It's a crisp winter day at the Bark Bar, and the wind carries the sounds of light conversation and animal happiness. A few muted barks are heard as the dogs in the yard roughhouse and roll in the dirt while their owners look on, beers in hand.
Dogs running free and their owners running tabs -- that's the dream on which Christine Peters built the Bark Bar, in a once-decrepit building in West Highland. "The dog park has always been my favorite place to hang," Peters says. "It's that zen feeling, all your problems go away and you're just hanging out watching dogs play. They have no ego, no issues, no agendas. It's just pure play energy."
But the Bark Bar will be pouring its last tomorrow after a prolonged fight with neighbors and a ruling from the City of Denver that the bar is in violation of city codes. At issue is the off-leash dog yard that's the heart of the Bark Bar.
"It was a lovely spring day in March 2012, and I was at the dog park with my husband... it was a gorgeous Saturday," Peters recounts at a table with a view of the dogs running about. "We're huge craft beer fans, and huge gourmet coffee lovers. My husband wanted another coffee, and I wanted a beer. I said, 'Oh man, wouldn't it be great if we could have a beer right now -- there needs to be a dog park with a bar." She smiles and shakes her head: "Famous last words."
For someone with little hospitality experience, opening a bar was a new challenge. But with the encouragement of her husband Bryan Mayo, Peters found a spot in her neighborhood that was perfect -- a short walk from the bustling bars, restaurants and shops of Tennyson and wedged in a network of small houses and cozy apartments filled with dog lovers.
"I've lived in that district since 2003," says Councilwoman Susan Shepherd, who serves Denver's District 1, including the Northwest Denver neighborhood that's home to the Bark Bar. "Even prior to my time, it was pretty sleepy. And going way back, a couple decades, it was not very safe. But it was already on a resurgence when I bought property in 2003. It's continued to be more revitalized, more businesses, people moving in, fixing up their homes, redeveloping. It's really booming right now."
Dog-friendly patios are now common in Denver, from the the Barker Lounge to Racine's, these places follow city code. Dogs can be on the patio only if they're leashed and under control. The idea behind the Bark Bar was to create a separate yard for dogs to run free, making the bar not just a place for dogs to wait while humans drink and dine, but one that dogs would drag their humans to. "It hadn't been done. So we were all making it up as we go along," Peters says.
"I went from department to department to find out what I could and couldn't do. And I got absolutely nowhere...so finally this nice woman on 311 said, 'We are never going to tell you what you can and can't do. Our attorneys told us we're not allowed to do that. We will only tell you after the fact what you've done wrong.'" Believing her intentions for the new space were clear in the documents sent to the city for approval, Peters took the plunge and started building, using her life's savings in the process.
When the door finally opened in January of last year, Peters found neighbors lining up around the block -- dogs in tow -- to experience the Bark Bar. Offering a robust list of local beers, coffee and espresso, weekly specials like Yappy Hour, Tripod Tuesday (for three-legged dogs and their owners), and constant fundraising parties for animal welfare groups, the bar attracted a group of regulars -- bipeds and quadrupeds alike.
But it didn't take long for the Bark Bar to start raising hackles in West Highland. Soon after opening, a neighbor across the alley complained about barking dogs. Another homeowner down the street on Raleigh sent a letter to Councilwoman Shepherd complaining that the Bark Bar was "raping the neighborhood." Peters and her team tried to address the concerns she had heard about barking dogs, rowdy patrons, parking problems and trash. "We agreed to patrol for dog poo and trash four times a week. We agreed to make sure that everybody is off our patio at closing time. We directed people to use different parking, we changed the rules of the yard... stepped up our patrols of barking," she says. Ultrasonic bark suppression technology was installed to cut down on dog noise. It didn't placate anyone.
Keep reading for more about the last day of the Bark Bar.
The neighbors took up their issues with the city, leading to Denver Zoning and the Health Department inspecting the Bark Bar for violations. In four inspections ranging from March to November of 2014, city inspectors ordered the bar to prohibit beverages in the yard (which Peters says she did soon after) and to ensure that all dogs on the patio and in the yard were leashed -- something that would defeat Bark Bar's purpose.
However, dealing with the city's zoning codes proved to be a bigger challenge for Peters. They said she didn't have an outdoor patio permit, while Peters said she had submitted it with her plans. She was also lacking permits for the fence she built around the yard and the sign she had painted on the building. "Keep in mind, I don't know these things. And they never said anything when we were submitting our plans," Peters says. Most importantly, the Bark Bar needed a permit for an off-leash dog enclosure. "Great, tell us how to do that," she recalls asking. "They said, 'We don't know, we've never done it before.'" In discussions with the city, Peters alleges that she was told by the Health Department that the increased scrutiny came from a directive from the City Attorney based on complaints by neighbors.
"Our zoning code issues are very complaint-driven. When complaints come in to the city about a property, whether it be private or public, it's the job of the zoning department to follow up on those complaints and determine if action is needed," Shepherd explains.
At this point, Peters had retained a land-use attorney to help navigate the zoning codes and settle the dispute with the city. "And he has a different interpretation than the city attorney. This is not straightforward. This is nothing that I could have done or figured out on my own. If my land-use attorney who went to school for this stuff and studies this stuff and does it every day can't navigate the code, what hope do I have? What hope does anybody have?"
In October, the Denver Board of Adjustment for Zoning handed down its decision. "They said, 'We cannot approve the off-leash yard in this zone district, and there are a couple of reasons why. The first is, it's not a customary accessory use to a restaurant-bar... Secondly we don't believe it is appropriate for this particular zone because of the perceived impact on the adjacent residential districts. And whatever we decide for this district, hold for districts throughout the city,'" Peters recalls. Enforcement of the codes would begin on January 16, forcing Bark Bar to close by then or face action. "It's not a one-off. Whatever they decide for us kind of goes for everybody. I'm not happy about it, but I get it."
Throughout the saga, Peters had met with and talked with Councilwoman Shepherd, who she calls fair-minded and reasonable. "It was a situation where the city didn't realize what was happening on the property, and Catherine thought she was in the clear. It was a bit of a misunderstanding and miscommunication on both sides. Which is probably the foundation for most of the problems in the world," Shepherd says. "I don't think she was trying to hide something, and I don't believe the city was being murky or evasive." Shepherd is now working with the legislature on a change of law that could accommodate unconventional uses like the Bark Bar's dog yard.
Peters holds no ill will toward Denver for what happened to her business. "Everyone we worked with in the city was looking for ways to help us succeed. I don't look at the city as my enemy. I look at them as my potential partner," she says. But the precedent being set for small businesses looking to innovate worries her. "I think it's deplorable that the city will write and pass the regulations, and will not tell you what they are or what you can and can't do. Until you've already spent your life savings doing it. And that's their policy."
Tomorrow, The Bark Bar will throw its closing party, with 50 percent off all booze and merchandise until the taps run dry. Peters is still around $20,000 in debt from her fight with the city, something she hopes to recoup through her GoFundMe page. But Peters and her team are now looking at a new space in Wheatridge and are in talks with Jefferson County about how the Bark Bar concept can fit in the city. "I want a fresh clean start in a place where we truly are seen as an asset in the community," she says. "To me, when God closes a door he opens an airplane hangar."