Denver Government

Five Points Has Soul Street, but Still No Common Consumption Area

Soul Street is open, but usually empty.
Soul Street is open, but usually empty. Molly Martin
In May 2021, Ryan Cobbins, the owner of Coffee at the Point, stood in front of a bright mural depicting famous Black residents of Denver as he spoke with optimism about creating the city's first common consumption area on a small strip of Clarkson Street between 26th Avenue and 28th Street in Five Points.

"I think we've got our ducks in a row," Cobbins said, just a week before the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses launched the city's common consumption area program, which allows businesses to band together and establish an area where people can take alcoholic beverages purchased from various participating establishments and congregate. This section of Clarkson would become the first common consumption area in Denver, Cobbins promised.

But over a year later, there's no common consumption area on what's been branded as "Soul Street" by Five Points boosters. In fact, there's no common consumption area anywhere in the city.

"It's kind of been a slow-moving process," says Cobbins, who recently temporarily closed Coffee at the Point because of rising business costs and a lawsuit filed by a former business partner.

Creating something special on this strip of Clarkson "was actually birthed of an idea that I had with Mimosas as I was working with Pure Hospitality," Cobbins recalls. Pure Hospitality, a food and beverage company, is part of the Flyfisher Group, which is headed by investor Matthew Burkett. For a time, Cobbins served as the lead for Pure Hospitality, which opened Mimosas and also began investing in other restaurant projects. But Burkett eventually sued Cobbins, which Five Points business owners say has become a trend in this neighborhood.

"There was a large amount of excitement around Clarkson Street, and then the next stage is you have a series of things that take place that end up taking our eyes off the ball when it comes to facilitating Clarkson Street," explains Cobbins.

"Everybody’s got their own businesses that need to be managed, survive and do well, who are in the midst of multiple battles with an unfriendly neighborhood landlord down there. It’s just distracting time-wise," says Chuck Jones, a co-owner of Agave Shore, a Flyfisher tenant who was also sued by Burkett.

It didn't help that after the Clarkson Street businesses finally submitted a common consumption area application to Excise and Licenses, the department sent the application back, saying that it wasn't complete and needed more work.

Common consumption area protocols are written into state law, thanks to a bill passed by the Colorado Legislature over a decade ago to legalize these areas. In the time since, towns and cities across Colorado — including Glendale, which lobbied heavily for the bill, as well as Greeley, Black Hawk, Edgewater and Salida — have established such programs. But Denver keeps coming up dry.

That's partly because of the cumbersome system adopted for common consumption areas by the City of Denver to comply with the state statute. Businesses that want to form such an area in the city must team up to form a promotional association, then apply for both a common consumption area license and an entertainment district designation. Under state law, an entertainment district is capped at 100 acres and must contain no fewer than 20,000 square feet of liquor-licensed establishments. While the Department of Excise and Licenses handles the actual licensing of common-consumption areas, Denver City Council is in charge of approving entertainment district applications.

But during the pandemic, the city came up with an easier way for hospitality businesses to extend into the street. Excise and Licenses launched the extended patio and outdoor communal dining program in 2020 as a way to help restaurants continue to welcome patrons while staying in line with COVID restrictions and protocols. The program was so successful that in October 2021, Mayor Michael Hancock announced that it would become permanent in a few spots, including Larimer Square and a block of East Seventh Avenue. The key difference between communal dining areas and common consumption areas is that people have to stay seated within a specific restaurant's space in a communal dining zone, while they have more freedom to move around and mingle in a common consumption area.

"During a time when we could extend patios, the thought was, 'Well, let's see if we could extend the patio onto Clarkson Street, recognizing that Clarkson Street was very rarely utilized,'" Cobbins says.

While Cobbins and others were strategizing about Clarkson, the city was working on developing a small pedestrian plaza in Five Points off 26th Avenue. They were able to combine forces, and the Hancock administration agreed to a plan to shut down that section of Clarkson to traffic so that it could eventually become a drinking and dining area. In June, Soul Street got the city's okay as a communal dining spot.

"In total, we applied for and received approximately $100,000 in grant funds to actually outfit Clarkson Street," Cobbins notes. That included chairs, tables, the mural and an overall polished look...but so far, no common consumption area.

Excise and Licenses officials have held over thirty meetings with businesses interested in forming a common consumption area in Five Points, according to the department's executive director, Molly Duplechian. These meetings have been geared toward providing the businesses with "navigation support and information and connecting them with all the different city agencies," Duplechian says.

The city has focused on helping Five Points because of Excise and Licenses' desire to make sure that any neighborhood that was "negatively impacted by the pandemic or historically disenfranchised or marginalized" gets as much support for a common consumption area program as they need, according to Duplechian. Five Points, Denver's historic Black neighborhood that has been a site of gentrification and displacement in recent decades, fit that bill.

"We’ll keep meeting with them if they want to keep meeting," Duplechian says. "I do think at some point they need to decide which direction they want to go and hopefully get operational."

Duplechian speculates that the communal dining areas have slowed the establishment of any common consumption areas, not just in Five Points, but in other parts of the city, too.

"It is a fairly complicated model and was created way back in 2011," she says of common consumption areas. "So many things have changed, and the landscape is different now. I still think businesses are a little bit hesitant to fully go all in on something like that."

But Five Points is still pushing for common consumption. One of the project's leads is Greg Topel of EVG Hospitality, which is now working with Pure Hospitality. According to Topel, the City of Denver, especially Excise and Licenses, has been "incredibly supportive" in helping the Clarkson common consumption area become a reality. But Topel also notes that "the city is learning" this new territory "at the same time as we are learning it. It’s so unknown. It’s really hard to get the process clean and get all the cats herded up."

In recent weeks, the Five Points businesses interested in the common consumption area have finally come together to form a promotional association, a key formal step for creating a common consumption area; they include Mimosas, Agave Shore, Rosenberg's Bagels & Delicatessen, Duke's Good Sandwiches and the 715 Club.

"I would say just too many moving parts without a very clear road map," Topel says. "And honestly, we need somebody to be the tip of the spear to be driving this thing forward. I think the promotional association will be the tip of that spear."

According to Jones, the businesses are working with the Five Points Business Improvement District to determine who will be the driver on certain decisions. "I feel like that’s a lot of what’s holding it up is basically we need to get to a point where the whole situation, the whole processes, are refined: what, if anything, needs to go through the BID, or can there be a standing approval of activations with certain criteria to be met, if the bid needs to approve at all," he says.

In the meantime, Topel says, he is helping to plan a "real kickoff ceremony with live music and signage" in mid- to late September for Soul Street, which will spread the word about the new communal dining space and also let other businesses know there's an opportunity to get involved.

"Everybody’s goals are aligned in terms of wanting Soul Street to be successful and consumed by the masses to create attention and energy and excitement around Welton Street, the history of Five Points, the murals, the artwork," says Jones. "Everybody’s goals are aligned. Right now, we’re going through the growing pains of streamlining the process of achieving those goals."

And they're making sure it's clear that Soul Street is open for business. "Even when you walk by the street, it doesn’t look ready for prime time; we still have street closure signs," Topel says. "The big hurdle that we’re going to face early on is that it’s not a trash pit back there. It’s a big, beautiful, vibrant place."
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.