The silver-and-gray sentry is flashing a red warning: Expired. Expired. Expired.
But plug a quarter into parking meter number BN-46, and it will calm down for an hour. That's just enough time for Anthony Gengaro to step into the Hornet, a restaurant at 76 Broadway, and give his perspective on the Great Denver Meter Rebellion.
Gengaro, a neatly tailored businessman -- who is president of the Broadway Partnership/Metropolitan Denver Local Development Corporation (MDLDC) -- doesn't refer to it as a "rebellion." But don't be fooled: The native New Yorker, who pronounces "Broad-way" as they do in his hometown, played a key role in protesting the city's attempt to collect more parking revenues this past February. After just eighteen days, the city was forced to stop its ticket blitz and instead collect input from a neighborhood task force. Gengaro played a key role there, too.
"Businesses are still trying to recover from those eighteen days," Gengaro says, taking a chair near one of the Hornet's ceiling-high windows that look out onto Broadway -- and the silent BN-46. The thoroughfare was one of the places stung by parking czar John Oglesby's plan to jack up meter rates to $1 an hour and unleash aggressive enforcement around town. Actually, Gengaro uses a stronger word than "aggressive," but asks that it go unmentioned.
"I got three phone calls within an hour from merchants saying the city had changed the meters and had written dozens of tickets. Patrons who went to buy used books for a few dollars found themselves with $20 parking tickets. They were furious and demanded the businesses pay them or they wouldn't come back," he remembers. "The meters had been changed to $1 an hour. People were used to putting in a quarter and didn't notice."
Within days, Gengaro -- who was lambasted by some constituents for being caught unawares by the sneak attack -- and other neighborhood business leaders met with parking honchos in Denver City Councilwoman Kathleen MacKenzie's office. Oglesby and city officials attempted to "smooth things over," Gengaro says, without getting into specifics.
But Gengaro, president of Gengaro Companies, a diversified commercial real estate firm, pays attention to specifics. He knows there are 450 meters along Denver's one-time "Miracle Mile," from Speer Boulevard south to the I-25 exchange, and he knows businesses rely on them. "Parking is a major constraint of the area," he says. "Over 95 percent of the businesses depend on meter parking. The other 5 percent have off-street parking."
The six meters outside the Hornet prove to be very popular as the lunchtime crowd starts spilling in. Amid the bustle, Hornet executive chef Jon Papineau makes a beeline for Gengaro and greets him warmly. Papineau, who started his job in November and represented the restaurant at public meetings, says the parking flap was a big introduction to Denver politics.
"Businesses here have been working hard. We don't want to lose out," he says, noting that the number of diners dipped during the February enforcement period, when a quarter bought only fifteen minutes of time and meters had a two-hour limit.
As if on cue, REO Speedwagon's 1973 classic "Ridin' the Storm Out" filters down in the background. Matt, a casually attired waiter sporting a punchy, yellow-and-blue tie-dyed T-shirt that could have come from the same Speedwagon era, takes Gengaro's order for a California club sandwich. Lunch Meet's selection is unmeaty: a Santa Fe veggie burger. Both arrive quicker than a parking-enforcement officer.
"The major rub was, parking management didn't inform the city council or the businesses of their plan," Gengaro says, brandishing a fry. "They said they talked to people, but we couldn't find anyone. They may have spoken to the downtown people."
The irony, he adds, is that the Broadway area has had strong links with city government and has played a key role in Denver's history. But the once-humming hub of trolley traffic and stately buildings had quieted by 1965, when the city turned Broadway and Lincoln into one-way streets. That move accelerated the area's decline, and over the next fifteen years the stretch continued to go downhill.
"It was just seedy," Gengaro explains. "Businesses were struggling."
One of the only places doing a healthy business was Mary & Lou's restaurant -- "a greasy spoon we loved to eat breakfast at," Gengaro says -- which occupied the space where the Hornet now sits. Concerned merchants and residents petitioned the city and created a local improvement district in 1980.
The district, overseen by the non-profit MDLDC, battled to turn things around. Gengaro came on the scene in 1985 as part of a group of investors that rescued a condemned building at First Avenue and Broadway, Denver's first steel-framed structure. New businesses were wooed, trees planted, stolen furniture replaced. An Albertson's and other major retailers were added as urban renewal kicked in a decade ago. Gengaro and others in the Broadway Partnership -- an association that merged with the MDLDC and grew to include hundreds of businesses, property owners and area residents -- were clear in their vision for Broadway.
"We wanted shops along the street right-of-way, not a sea of parking," Gengaro emphasizes.
He scans the street. No sign of tickets.
"And as you can see, no shortage of parking at, what, noon? It's like, if it ain't broke, don't fix it," he declares before returning to his sandwich -- and to history.
Development, transit stations and an expanded local-improvement district all signaled more progress.
"We'd gone from an incubator to seeing more and more tenants with a balance sheet, able to sign long-term leases," he says. "Businesses could afford to fix their storefronts, upgrade their electrical and plumbing."
With change came some losses, though. In December 1995, Mary & Lou's was replaced by the sleekly hip Hornet. Rents have increased from about $4 per square foot to an average of $18 or $20 per square foot.
"But I don't think we're victims of our own success," Gengaro contunues. "It's still funky; it's still Broadway. This isn't Rodeo Drive."
More than half of the businesses remain local, he points out. Nightlife grew beyond the offerings at the historic Mayan Theater on the next block. "We don't roll up the sidewalks at 6 p.m. anymore," he says.
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And then, just as Broadway was starting to boom -- kaboom: The city imposed its unexpected, unwanted parking plan on Broadway.
In the meetings that followed, though, the city acceded to most of the neighborhood's requests. And when Mayor Wellington Webb's new parking plan for the cash-strapped city is put in place on June 3, Broadway businesses will support it. "I think the city responded well to the demands and concerns of the property owners," Gengaro says. "They saw the error of their ways."
He stands up to leave; there are more meetings ahead. Outside, shaded slightly by a tree, BN-46 has flared up: Expired, it tattles. But for a quarter, or dime, or even a nickel, you can buy a little time.