If you frequent Denver's hot restaurant neighborhoods in search of great eateries and bars, you probably have a mental map of routes that are just too much of a hassle to take. Cone zones and lane closures make navigating the streets tricky, and road closures mean that finding street parking, or even a way into a restaurant's parking lot, is a risky proposition. Lyft and Uber drivers throw up their hands in frustration as their GPS systems fail to guide them to your destination because contractors have blocked the usual routes and shift traffic through detours that change on an almost daily basis. "FML," you utter with exasperation as your dinner plans are dashed. Now multiply your own situation by the hundreds of other potential restaurant customers who skip construction-heavy parts of town, and you'll realize the predicament that restaurateurs and other business owners find themselves in.
"We're down 35, 40 percent," says Troy Guard, chef/owner of Mister Tuna, at 3301 Brighton Boulevard, where more than a year of utilities projects and a major road overhaul have slowed traffic to a trickle and diverted diners to more accessible areas of the hot RiNo district. "We thought we could weather it. But I've opened a ton of restaurants, and never, ever have I seen anything of this magnitude."
Right now, what was once the southbound lane of Brighton Boulevard that runs past Industry, where Mister Tuna is located, is nothing more than a ditch, and the northbound lane has been constricted down to a narrow single-file. The turn lane — in fact, the entire median — is gone, making it impossible to get to the parking at and around the building from the main thoroughfare. If you want to get to any of the businesses at Industry, which include a bar and grill named Will Call and the Japanese-style pub Izakaya Ronin, your knowledge of back streets and secret routes will need to approach that of London's storied black-cab drivers.
And even when diners can get to Mister Tuna, Guard's been unable to open long rows of glass doors during nice weather or seat customers on the long patio of his restaurant because of construction noise and dust. "It feels like there's no end in sight," he says. "We've been told it will be eight more weeks; if it went on any longer, I might have to consider closing."
The seemingly endless project involves utilities work as well as the road construction overseen by the Denver Department of Public Works. The original schedule called for work between 29th and 40th streets along Brighton to be done by fall 2017, so to Guard, Kyle Zeppelin — owner of the Source, which houses several restaurants and retail operations just up the road — and Bo Porytko, co-owner of Rebel Restaurant around the corner at 3763 Wynkoop Street, the project seems like it's already eight months late. But according to Denver Public Works, its portion of the job, which includes new sidewalks, cycle tracks (raised, protected bike lanes — an innovative feature), improved intersections, landscaping, benches and street parking (in addition to the widened, resurfaced road itself) is actually ahead of schedule and set to be completed by mid-June.
So why the stretched timeline? The actual construction project had to wait until utilities companies finished their work, which took longer than anticipated and was out of the city's hands.
For business owners, construction reached a crisis point when the city posted notification that it would shut down Brighton entirely "as soon as April 26 to May 7" between 29th and 31st streets — right in front of Mister Tuna, Will Call and Izakaya Ronin. This was unacceptable, Guard and Zeppelin say, and a breach of what they had been promised when the project began — that at no point would any stretch of Brighton be entirely shut down.
The news was particularly grim since Cinco de Mayo falls on the same day as the Kentucky Derby, making this coming weekend a big one for drinking and dining. If you can reach a restaurant, that is.
The River North Art District has been acting as a kind of intermediary between the city and RiNo businesses, hosting regular update meetings and relaying information. Jamie Licko, president of the organization, says the district did "successfully get the city to keep at least one lane of traffic open as the city works to finish up the 29-31st segment of Brighton. We are grateful the city found a compromise that didn't ultimately delay delivery.
"At the end of the day, construction is hard. We knew this project would not be easy. The city has done some things very well, and others could have been done better," she adds.
Zeppelin points out that business is down significantly for Comida and Acorn, two restaurants inside the Source, and that Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe and Boxcar Coffee both pulled out of the market hall at least in part because of the lack of customer traffic. (Construction on Zeppelin's Source Hotel and a parking garage have also made it difficult to reach and park at the Source.) The Source has been hosting pop-ups from national chefs and restaurants to bring in additional business, he says, creating events in the central area of the hall and offering rent deferrals, parking breaks and other concessions to help businesses get through the construction.
As a property developer, Zeppelin's perspective is different, he admits. He's in it for the long haul, so the relatively short-term impact of a two-year construction project (including utilities work) doesn't affect his company the way it does small businesses. But he also wants to see his tenants succeed.
"We were prepared for a difficult situation," he explains. "And here the requirements are so loose, and they're just not prioritizing the work. This is symptomatic of how things are being run — with no regard to people."
At Rebel, construction on 38th and Wynkoop streets have meant that access to the tiny eatery (located in what was once a neighborhood dive bar) has been difficult over the past year or more. Chef/owners Bo Porytko and Dan Lasiy posted this message on Instagram after the most recent road closure on Wynkoop:
We are open for business and there is still access to our parking lot while they do construction on our street. However we would like to once again thank the city of Denver for making it exponentially more difficult for us to do business with their restrictive construction while simultaneously hiking our taxes by astronomical amounts to pay for the very thing that is a bane on our financial success.
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Porytko says he doesn't know whether Rebel will be able to tough it out until construction in the area is complete; the restaurant offers a cutting-edge menu on the edge of RiNo, so the hordes of drinkers and diners who have descended on the more bustling part of the district closer to Coors Field have had little effect on Rebel's business, especially since navigating up Brighton has proven increasingly difficult.
"We have regulars apologizing for not coming by in a while, but they have been 'avoiding our neighborhood like the plague,'” Porytko adds. "I understand that there is a lot of work involved in transforming a neighborhood — especially one as traditionally industrial as ours — but we have never received any communication about street closures, and as I mentioned, our taxes have skyrocketed to pay for the very thing that it hurting us. We just feel disappointed by the city for not doing anything to help support a very small business that had a small hand in helping make the neighborhood more attractive in the first place."
Guard, Zeppelin and Porytko all agree that they took a risk opening in a developing part of Denver, where they hoped to be part of what would make the neighborhood desirable. Guard puts it best: "The pioneers get the arrows, but the settlers get the gold."
These restaurateurs and businessmen blazed a trail, giving Denver diners something new and fun to seek out — but now their followers have found that trail blocked.