A neighborhood feud over the proposed rezoning of East Colfax Avenue has wound up in court, with two of Colfax's best-known businesspeople trading accusations of slander and suppression of free speech. While that dispute plays out in Denver District Court, the larger question of the future of one of Denver's oldest streets has yet to be settled.
Last month, James Hannifin, co-owner of the Ready Men day labor service on East Colfax, sued Margot Hartmann, a longtime Colfax community leader and former city council candidate who owns the Holiday Chalet bed-and-breakfast inn, directly across the street from Ready Men. The suit alleges that Hartmann defamed Ready Men at a public meeting, accusing the business of driving away bed-and-breakfast customers by letting the laborers cash their checks at a nearby liquor store, "buy booze and get drunk, and then relieve themselves in the neighborhood alleys and litter neighborhood yards with empty bottles."
Hartmann says the suit is an outrageous effort to deprive her of freedom of speech. "It's a travesty," she says. "I have every right to express my opinions, as does Mr. Hannifin."
The legal tempest is the latest skirmish over the proposed new zoning for more than thirty blocks of East Colfax between Broadway and Colorado Boulevard. The rezoning is being pushed by Colfax on the Hill Inc., a group of neighborhood boosters who want to change East Colfax's reputation for tawdriness. The proposal would discourage new porno shops, liquor stores, tattoo parlors and employment services like Ready Men. Backers of the rezoning, including Hartmann, say they're simply trying to turn around a street that many people avoid.
"These are the types of businesses that wind up on a street in decline," says Buzz Geller, a partner in Paradise Cleaners who is active in Colfax on the Hill. "These are businesses that aren't neighborhood- and retail-friendly."
Geller says his group was spurred into action after watching the renaissance of other central Denver neighborhoods. On both sides of East Colfax, housing prices have climbed and new residential projects are under way. But East Colfax itself hasn't enjoyed the success of its neighbors. "We've had this black eye on prostitution and other things," says Geller. "It's a shame. People are moving back into the city, and it's time we do something. Homes in Congress Park and south City Park have come back. They deserve a better street than what we have."
But Hannifin says the rezoning is part of a plan to chase poor people out of the neighborhood and hand over East Colfax to chardonnay-slurping yuppies. "They want to change the character of Colfax into Cherry Creek North," he says. "It's part of the anti-poor movement all over the country. Instead of ethnic cleansing, it's economic cleansing."
Many of his employees live day-to-day and need to have their checks cashed immediately, says Hannifin. "We're open 24 hours a day," he says. "The only place they can cash their check is at the International House of Pancakes or the liquor store. A lot of them have hotel bills to pay." Hannifin insists he has no special arrangement for check-cashing with a bar or liquor store.
According to Hannifin, much of the culture clash on East Colfax is being prompted by bed-and-breakfasts that have sprung up around the avenue in the last few years. Besides Hartmann's Holiday Chalet, there are a half dozen other small hotels just off East Colfax on High Street and Race Street. "These bed-and-breakfasts are Johnny-come-latelies, and they're pushing this," he says. "They feel the Colfax environment is not conducive to their business. Margot Hartmann has been anti-Ready Men since before I moved in. She had this preconceived notion we were going to draw in every bad guy in Denver."
Hannifin asked Judge William Meyer for a preliminary injunction to prevent Hartmann from "publishing any comments whatsoever about Hannifin and Ready Men during the pendency of this action." The judge refused to grant that request, finding that Hannifin did not establish that the statements were false and offered no proof of damages. Meyer also said Hartmann's comments were made in the context of political debate and would most likely be protected by the Constitution, but he refused to toss the case out of court. Hartmann's attorney will seek to have the suit dismissed, while Hannifin's lawyer has asked the court for more time before deciding whether to pursue the lawsuit.
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Meanwhile, the future of East Colfax is still uncertain. Besides discouraging certain kinds of businesses, the proposed zoning would also provide incentives to developers to convert the upper floors of their buildings into housing. Existing businesses like Ready Men would not be affected by the new zoning, although they might run into trouble if they wanted to expand. The zoning plan also calls for a design review of any new structures on East Colfax to be sure they blend in with the older buildings.
At one time, East Colfax was one of Denver's premier boulevards, and the street still has dozens of turn-of-the-century brick buildings that could be converted into lofts. Hartmann grew up on East Colfax--her family has owned the Holiday Chalet building since 1912--and she remembers walking down the street alone as a young girl, visiting the local florist, who gave her carnations, and chatting with a Polish tailor who had survived the Holocaust. The destruction of much of Denver's former skid row on Larimer Street during the "urban renewal" of the late 1960s helped trigger the decline of East Colfax, as prostitution and drug dealing moved to the street.
Hartmann says making the street more friendly for residents and small businesses is the best bet to revive East Colfax; she adds that it will benefit the poor people who patronize Ready Men by providing new jobs at restaurants and retail stores.
"This street is for everyone--it always has been," she says.
The proposed rezoning is now being reviewed by the city planning department before referral to the city council.