As I was driving through Jefferson Park yesterday on a short detour to get to the 20th Street Gym downtown, I finally saw the horror with my own eyes. It's one thing to see photographs of it, but to actually witness that kind of destruction is overwhelming. I'm talking about the horror of overdevelopment, something that has hit Jefferson Park particularly hard recently. (If you missed the 9News piece on longtime resident Gail Wheeler's house being essentially destroyed by surrounding development, take a few minutes to watch her story.) The oversized, modern, box-home monstrosities that developers have crammed between modest, early-20th century homes in the tiny hood are nauseating.
Recently I came up with the idea of starting a "WelcomeTo #UglyDenver" hashtag, sparked by so many people sending me photographs of new builds in Denver that they thought were atrocious, along with my own penchant for Instagramming shitty construction. Then the Denver FUGLY Facebook page appeared and since it was already doing a great job of this very thing, I abandoned my own campaign and just joined the group instead. There have been many interesting conversations happening in that now-private Facebook group, as realtors and neighbors on all sides discuss what, exactly, people think about these structures. But the common theme I see when we talk about "Denver FUGLY" is that this isn't just a problem in one part of town — it is happening all over Denver.
During my three-plus decades in Denver, I've spent time in many neighborhoods across the city — and I don't think there is a single area not being affected by the current wave of overdevelopment. I've lived in Barnum for a half a decade, a place I recently saw advertised on a real estate website as "up-and-coming" for those who may have "missed out on hot neighborhoods like the Highlands and Sunnyside." Barnum hasn't been bombarded with what I call the Neo-Classical Chipotle/Tuscan Macaroni Grill Villa/McDonald's-Meets-Cruise Ship architecture — yet. But it has to be on its way, because Denver is hot right now and hot actually just means loads of crappy, slapped-up super-homes, pieces of work emotionally disconnected from the world around them.
When I look at these structures, I wonder: Who lives in them? Is it the kind of person who drives their car into the garage of their single-family megaplex, only to exit the next morning by car and drive directly to their job in another part of town where they don't have to experience the home they own from the outside? Are they aliens from a suburban planet far, far away who have come to Denver looking for weed and CrossFit and craft breweries and overpriced street food? Are they Chivers in the flesh? (The heavy influx of "Keep Calm and Chive On" shirts and bumper stickers and the resulting popularity of last year's Chive Fest have led me to believe that these have to be at least some of the people inhabiting these things.)
When I drive through Jefferson Park — and the Northside, Capitol Hill, Wash Park, Five Points, DU, etc. — my stomach hurts as I spy these Beetlejuice-esque, triple-stacked modular bourgeois trailers bulging at their property lines like obese titans of neo-Denver. Who wants to live in a neighborhood when your home is one of the behemoths on the block screaming, "I'm the winner because I am big and expensive!" I know a lot of people in Denver and I have yet to meet anyone who lives in one of these architectural Frankensteins.
It's not just new builds that are changing the neighborhoods — there are plenty of older structures being bastardized, too. Apartment buildings from the '40s through '80s are being flipped in what feels like an effort to say "fuck you" to their own neighborhood, not to mention an even bigger "fuck you" to the tenants being pushed out. My first apartment was in Capitol Hill, a part of town where I am now watching friends be rendered almost homeless by skyrocketing rents. Buildings are purchased, gutted and turned into luxury whatevers and then rented to new tenants at double the price. I see this same story being told over and over again in my Facebook newsfeed; is this even legal?
It feels like there isn't a part Denver that isn't a silent war zone — I worked at the Cherry Creek Shopping Center for over fifteen years and while many will argue that the neighborhood has always been an overpriced hellhole, I'll disagree. Up until recently, local businesses didn't have as tough of a time thriving in Cherry Creek North — but this current tsunami of construction has killed its charm and relative affordability, and ended the lives of places like local toy store Kazoo & Company, which went out of business last year after three decades of success because customers couldn't get to the store.
Recently, I overheard two gentlemen talking about the impending demolition of the Safeway and Rite Aid on First Avenue in Cherry Creek, and all I could think was, where are regular people going to get their groceries now? That Rite Aid — which was once Skaggs, then Osco Drug, then Payless — and its companion grocery store not only serve the mall's hundreds of employees, but the senior living complexes within walking distance. I guess the neighborhood needs a new hotel more than it needs to eat.
This past weekend I attended the city's "Cabinet in the Community" meeting at the Hill Campus of Arts and Sciences, foolishly thinking I would get a chance to ask Mayor Michael Hancock some questions about his plan to keep Denver affordable and stop the ugliness. Hancock did begin the meeting by acknowledging that he was aware of growing concerns about affordability, growth and parking issues in Denver — but that was it. The topics were not approached again during the hour-long PR stunt I watched go down in a hot, overcrowded room full of grumbling city residents. It wasn't meant to be a conversation. From Parks and Recreation to the Denver Police Department — whose police chief couldn't attend the meeting because he was at a birthday party — we watched important city players click through powerpoint presentations on how great Denver was. It was like a commercial for the city that was disappearing before our eyes (not unlike the TEDx "reimagining" I had sat through the week before).
Among the residents in the room were people wearing orange shirts — people who turned out to be the Friends of Crestmoor Park, a neighborhood group fighting a big development project slated for Monaco Parkway. After the Cabinet in the Community dog-and-pony show — which came complete with real puppies on display! — I saw a long line of orange shirts waiting to talk to Hancock. There were a lot of handshakes and pictures being taken in that line, but there were also a lot of unhappy people. I didn't stick around to ask our city leader how he felt about his own hometown becoming unaffordable. It was too frustrating.
I would never give up on the city I love so much, but as I walk, bike and drive around its once-unique and vibrant neighborhoods I wonder: What will be left of Denver when everything looks like the same thoughtless, bland, super-sized McMansion? Now that I think about it, I may not even get a chance to give up — this new version of Ugly Denver might soon be too expensive for me, anyway.
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