Boot Hell

In northwest Denver, you wake up, rub the sleep from your eyes and straggle toward Common Grounds at 32nd Avenue and Lowell Boulevard. There you wave to a friend, breathe in the aroma of espresso and order a muffin or scone and a large coffee. You grab a table, scan the paper, walk around the block, head to work and let the caffeine soak in.

It's a ritual, this morning trip to the neighborhood shopping strip. And if you come here for coffee early in your day, chances are you'll be back in the afternoon, picking up laundry, enjoying an ice cream cone, buying a six-pack, having dinner, browsing through a bookstore, renting a video, sipping a mocha.

You might stay longer than the two-hour street-parking limits allow. You might pull into a loading zone. You might even grab a spot in the lot across from Common Grounds that says "reserved." Most of the time, that's not a problem. Most merchants understand that customers park in one place, meander about and spread cash as they do. It's relaxed here. Friendly. People talk to each other and work out their problems. This is Highland, not a strip mall. This is a neighborhood.

Isn't it?

It was a Wednesday around 11 a.m., and Mike Drumm needed his morning fix: a double-shot, half-decaf latte. So he climbed inside his '96 Saturn and drove the ten blocks from his home to Common Grounds. He pulled into Highland Plaza, located directly across the street from the coffeehouse and into a spot that was reserved for the 32nd Avenue Laundry. Drumm didn't think much about that. Most of the businesses in the plaza had just opened for the day, and besides, there was always extra parking in the lot, especially where the health-food store used to be. Just to be sure, he looked around. Sure enough, there were plenty of empty spots.

"I'm not wedging in here and taking the last space," he thought. "I'm just going to run over there, get my latte, get in my car and drive away."

So he ran across the street, got his latte and returned to his Saturn. And there it was: a bright yellow clamp on his tire. The infamous Denver boot.

"Fifty bucks cash," the boot man said. "There's a bank two blocks away."
"Fifty bucks cash! I was only there for five minutes!"
"Sorry," the boot man said. "Just doing my job. Fifty bucks cash."

Realtors call it the next Washington Park, one of the hottest housing markets in the city. But to those who live and work in Highland, it's as much of a curse as it is a blessing.

Newcomers are arriving daily; they're fixing their bungalows, sinking roots and settling down. And they're bringing money with them. For the most part, that's been a good thing, merchants say. Rents have risen and some shops have closed, but others have taken their place. And despite the turnover, 32nd Avenue has kept the comfortable, funky atmosphere that the independent merchants there worked so hard to develop.

Still, Rod Wagner worries. He's owned the Galeria Mexicana folk-art shop for six years. In that time, he's seen the area change from a place where drunks slept in the alley to a place where moms roll babies down the sidewalk.

What happened to Drumm and dozens of others during the past few weeks is wrong, he says. If all newcomers adopt the attitude of the Highland Plaza boot man, if they only see Highland as a cash cow--that's fifty bucks cash--they'll kill the spirit that makes the neighborhood what it is.

"I don't think these people understand how a village works," Wagner says. "This is the first time someone has come in here and bought a place and drawn a line in the sand. This is not lower Manhattan, where you can sell a parking space for $35,000. Everyone feeds off everyone else. People come here to buy a gift, go across the street to buy flowers, then meet their girlfriend at the restaurant for dinner. That's how this area works. You can't be an island. That might work for businesses in Aurora and Highlands Ranch, but it won't work here. This is a neighborhood."

And neighbors don't boot each other, says Sandra DeCarolis-Smith, who owns the Earth Spirit boutique that stands across the street from Highland Plaza. She's worked hard to foster a sense of community. Collaring her customers, illegally parked or not, will destroy that.

"I'm more sad than angry," she says. "I'm more concerned about the attitude. This is just not friendly. It's anti-community. I've stood here and heard people getting mad and screaming. This boot thing is going to drive people away. It's going to hurt everyone."

But the saddest thing about it, DeCarolis-Smith adds, is that it's unnecessary. Unlike other shopping districts--even South Pearl and South Gaylord streets--32nd Avenue doesn't become gridlocked with traffic.

"It's not impossible to park here," she says. "If you go a half-block on Lowell, you'll find some. There's no reason for this."

"This is really a selfish thing to do," Wagner agrees. "I don't stand on the curb with my stopwatch to see if someone's two-hour parking limit has passed. They're making a mistake."

That's easy for them to say, replies Jeff Cheng, owner of Highland Plaza's China West. His restaurant is 2,000 square feet--but has only six parking spaces. Each day at lunch- and dinnertime, he stands outside in his apron and watches people take those spaces, then walk across the street. And each day, he points to the reserved parking signs posted throughout the lot.

"I say, 'How long are you going to be?' and they say, 'Goddamn son of a bitch!'" Cheng says. "They put their finger in your face and say, 'None of your business.' They just look at you and walk away."

They behave the same way with Michael Archuleta, who owns the Pizza Alley next door to Cheng. "I don't mind people coming in here for five minutes and then splitting," he says. "And even if they come in here and say, 'Can I park there?' That's fine, but they stay for hours. I'm a businessman. My only concern is my six parking spots. And their customers are eating up our parking. And we pay for our parking. It really does hurt us."

Around the corner, at 32nd Avenue Liquors, Albert Lopez walks to his window and points out a green van camped in his loading zone.

"No one is doing any loading there," he says. "Except maybe at the bar across the street."

Lopez has been doing business on 32nd Avenue for twenty years. Highland Plaza isn't the only place with problems, he says. Parking has become so bad that his delivery trucks must use the alleys, because the loading zones are occupied by shoppers. And when the police show up, they ticket his delivery trucks instead of the loading-zone violators.

"People can't read signs," Lopez says. "I had one guy park across the street under a sign saying 'Two Hours' and he stayed for three days! But you know what gets me? People don't want to walk. There's parking down the side street but they don't want to walk. They'd rather take my loading zone. If they're getting booted now, it's their own fault."

But it's not like the merchants don't try to help, Archuleta says. Before the boot goes on, he tells the scofflaws to watch out.

"This is not an us-against-them situation," he says. "This is our neighborhood, too. I've been working at this restaurant for twenty-two years. I'm getting tired of all this bickering. Everyone has to step back and give everyone else a little courtesy."

Which is how Dan DiRito looks at it. DiRito is vice president of property services for Axis Commercial Realty, which has managed Highland Plaza for eighteen months. The corporation that owns the plaza, Den-High, has every intention of being a good neighbor, he says. That's why it repaved the lot, painted buildings and added new signs.

Following the lead of a Cherry Creek property owner upset by parking scofflaws headed for Starbucks, Axis hired a freelance boot company (which DiRito will not name) after plaza tenants complained. But before Axis took that step, the plaza's owner visited 32nd Avenue to see the parking problems for himself. After that, Axis distributed warning fliers, posted warning signs and gave customers plenty of time to read them.

"This owner is not trying to be difficult," says DiRito. "He's not coming in here to be the bad guy and make everyone unhappy. He, like every other owner, reacts to tenants' needs and tries to solve problems."

Although it's one of the largest, most convenient parking lots on 32nd Avenue, Highland Plaza is still private property, DiRito points out. Tenants pay for their spaces. And just because there's been extra parking since two shops closed, that doesn't mean there will be extra parking once new tenants arrive.

"These tenants are trying to make a living," he says. "They shouldn't feel penalized for trying to provide their customers with ample parking. It's a very frustrating thing to be paying for parking that you don't ultimately have."

Being neighborly works two ways, DiRito adds. If nearby businesses were so concerned about the booting, why didn't they approach Axis and suggest alternatives? Why didn't they warn customers to park elsewhere? Why don't they buy their own lots?

"If I was the one booted, I'd be unhappy," DiRito says. "But I'd also have an appreciation for the reason it's been done. And if I were going to Common Grounds, I'd ask what Common Grounds is doing to provide more parking. If I was one of their clients, I'd want to know what's being done."

The booting shouldn't have surprised anyone, says Roberta Olson, the plaza's manager: Warning signs have been posted at the plaza for years. And so long as customers visit shops in the plaza before wandering around, they have nothing to worry about.

"It might seem harsh," she says. "But on the other hand, look at it as if someone were parking in your driveway. You pay for the use of that driveway because you own the land. If your neighbors wanted to park in your driveway, you'd be offended, too."

Until people get the message, Olson says, the booting will continue.

Lisa Rogers, the owner of Common Grounds, believes the end is in sight. She's seen this kind of thing before. It usually happens when someone from the outside comes in without taking time to understand how Highland works.

"The property managers of that plaza have never been from the neighborhood," she says. "They don't get involved. They don't join the neighborhood association. But once a year, they get upset and harass everyone. We've been here seven years and we see it every year."

And every year, her employees warn the customers. In that way, Rogers says, the crackdown is healthy.

"It's not such a bad thing to remind people that those parking spaces belong to the plaza," she says. "Once a year, it's okay to remind people, 'Don't park there all day if you're not going to get pizza and a video.'"

But she laughs at the suggestion that Common Grounds and other shops are somehow hurting Highland Plaza.

"We bring their businesses business," she says. "Customers visit all the stores. We work together."

Despite the arrival of Axis Commercial Reality and the private boot man, Rogers and her neighbors will try hard to make sure it stays that way.

Mike Drumm still needs his morning fix. And he'll still drive to Common Grounds to get it. The boot hasn't changed his mind about that, or about many of the businesses on 32nd Avenue.

"This is a cool area," he says. "It's one of the fairly unique commercial districts in Denver. It's got a warm architectural feeling and a lot of independent businesses. People take a lot of pride in that it's a nice place."

But it has changed his mind about parking--and shopping--at Highland Plaza. The landlord already has $50 of his money. The next time he needs a slice of pepperoni, a helping of chow mein or a Friday-night video, he'll think twice before giving them more.

"This is just a cheap and scuzzy way to pocket a lot of cash," he says. "This guy is taking advantage of the fact that this is a popular place and preying upon unsuspecting people. In Cherry Creek--where they're booting people, too--maybe they can make a case for a shortage of parking and for taking this vulturous attitude. But here, that's just not the case. There's always parking at that plaza. Always. I don't have a bias against other businesses, but I have one against that plaza. Whatever their intent was in the beginning, it's going to backfire now.


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