BRICK BY BRICK
It was eighteen years ago this week that Westword, which would be printing Volume 1, Number 1, in a matter of hours, moved out of a bungalow basement and into its first office in LoDo.
Not, of course, that this part of town was then known by that hip, nod-to-New-York name. In those days the 1400 block of Market--and all the blocks above and beyond it down to Union Station--were referred to, vaguely, as being somewhere around Larimer Square. And although that then-ten-year-old project had saved one of the city's oldest, most historic areas from the wrecking ball that leveled nearby blocks during "urban renewal," Larimer Square was still not a part of town that drew many Denverites. It was something saved for special occasions, for tourists visiting from Des Moines who'd already gone to the Mint and downed a few beers at Coors and maybe eaten at the old Top of the Rockies.
We set up shop in three small, peculiarly painted rooms on the second floor of a Victorian-era building that once had been a brothel; our soon-to-be long-suffering landlord assured us that when he'd bought the storefront, it had been lined with working girls' cribs. Late at night in the late 1970s, though, this part of town was certainly less lively than it must have been a century before. The walk to our typesetter (a trade almost as anachronistic today as madam Mattie Silk's) took us to one of the few renovated buildings in lower downtown. Along the way we would dodge dozens of bums, who had yet to be dignified with the appellation of "homeless." In the morning we frequently stepped over transients on our doorstep; sometimes we found them washing up in the small bathroom we shared with our landlord. And once, in the wee hours, two particularly toothless gentlemen stumbled into our offices, blanketed the floor with wilting flowers, shouted "We love you" and then stole away into the night.
LoDo--or whatever you felt like calling it--had its charms even then.
Within a few years, though, our building surrendered to progress and became one of the first downtown lofts. We moved two blocks away to a second-floor space above the Wazee Super Club, an almost-decade-old outpost of civilized swilling and conversation. The amenities here included another long-suffering landlord, a still-shared single bathroom, the smell of pizza wafting nonstop through the vents and a marvelous view of traffic passing on the rickety 15th Street Viaduct. But progress--our own, this time--soon sent us scrambling farther down 15th Street to an actually renovated building, this one rumored to be an old coffin factory, in the lowest reaches of downtown.
And from there, a half-dozen years ago, we returned to the heart of what was by then known as LoDo, just a half-dozen blocks from where we'd started out. What was far beyond the pale in 1977 today lies in the shadow of the new baseball stadium.
But there are other shadows falling over LoDo these days.
The anticipated overflow from Coors Field--both in parking and patrons--has already cost the city several older buildings to the northeast, and more deals are cut daily. Already, thousands of revelers spill out of Larimer Square and across LoDo every day, a flood that would have seemed a mirage eighteen years ago. In those days no one would have bragged about spending two days at 18th and Wynkoop drinking beer, as over 10,000 people did last weekend at LoDo's first brewfest.
Lower downtown has gone uptown. But with progress comes possessiveness--and petulance. Can't you tell all these people with out-of-state license plates to go home? asked one imbiber. Why don't you yell at the chamber of commerce for bringing these people here? whined another. But the fact is, the chamber is no more responsible for attracting people today than it was almost two decades ago, when boosters' biggest concern was changing Denver's "cowtown" image to something more cosmopolitan than John Denver songs--and the boom wouldn't bust for many more years.
It was during those dark days in the late Eighties that LoDo fans and property owners pushed through historic-landmark designation for the thirty blocks between Larimer and Union Station. The deal was not without concessions: The city left a loophole for the someday construction of three twenty-story-high towers behind Union Station, one in the very parking lot where all the beer was flowing last weekend. And B-7 zoning stipulations allowed for new buildings in the district itself as tall as 135 feet, after some landowners quibbled at the proposed limit of 85 feet. At the time, of course, the point seemed moot: In 1987, no one was building anything at all.
By last year, though, LoDo was a rising star--which is why the Denver Urban Renewal Authority's blight study raised eyebrows across the city. The result of that study stretched the agency's sphere of influence--and funding--into the one part of downtown that was actually making it on its own.
The eyebrows stayed high when, just two weeks ago, DURA was narrowly prevented from accepting almost overnight a proposal for a $5.5 million subsidy that would help plop an eleven-story building at 15th and Blake, a structure that would tower over its neighbors. After Lower Downtown District Inc. head Diane Blackman complained to DURA that although the agency had been privy to revised plans for several months, the community had not, the project received a ninety-day stay in order to allow "public consideration." Blackman, however, has already given Ray Suppa's project her due consideration. "It's in the heart of the oldest part of the city," she says. "It just doesn't fit." And even if it squeaks in just under the district's height restrictions, does that give DURA an obligation to fund it--with public monies?
Since the fight to reclaim LoDo has been measured in inches of ground gained over years of effort expended, it's not surprising that the crisis comes over a matter of a few stories. Blackman's group plans to apply to the state historic department for a $100,000 grant to fund an emergency study of LoDo's future. In the meantime, she's asked Suppa four times to make a presentation on his project to the community; he's refused four times. This week, LDDI will host its informational session without him. Suppa plans to hold his own meeting next week.
The battle for LoDo is on. And the bloom is off the rose.
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