What Is Denver's Future Without the Buildings From Its Past?

The current and beautiful state of the Uptown Tavern.
The current and beautiful state of the Uptown Tavern.
Tavern Hospitality Group.

When I read about plans to demolish the 115-year old building currently housing the Tavern Uptown, I had to drive by and see the structure again for myself. It is a stately piece of real estate on East 17th Avenue  — one that I have walked, biked and driven by hundreds of times in my life. Situated among dry, hot parking lots that had no doubt replaced other beautiful buildings that once stood in their places (Denver has a bad history of replacing historic structures with parking lots, particularly downtown), the structure had always seemed like a key piece of the streetscape. And while walking along the strip again, one of the things that struck me was how, just across the street, sibling restaurants Steuben's and Ace had utilized, rather than demolished, older buildings to create fresh, contemporary hangouts. 

Along this stretch, these three restaurant/bars create a welcoming atmosphere — something I find to be missing from most new development in Denver. Though the three buildings were created in different eras, they work well together and lend a certain charm to 17th Avenue, a street that often is overshadowed by Colfax, its kooky and storied neighbor just two blocks south. And I wondered if Tavern Hospitality Group CEO Frank Schultz had considered the effect the demolition of this building might have on the neighborhood when he sold it. (Historic Denver is currently pushing a petition to save it, one that I signed.)

I think a lot about structures and how we as humans interact with them on a daily basis. Big windows and detailed wood trim on turn-of-the-century houses excite me; curved ceilings and art deco architecture created with perfect pockets for neon lighting make me want to linger in a space. And while I am by no means someone who gets around this city as a pedestrian as much as I should, lately I've been driving to different parts of Denver and walking around various neighborhoods just so I can get a feel for what is going on there. Sadly, much of Denver feels lost and empty to me. There are buildings going up everywhere for people to inhabit, but those structures just make me want to run away from the city I've called home for three and a half decades. 

I know I'm not alone in these feelings. Because I am a person who uses social media as a place to talk about Denver's potential demise at the hands of bad development, friends send me tips, personal thoughts and photographs of the changes that they, too, are seeing and feeling in Denver. On Grant Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues, duplexes and small houses converted to small offices have been sitting behind a construction fence for months; a friend who lives around the block has been watching in sad anticipation, wondering what's next for the modest structures. He even sent me some pictures recently, as if to make sure we had concrete evidence that they'd existed. And sure enough, after two years, we learned that a developer has purchased the multiple lots for $4.7 million to build — you guessed it — a giant apartment complex. Those structures will soon be gone.

As someone else also pointed out to me via a social-networking conversation, real estate is now the biggest growth industry in Colorado. We might think it's weed or tech or whatever, but it's actually the money being made when land exchanges hands. In June, the Denver Post reported that $40 million in land deals had happened along Brighton Boulevard in just a ninety-day period. Some real-estate agents are renaming neighborhoods to suit the tastes of their big-money buyers — one realtor takes credit for  the nightmare term "SloHi," a garish combination of Sloan's Lake and Highland. In fact, many real-estate agents aren't even hiding their motivations anymore, marketing houses not as homes but as "pre-scrapes." 

What used to be the Gardens section of the Country Club Gardens apartments.
What used to be the Gardens section of the Country Club Gardens apartments.
countryclubtowers.com

There's a part of South Downing Street just off of Speer that I drive along half a dozen times every week; I also walk this route often when I'm heading to Wash Park to exercise. It used to be a section of beautiful 1940s apartments with communal green space as its centerpiece — earning its name Country Club Gardens — until last year, when it started being developed in a deal approved by the city twelve years ago and recently resurrected. Now a thirty-story tower is being crammed right in the middle, where grass and flowers used to be. The surrounding neighborhood is already a mix of smaller, mid-century apartment buildings, pre-war homes and a few other dastardly huge apartment complexes of the past two decades, but this development adds major insult to the injury.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Larimer Square — not the fiftieth anniversary of its existence, but the fiftieth anniversary of when Dana Crawford saved the block of historic late-1800s buildings from demolition. I know that I take a part of the city like Larimer Square for granted; it's always been there, and, thanks to her preservation efforts, it always will be. So next time you're downtown, take a moment to walk along Larimer Square from 14th to 15th streets, and then continue walking to 16th Street. If you're at all like me, you'll instantly notice how it feels to be standing next to stone structures with serious Denver history, and how different it feels to stand by newer apartment towers — not to mention the Cheesecake Factory. Yes, these things can coexist. But historic Larimer Square wouldn't be here today if Dana Crawford hadn't fought to save it. 

Now neighbors and new city council rep Rafael Espinoza are fighting to save the Anderson House, a 125-year-old Queen Anne in Jefferson Park; a judge ruled August 14 that their application for landmark designation can be considered despite the owner's objection. Seeing a picture of the beautiful piece of architecture, I could immediately understand why there was a desire to save it. (In fact, I signed the petition to do so.) But what really struck me was this part of the description from the petition's page: "It is a prominent, ornate, and rare surviving example of a Queen Anne house in the Jefferson Park Neighborhood." Jefferson Park has already become a hellhole of neo-Denver development. The last thing the neighborhood needs is to lose a piece of its old Denver self.

Beyond the zoning issues, beyond the millions of dollars in real estate being snatched up by both national and local developers, beyond the fights over which buildings are worth saving, here's what I want to know: What about the preservation of the atmosphere of Denver as a city? We are not a very old city; the structures that exist from each decade of our time as the Queen City of the Plains work together to tell the story of our young life. I do agree that not all old buildings are worth rescuing — but some of them are. At this particular time in Denver's existence, the rate at which we are losing grand structures to not-so-grand new developments is what is causing feelings of desperation. It's one thing to lose a building or two each year to new development; it's another thing to live in a city that feels more like a continuous construction zone. I know that people are the beings in mind as these new structures are built, but when it comes to how people interact with a city, what is being considered? New development is so much more than creating structures that people will pay money to live in. It should also be about creating an environment that welcomes the humans it was meant for. 

Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies


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