THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED
Lower downtown cleared out on Monday, as hundreds of people dropped purple sweatshirts over their suits and took themselves out to the ball game.
You could have popped a high fly into the heart of this historic district a stone's throw from Coors Field, and no one would have been around to catch it.
But then, just a year from opening day at the new ballpark, much of the grabbing has already been done.
Every slick developer left in town--and plenty from outside the state--has explored the area, snapping up everything from warehouses renovated a decade ago as Larimer Square's success spilled northwest to vacant lots in the heart of what's still Denver's equivalent of Skid Row. A decrepit hotel, empty for years but two blocks from Coors Field, sells for a million bucks. Location is everything.
Farther up on Larimer Street, the businesspeople who've fought to create a neighborhood and hold onto their modest properties through some of the city's toughest times try to stand firm, waiting to see if any of this newfound prosperity will come their way. Owners of the storefront restaurants contemplate new vinyl chairs and coats of paint. Even the handful of remaining bars are starting to clean up their acts; since the turn-of-the-century the saloons of Larimer Street have catered to some of the city's rowdiest clientele and have the stories--punctuated by actual bullet holes--to prove it. Over at the Elbow Room--a smoky joint at the corner of 20th Street that serves menudo on Sundays and will never be mistaken for a Cherry Creek bistro--the managers now talk about adding live jazz, the better to attract baseball fans who'll spill over into the area after games and surely expect such highbrow stuff instead of the salsa already on the jukebox. And the notorious Herb's Hideout has already undergone an unlikely transformation into a convivial piano bar. Its new owners open the back door and point to the sad yard that will be transformed into an outdoor patio overlooking the ballfield--and the inevitable parking lots that will line Blake Street.
Until last month, one of those lots would have belonged to Mary Elizabeth Siiro.
Like much of the land in this old commercial district, Siiro's property at 22nd and Blake had been in the family for close to a century. From their pioneering days in Leadville they'd come down to Denver, where Siiro's grandfather--a lawyer who dabbled in real estate--bought the first two lots in 1903, then added two more in 1913. The land probably wasn't his greatest investment.
By the time Siiro, who grew up in Denver and attended Colorado College before getting married and settling back East, inherited the parcel, it had already dwindled into a parking lot.
Not that there was much call for parking in that part of town. Occasionally Siiro would have to hire someone to clean up the litter left by derelicts, but otherwise the property pretty much took care of itself. "There wasn't much call for parking in recent years," she says.
And then the stadium district came calling.
When Siiro received the first letters asking whether her land was for sale, "I just ignored it," she remembers. She'd heard that a baseball stadium was going to be built nearby, and she figured that a parking lot would be a useful thing to have--both for herself and for the city. Then she received another letter from the district, announcing that it would like to buy her land in order to trade it to another property-owner who possessed a parcel that lay directly in the path of Coors Field. Siiro didn't see any point to getting involved in such a deal. "I ignored that completely," she says. "The land had been in the family for so long, I didn't want to give it up."
For a long time, there were no more letters to ignore. And then the mail--legal-looking documents this time--started up again. "It just came out of the blue," Siiro says. The stadium district wanted her land in the worst way--and this time had the power of condemnation granted by the legislature last year, a power that allowed the district to grab land outside of Coors Field itself.
The stadium district had to have Siiro's property, officials told her. Perhaps for a handicapped drop-off, they said, although she points out that those dropped off will still have to cross a busy street to get to the ballfield. Or maybe for a parking lot--so far, the district has only 4,500 spaces for its 50,000-seat field. But in any case, the district wanted Siiro's land--and got it at a March 17 condemnation proceeding in Denver District Court.
Siiro still considers Colorado home, and she returned for the proceedings. "I was so new to the procedure that I just didn't say anything," she says. And by now the stadium district had lots of experience in land grabs, including last year's hard-fought battle for the Cowperthwaite family parcels. (After Siiro lost, the Cowperthwaites sent her flowers in sympathy.)
Had Siiro been able to speak up, she says, she would have told the court what the property meant to her family. She would have asked how all the development will affect the area. "I wonder what difference it's going to make in Denver," she says. " Is it going to help people?"
In this case, the courts helped those who helped themselves. The district won the right to seize Siiro's property--at $9 a square foot, when other land in the area is going for $20. And even as the first pitch was thrown at Mile High, workers were preparing the lot for paving.
"It's a shame to see the changes," says Siiro, who sits in her Rhode Island home and tries to visualize everything. "They're sweeping away a lot of history in the process. That's progress, I guess."
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