

The plan to revive East Colfax: belly dancers, bazouki music, baklava--and blue sidewalks.

"Ethnicizing something that only has a bare hint of it and dolling it up with Greek columns is a little more than they've been doing in the past," notes Christine Ford of the Urban Design Forum. "That's a new wrinkle. It's the theme-park influence on urban design."

"It sounds thoroughly contrived," adds architect David Wise, a former director of urban design for the Downtown Denver Partnership who's served on a number of city committees dealing with design issues downtown and on Capitol Hill. "Whether that's a bad thing or not is open to discussion. I was involved in Coors Field, and there's a lot about that project that's very contrived, but people love it."

Wise notes that immigrant neighborhoods often take on a different look as the new arrivals adapt to American life, but "this sounds like a very different kind of structure. It's not as if we have an enclave, with all routines of life included. If people don't live there and support the full routine of a given culture, then why call it a town?"

Yet the retail revitalization promised by Greek Town, he adds, may make the project worthwhile. His chief reservation about the plan has to do with the degree to which the streetscaping could alter Colfax in order to accommodate private interests. "You don't want to put down one particular group's aesthetic, but I don't understand the public sector's role in this," Wise says. "There ought to be a pretty clear distinction between private property and public right-of-way. The rest can be whatever it wants to be, but when you get out on the sidewalk, it's everybody's business."

Others, though, don't see any downside in planting a patchwork of blue-and-white on the humdrum plain of Denver's main east-west artery. "We think this fits with the eclecticism of East Colfax. We're all for them," says Dave Walstrom, executive director of the Colfax on the Hill business association. "You cannot redevelop a four-mile street, from Broadway to Colorado Boulevard, as one congruous ribbon. You need to pay attention to the culture of individual pockets."

Walstrom sees Greek Town as a welcome addition to the overall renaissance of East Colfax, which has been boosted in recent years by major reinvestment along the entire Broadway-to-Colorado corridor and a declining crime rate. Townhomes and condos are sprouting in the surrounding neighborhoods, displacing aging businesses and run-down apartment houses, and several large projects--such as the redevelopment of St. Luke's Hospital, which will add 800 residential units to the area--will put even more pedestrians on the strip in search of services and entertainment. And while the crime rate continues to fall all over Capitol Hill, the numbers are particularly impressive in the precincts along Colfax--a shift Walstrom credits to increased community policing and the creation of a new police station, District Six, in an area that previously had been bifurcated.

"People are coming back to the city," Walstrom notes. "We're actually fashionable again. That's putting pressure on property owners to make improvements and piquing the interest of banks and developers. I've never seen so many developers wandering around our place as now."

But not every business owner in Greek Town is enthusiastic at having been included in the project. Attorney John Maley practices law out of the house he grew up in at Colfax and Fillmore, a stately red-brick affair that his parents bought in 1919, when Maley was a year old. Maley says he likes all his neighbors, but he's not wild about the special improvement district that was created as part of the Greek Town deal; he says he's been assessed $250 this year to fund and maintain the street improvements the city has made and wonders how much more the project will cost him as it evolves.

"I'd like to sue about it, but I didn't have time to do it," Maley says. "I wrote them a nasty letter about it, but I never got a reply. I think just about every property owner gnashed his teeth when he saw the bill."

Jim Peros says the maintenance district was approved by the Greek Town Neighborhood Association, which originally had members of the Greek Chamber of Commerce serving as interim officers but is now headed by businesspeople in the district, elected by their fellow property owners. "When we had the public hearing on it, there were a couple of people who spoke against it," Peros says, "but by the time the hearing was over, they were thoroughly convinced that everything was going to be okay."

The concept of Greek Town is supported by a strong majority of the businesses there, Peros says, whether they're Greek or not. The owners of the Ethiopian and Jamaican eateries in the district couldn't be reached for comment, but Peros insists that there's room for them in Greek Town, too.

"The term Hellenism means to incorporate all cultures together as separate entities," he says. "We're not trying to change their culture; we want them to be separate but within a part of our culture. We don't want just Greek businesses. We want a multicultural, multiethnic group there to form the Hellenistic community."

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