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Rats. That's what many of the neighbors remember about the early days of Chamberlain Heights. And when it wasn't the rats, it was the hos -- crack or otherwise -- who moved into their yards after construction took over the abandoned lot at East Colfax Avenue and Steele Street that had been their haven.
But today, most people don't remember the rats at all. Nor do they remember the nasty, protracted fight that the architect, Brad Buchanan, went through to get the zoning changed to accept ground-floor commercial plus 48 condos and eight townhomes. Instead, they think of Chamberlain Heights, the first residential development on Colfax in more than eighty years, as a harbinger of things to come.
"It was difficult," says Buchanan, who is now a member of the Denver Planning Board and running for the Denver School Board. "It is fair to say there were many neighbors who didn't understand the project. It was one of the toughest rezonings we've ever gone through, but it's probably one of the projects our firm has gotten the most positive attention and feedback for after it was built."
Bob Aronowitz was the one responsible for seeing Chamberlain Heights through. In his spare time, the real-estate attorney redevelops properties, including Cherry Creek East in the 1980s, but this was his first foray onto Colfax. "Other groups had been shown the project, but I believe they were intimidated by the specter and the stigma of developing on East Colfax. Stigmas are hard things to challenge, and those perceptions weren't incorrect. Colfax indeed presented challenges, but I guess I had a vision, not like a religious vision or anything, but an economic, optimistic vision of the site and of the community. I think that vision, fairly viewed, was probably a lot bolder than what others might have called prudent or conservative. For example, I enjoyed great banking relationships, but some of my good banking connections shied away from the project. They viewed the project as too risky, too bold. They thought perhaps we were not recognizing the difficulty. But we viewed it differently."
The financing came through -- an $11.5 million loan Aronowitz signed for personally -- and construction began in April 2001, just as the recession started hitting Colorado and months before 9/11. The project slowed way down and had to be completed in two phases, and fingers started wagging as critics said that his vision had been wrong, that nobody would invest in Colfax. But last week, Aronowitz closed on the last of the 48 condos and three of the townhomes. He's talking with someone about putting a coffee shop in the building -- he closed his, called Witz, earlier this year -- and possibly a wine bar. He's looking at another potential development along the strip, maybe even a parking garage for the Bluebird district.
"Chamberlain Heights has been unbelievable," says Aronowitz, who moved here from Philadelphia in 1973 with a VW and $700. "It's the seminal project that has led to so many other things, to Atomic Cowboy, Mezcal, Cafe Star, ArmAzem. The whole South City Park project is a go. Now they're talking about moving Tattered Cover to the Lowenstein. We're very proud of the fact that our project has been cited as the seed for all that.
"Was it a financial success for us? Well, it wasn't as successful financially as projected, but we're making a modest profit on it, just not as buoyant as the expectations before 9/11," he adds.
Now that the spotlight is off of Aronowitz, neighbors have turned their attentions to Len Goldberg, who is planning a 39-unit mixed-use development at East Colfax and Madison Street. Goldberg bought a building that had housed an Ethiopian restaurant, as well as the three houses behind it, two of which had been turned into apartments. But when nearby residents heard that he was going to demolish the Victorian-era homes, they mobilized and got Denver City Councilwoman Jeanne Robb to call a community meeting this past May.
Although Goldberg has done other projects in Denver, from the minute he walked into the room, it was obvious that he was not prepared for the Colfax contingent. They condemned everything from his architecture (very suburban) to the quality of his work ("shoddy," according to locals who lived in some of his rehabs). And while under current zoning, Goldberg had every right to continue with his project against the neighbors' wishes, he agreed to wait and become the test case for Main Street Zoning. He redid his plans so that the last house remained; under Main Street, he could construct his development on a smaller footprint.
"It's turned into quite a process that I didn't expect," he says. "I think Bob Aronowitz really pioneered the area and made it much easier for other people to come in and get financing. And I think the Main Street Zoning is the way to go. It promotes Colfax and the residential. It takes height to the street instead of in the neighborhoods, which is where the zoning made me put it before. And it really makes a project a better-looking project from a building perspective."
For now, he's waiting and watching for the Denver City Council to approve the Main Street Zoning proposal. The neighbors are watching him just as closely, waiting to see if his buildings match the vision they spent three years creating.
"You know," says Buchanan, who put his school-board campaign headquarters in Chamberlain Heights, "there are places along Colfax that, if you kind of squint, it's cool. If you squint, there are places that could be Larimer Square. Granted, that takes some special goggles, but the bones are there. Add to that, Colfax is surrounded by our city's greatest density, and the tough part is done; it's just a matter of uncapping that potential. We've seen it work. We're at a tipping point. Absolutely, the time is right."
Hold the rats.