At the first hint of good weather -- the mysterious thaw that warms up early February, the late October sun that spins the autumn air into gold -- Coloradans head to the parks or hit the streets. In Denver, every square of cement suddenly sprouts seating.
No matter what the thermometer says on November 27, though, expect stormy emotions when the Perk & Pub on East Ohio Avenue is forced to roll up its sidewalks.
Besides the sunshine, one of Denver's greatest amenities is a wealth of neighborhoods. But those neighborhoods -- and the bickering that takes place inside, outside and along their borders -- can also be the source of Denver's greatest animosities. Almost 300 neighborhood groups are registered in this city, and every one has its Hatfield-McCoy feuds. The fights over barking dogs, abandoned cars, too-high fences, too-late parties. And, horror of horrors, illicit lattes consumed al fresco.
For Dave Blanchard and Kimmie Cominsky, trouble started brewing soon after they opened their Perk & Pub in West Washington Park, in the corner of a 1910 building that once was a grocery store, most recently held an energy-saving company, and is still next to the laundromat ("last wash at 10") where I ruined several loads of clothes when I first moved to Denver and lived around the corner in a neighborhood that, unlike its sibling on the other side of the park, showed no signs of impending gentrification. But that was then; now West Wash Park is booming. So when Cominsky and Blanchard, longtime friends, finally decided to act on an idea they'd had to create a neighborhood watering hole -- whatever your choice of liquid -- the area seemed like a natural. Tired of their corporate jobs, they found financing not through banks, but the "friends and family network," explains Blanchard.
Their business is all about friends and family. They painted the 600-square-foot space in bright colors, added a counter area, wired the place for high-speed Internet (access is free) and brought in an old booth from Denny's and chairs from Cominsky's house in Highlands Ranch to give the Perk & Pub seating for exactly six. Soon after they opened the tiny spot in April, they introduced an indoor kids' corner and outside dog parking -- this is West Wash Park, after all -- and once the city gave its seal of approval, they added outdoor seating on the wide sidewalk along Emerson Street, where neighbors can sit in the golden October sun and drink and chat. "I've met more neighbors at the Perk & Pub in the last five months than I'd met in a decade," offers one Tuesday tea-sipper.
"It looks like it's always been here," says Blanchard.
"No sharp edges, ever," adds Cominsky.
But they've heard from plenty of sharp tongues. As Infusious (and the sign at the Perk & Pub counter) say, "Just take one cup at a time."
Turns out the city had "mistakenly given a permit" for the Perk & Pub to operate an outdoor patio in an R-2 residential zone, according to Janice Tilden, technical director for the Denver Board of Adjustment. At the time the mistake was discovered, the Denver City Council was considering a code change that would allow patios at "non-conforming eating places" in residential districts, and the Perk & Pub filed an appeal, collecting petitions with more than a thousand signatures. But council voted against changing the code, dooming future patios at the little businesses that dot so many Denver neighborhoods, along with this one -- despite the fact that it closes two hours before the last wash and serves nothing more lethal than a double espresso. "Had the Perk & Pub not put up its patio when it did, people might not have been alerted to this legislation," says city councilwoman Kathleen MacKenzie (whose aide sighs at the mere mention of the words "Perk & Pub").
Cominsky and Blanchard admit they could have been clearer in their early communications with the neighborhood group. They should have let the West Washington Park Neighborhood Association know that they'd decided not to try for a liquor license, that one dictionary definition of "pub" doesn't even involve alcohol, but merely describes a "public meeting house" (and the Perk & Pub definitely qualifies there). Maybe then the WWPNA -- which never met a liquor-license application it liked and anticipates a flood of new applications for properties along Broadway -- would have been more supportive.
"There's a lot of emotion around the Perk & Pub," says Jim Jones, president of the WWPNA. "The gist of it is, they're in the R-2 zone, and a patio is an illegal use in an R-2 zone. Nobody in the neighborhood called; the city found out about it and sent a cease-and-desist order. From a neighborhood perspective, where we already have the pockets of business zoning, we don't need more."
No more exceptions to rules already full of loopholes. "In general, we're quite nervous," Jones admits. "Look at Cherry Creek North." And so, rather than watch non-stop scrape-offs, the WWPNA keeps a wary eye on all developments. "When dealing with people's homes, they become very interested and very emotional," he says. "They can be fairly passionate about it."
You don't need to remind Julius Zsako of that. At Denver's Community Planning and Development Department, he's seen -- and heard -- it all. The complaints about "too many people, too many animals, too many cars." In fact, there will be booths devoted to all three -- as well as many more concerns -- at the city's annual Neighborhood Leadership Conference on November 6. Participants will get to hear from the mayor, from the planning director, from the police chief. "It's your chance to discuss your pet peeve with a city official," says Zsako.
If "discuss" is the right word: All politics are local, and the fights from block to block in this city, in any city, make the presidential debates look like tea parties. Neighborhood spats truly hit you where you live.
"It's one of the things I love about local politics," says MacKenzie, sounding almost convinced. "They all feel they can have an opinion."
While opinions have been boiling over in West Wash Park, residents managed to keep a lid on the coffee clash at the WWPNA's semi-annual meeting last Wednesday. And as neighbors continue to stop in and offer their support, Cominsky and Blanchard are considering their options in West Wash Park. A meeting with city officials last week encouraged Cominsky to think about going for a PUD -- a Planned Unit Development rezoning -- that might save the patio, although probably not before the late-November deadline.
Infusious say "one cup at a time," and right now the partners have their hands full with the renovation of part of the old Olinger's into a second Perk & Pub -- this one with a real pub -- in a neighborhood that's welcomed them with open arms. "It was a night-and-day difference," says Cominsky. The neighborhood group -- Highland United Neighbors Inc., or HUNI -- has been supportive. The city council representative, Judy Montero, has been supportive. With the Highland Perk & Pub, they're going for the same "center of the community feel" -- but with more room for the community, less space for neighborhood spats, and no ugliness to block one of the best views of the city.
"The lessons we learned, we applied to the HUNI folks," Cominsky says. And so at this Perk & Pub, they'll offer breakfast, because the neighbors asked for it. They'll offer weekend brunch, because the neighbors asked for it. They'll serve "mourning brew" and "crematoria ale," in honor of the mortuary's august history. (Buffalo Bill slept here -- and never woke up.) And they'll offer a Bloody Mary bar, because -- well, I know the neighbors asked for it, since I live as close to the Olinger's building as I once lived to that laundromat on Ohio.
"We did everything the way they asked us to do it," says Cominsky.
"They've taken all the steps they need to with the neighborhood, listening to the neighborhood," says Montero. "They're capturing the stuff that keeps people together." And so even before the Perk side of the venture opens next month (with the Pub portion following a few weeks later), they'll host "Neighborfest 2004" from 2 to 8 p.m. on Saturday, October 30, with food, beer and live music from assorted bands, including the Reals, an act born and bred in Highland. The fun on Boulder Street is free and open to all.
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Even folks from West Washington Park.
"The city needs to set up a counselor," Cominsky concludes. "An expert on How to Open a Business for Dummies."
Chapter 1: The city should do the neighborly thing and roll out the welcome mat -- and the sidewalks -- in West Wash Park.