Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Alley oops: Mod Livin' cleaned up a grim block of Colfax, but the neighbors hate its food truck

This summer, the complaint calls started coming with irritating regularity to the Denver Police Department District 2 substation, to the Denver Department of Environmental Health, to the office of Denver City Councilwoman Carla Madison. There were problems at Mod Livin', the hip retro store at 5327 East Colfax Avenue, the callers said, and at Deluxe Burger, the restaurant tucked into a corner of the store that had opened back in February. But the complaints were really aimed in one direction: at the Little Orange Rocket — like Deluxe Burger, a joint venture of restaurateur Dylan Moore of Deluxe and Delite, and Erick Roorda and Jill Warner, the husband-and-wife owners of Mod Livin' — that used the restaurant kitchen as a commissary and parked in the alley right outside the restaurant door to load and unload.

And no matter what the callers were complaining about, what really had them steamed was the fact that the gourmet food truck sometimes blocked neighborhood access to the alley between Grape and Glencoe streets, just north of Colfax — although the alley has two other entrances.

There was another obstacle to their complaints: That portion of the alley actually belongs to the building that houses Mod Livin', and so to Warner and Roorda. It's one of at least 350 private alleys in the city (Denver doesn't keep an exact count), which neighbors can only use if the property owners allow them to. Roorda and Warner were happy to do so — until some of those neighbors started calling the cops on them.

They've put up with a lot since they bought the building in 2001 and opened the store. Back then, this stretch of Colfax was so rough that for the first few years they lived on the second floor of Mod Livin', so that they could protect their investment. With the purchase of the space, they inherited a liquor store that leased the corner of the building alongside the alley, and for years they had to put up with the riff-raff attracted by that shop. When the lease finally ran out, Roorda and Warner renovated the space into a cool '50s spot and partnered with Moore on Deluxe Burger. And then, this summer, when gourmet food trucks started popping up almost as fast as medical marijuana dispensaries, they added the Little Orange Rocket to their business empire.

The food truck was an immediate hit on the Denver dining scene, but the neighbors, irritated by the truck that blocked access to what they considered their alley, launched a barrage of complaints almost as immediately. The flak was so intense that at the end of July, Warner delivered a note to her neighbors, noting that there's "been an awful lot of excitement the last few weeks regarding our alley way and I'd like to take a moment to make sure we're all on the same page," and including a page that showed the alley was part of Mod Livin's property.

The response from one neighbor? "Let's see, how can I say this? ...fuck you. You want civilized? You want polite? Then be that, and you might get it back. Why do you think people are calling the police on you? It's because you're an inconsiderate prick — substitute the 'E' with a 'P', right? A little introspection, Prick, would take you a long way to resolving this with the people in the neighborhood who are fucking with you. Get a clue. Just because you're legally within your rights doesn't mean you're not self-absorbed inconsiderate assholes and bad neighbors."

This missive doesn't bode well for the mediation between Mod Livin' and the neighbors that will be held at 6 p.m. on October 21 at District 2 headquarters, overseen by Elizabeth Suarez, whose group is paid by the city to facilitate such meetings, and recommended by the cops who were tired of getting called on wild goose chases when they had bigger worries in Park Hill, including the break-ins that were rampant in the residential areas this summer. For the city, Mod Livin' has been a real asset on Colfax; it's not only cleaned up a gnarly block, but attracted new businesses. In fact, the project rated a Mayor's Design Award in October 2008, which came with this explanation: "Why it's cool: Clever details reflect the industrial, Googie (futuristic architecture), space-age elements of midcentury design."

But Roorda and Warner didn't get to rest on their laurels for long. "We thought our battles were over with," Roorda says, "and something's always rearing its head. If it's not the bums peeing on the side of the building or the prostitutes or the liquor-store's the neighborhood screaming. It's disappointing. We kind of thought we had mediated."

And the complaining neighbors who think they're going to boot the truck from a strip of asphalt they consider their private driveway could be in for a surprise: Warner and Roorda would close Mod Livin' (dispensaries and grow houses are always asking about the space) before they'd get rid of the Little Orange Rocket and Deluxe Burger. In fact, that alley space might one day make a great outdoor patio for the restaurant. "The food truck has really, really turned out to be a jewel," Roorda says. "We've got it booked all week."

Madison understands why neighbors are complaining — "people don't like change," she notes — but she doesn't really understand what they are complaining about. "You live half a block off Colfax, you should want good, positive things going on," she says. "I haven't talked to many of the neighbors, but I just can't imagine what the other side is." She'll find out on Thursday night.

Too many complaints, Warner says, "and it will be the end." Cautions Roorda: "Be careful what you wish for."

The truck doesn't stop here.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun