Better Block Project sets its sights on Five Points -- and Sonny Lawson Park

What could a fresh coat of paint, live music and a comfortable place to enjoy a meal outdoors do for a block in your neighborhood? Residents of Five Points could find out this Saturday, May 11, when Denver's second Better Block project focuses on the 2400 block of Welton Street -- home of Sonny Lawson Park. The one-day mini-makeover of a city block will also include dance performances, food vendors, gardening demonstrations, walking tours and more.

Last year's edition focused the Jefferson Park area, and the block of West 25th Avenue where the event was held is indeed looking better. In advance of Saturday's block party, Westword spoke with Gosia Kung, director of WalkDenver, the organization behind the project, about last year's success and this year's goals.

See also: - Photos: Better Block project transforms Jefferson Park spot - Five Points community gets to the point at cultural potluck today - Photos: Corner House opens today with chef Matt Selby behind the burners

Westword: This is the second year for the Better Block Project in Denver. What do you have in store for the Five Points edition? What are you doing this year that might be different, and what was the impact of last year's?

Gosia Kung: This year's project is a little different -- it's a little less focused on economic development. We don't really have pop-up businesses the way we had them last year. We are more focused on activating a park, so it's more about public space and improvement of the park. It's about access to recreation and access to healthy food and kind of demonstrating how pedestrian improvement and environmental improvements in general can impact the community.

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It's also an educational tool; we really engage with the community. It's a long project -- it took us six months this year to get to the point where we are. We started with public outreach and visioning of why this place is important. Why do people feel strongly about it? What kind of improvements do we want to demonstrate? Then, the "how" stage -- how are we going to put this together? The visual impact is really strong.

What is the purpose behind the Better Block Project?

What happens in a community like Five Points -- and really, any community in the U.S. -- is that there are planning processes that kind of go on for years. People get burnt out -- they go to public meetings, they listen to consultants. It's such a long time before anything gets implemented. Oftentimes, the plans just get shelved and they never get implemented, so there is a level of frustration within communities.

So to be able to actually demonstrate it kind of puts people in this environment where it's there -- if only for a day. But just doing it temporarily really triggers thinking and triggers the change. People become advocates for themselves.

In Jefferson Park, it is really amazing. We did it at the end of June of last year. Since we started working there, we have a brand-new coffee shop there. They just celebrated their one-year anniversary there and they are really doing great. There is a restaurant that opened a couple of months ago, Corner House, and there are three more restaurants that are under construction that are about to open. So that's five brand-new restaurants in an area where there wasn't really places to walk and eat. It's fantastic.

We also have seen this public, or civic, engagement that started with the Better Block continue -- I hear stories from people all the time that they want to shop locally. They've learned about local businesses, when they used to go out of their neighborhood to shop or get services. But now, they tend to stay locally. Also, we have concerts in the park, where the neighborhood had been thinking about it for years, but it had never happened. Once we had Better Block, we had a concert in the park the following day, and now there are three concerts scheduled for this summer season in Jefferson Park.

People want to keep getting together, so there are plans for like a "dinner on the block" -- not quite as elaborate as Better Block, but to invite some food trucks and have tables and chairs. A place to hang out together. So, there is definitely this momentum as well as the economic development and impact.

The outcome definitely exceeded my expectations -- I thought, maybe one restaurant? But we have five. So do you feel that the development of those restaurants and the development of the area were a direct result of Better Block?

You know, it is difficult to draw the exact connection. We can't say, you know, it's because of Better Block; I don't know if we can take credit for it. There was a lot of energy that was brought into the area with Better Block -- since then, we've also established a business improvement district. There's a lot of people working here, so Better Block was just one of the elements that happened. While we cannot take direct credit, being able to say that we have five new restaurants that opened during and around the time that Better Block happened is significant.

Sure. And the visual impact of say, just a coat of paint, may be what it takes for someone to want to interact with their neighborhood.

Absolutely. I think people develop a relationship with a place; they invest in it. They want to come back and they want to take care of it. (Some buildings) may have been vacant for so many years that people forget that they're even there.

Also, bringing people to the neighborhood and bringing people to the public space has also impacted a place that may have been deserted or forgotten. A place that no one goes anymore is suddenly activated, and just the energy there can have impact on the place.

What's in store for Better Block Five Points this year?

We're going to do street artwork similar to what we did last year -- we're working with Redline Gallery in Five Points on that. We are working on assembling an umbrella canopy over the plaza. It will be colorful umbrellas suspended from posts to create a canopy over a sitting area.

We're working with Denver Parks and Recreation and they are putting in some permanent improvements -- sidewalks and trees. The project is ongoing, which is good -- construction is a sign of change. Change for the better.

There's an existing playground there, and we're hoping it will eventually be fenced off to provide some safety for children. But we're going to demonstrate how that fence can kind of look -- there will be a symbolic representation of the fence and some additional activities for kids to do.

There are plans in the park to have a community garden -- and while this won't be fully implemented (during Better Block), we will have demonstrations on gardening and education around fresh food. We're working with Denver Urban Gardens on an educational program for children where they learn to plant a tomato plant and take care of it and take it home.

There will be a lot of music, art and dance -- Ballet Nouveau will do a performance and there will be several jazz performances throughout the day. Also, a lot of focus on physical activity and healthy lifestyle -- so there will be yoga, fitness classes and basketball throughout the day. We'll have walking and bike tours of the neighborhood.

Five Points is a historic neighborhood in Denver -- it's great to think that maybe some people will be visiting it for the first time.

24th Street is actually a designated pedestrian corridor that connects several destinations in the neighborhood -- but you couldn't really tell by looking at it. So, we're just trying to demonstrate what it could look like by creating another destination along the street. The more people there are in an area, the safer it is because there are eyes everywhere.

People like to be around other people, and we're just trying to bring people in and show them that it is a place they can utilize. It's right next to the library and it is a really nice space. It is just underutilized right now.

Better Block Five Points runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, May 11, on the 2400 block of Welton Street. For more information, visit the event's website.

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