It was Wednesday, and grease was the word. That meant one thing: the Mexico City Lounge (or Cafe, depending on which sign you pay attention to), in the 2100 block of Larimer Street, where the weekly taco specials draw people from all walks of life.
In this instance, the walk was from several blocks away: the Westword office, in the heart of lower downtown, just before the area was tagged with the more marketable appellation of "LoDo." Two equally disheveled colleagues and I left the office one day at lunchtime, heading over on 18th Street to Larimer, where a left turn actually led to sidewalks (those along Blake and Market stopped abruptly in those days) and the Mexico City...past the Step 13 building, past the pawn shops, past the bums recreating horizontally in front of a liquor store. As we stepped over one, he saluted our passage: "The British are coming! The British are coming!"
Although this was many lunches and several years ago, Denver's bums--folks who would spit on the touchy-feely title of "homeless"--have yet to lose their sense of humor. They have, however, lost some of their favorite haunts. Because this fellow was right: The British were coming. And so was everyone else who wanted a piece of Denver's booming downtown.
Specifically, the parts of downtown that are booming thanks to the renaissance of LoDo and, in a not entirely related development, the area around the seven-month-old Coors Field. Even the Mexico City got into the swing of things: A few years ago, its nod to urban renewal involved taking a notch out of the building next door and adding a total of six new seats.
While other parts of downtown crumble (anyone want to buy a used paraboloid?) or cutesify (Union Station is slated to become the home of a TGIFriday's, of all things), the area around upper Larimer has kept its character. Now known as the Ballpark Neighborhood, it's fought hard to keep a grip on its heritage--and a hand in its destiny. But the game isn't over.
After all, plans are in the works. On Monday night, Denver City Council weighed the Northeast Downtown Plan, a project four years in the making and two years too late to have any real effect on the ballpark that forms its western boundary. And next month, the first draft of the Lower Downtown Neighborhood Plan, funded by $100,000 in state gambling money, is due at the office of the Lower Downtown District...about two years too late.
The man with that LoDo plan is Bill Lamont, today a consultant but ten years ago the head of Denver's planning department. In those days, the city thought that lower downtown's salvation lay in building a convention center behind Union Station. When voters put an end to that, the 1985 Downtown Plan called for the formation of the Lower Downtown District. But it was the hard work of dozens of businesses and residents that really made LoDo work. Meanwhile, the 1985 master plan, like most plans, gathered dust on city shelves.
The initial research for Lamont's current plan focuses on four case studies: Pioneer Square and Pike Place Market in Seattle, Fort Point Waterfront in Boston, and the South of Market District in San Francisco. (Nice work if you can get it.) But early drafts also make it clear that planners have set their sights a lot closer to home.
One envisions expanding the Lower Downtown District to the west--to the blocks just off Wynkoop occupied by Union Station and the Ice House and the old Union Pacific building that now houses the ChopHouse, land specifically excluded when the district was formed (and land in the process blessed with some unusual zoning exemptions, including one that would allow the construction of two twenty-story towers). Another draft proposal--marked with a question mark--calls for expanding the district to the north, into the Ballpark Neighborhood.
The British are coming. Karle Seydel, director of the neighborhood association, got wind of the invasion when a developer called and told him that one Lower Downtown District draft listed expansion into the area as a "second" priority. "It's a little disconcerting to someone who's spent six and a half years trying to create the Ballpark Neighborhood," Seydel says. "They've extended their area of thought into this area without any kind of discussion with the neighborhood association." It was tough enough, he adds, getting the city to include the group in the Northeast Downtown planning process. And now the well-heeled barbarians--including Arnold Schwarzenegger, who plans to bring Planet Hollywood to his property a block away in LoDo and has even hired the stadium district's John Lehigh to head the project--are at the gate.
"I think it's great that they've got the dollars," Seydel says of the Lower Downtown study. But he can't help thinking of all the times the tiny shops of North Larimer have had to scrape and scrap for every amenity. While the Lower Downtown District hosts wine-and-cheese receptions, the Ballpark Neighborhood had to raffle off televisions--not hot ones--to help pay for its fall street fair. While ballpark projects spill off in almost every other direction, this neighborhood has had to fight for every strip of sidewalk, every bit of landscaping. It is only because of the neighborhood's willingness to fight (to the point of threatening to sue the city and RTD) that 20th Street turned into an attractive avenue rather than a speedway. It is only because of the neighborhood's commitment to its century-old roots that most of Larimer is not a parking lot.
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"For a downtown to have a character and a culture, it has to have different neighborhoods," Seydel says. "We've still got some true grit."
Lower downtown may drop the notion of swallowing the Ballpark Neighborhood. But the empire-building does not end there. Over at the Downtown Denver Partnership, downtown's booster group, there's talk of taking over the Lower Downtown District; with its eye also turned to the property just across the tracks from LoDo, the partnership has already established a Central Platte Valley Development Council. The British are coming.
Up on Larimer, where flim-flam men and bunko artists have practiced their arts for a century, neighbors keep a wary eye on the people who would plan for their future now that the future looks so bright. And in the meantime, they get on with their business.
They're not about to wait and see what develops.