Loft Horizon

Joanne and Manny Salzman don't really mind the sounds of city life--the trains rolling through Union Station across Wynkoop Street, the power-lunchers pouring into the brewpubs, the thousands of Rockies fans marching past their front door on their way to Coors Field. It's all part of living in lower downtown, and it beats the dead silence that greeted the couple when they moved into the old warehouse district seventeen years ago--back in the days, Manny recalls, when "a good mugger couldn't make a living down here."

But after dark, the Salzmans and other loft-dwellers have to contend with the other side of LoDo: an emerging urban theme park suffering from an excess of success. Tourists and club regulars jockey for the few parking spaces not reserved by construction firms; intoxicated pub-crawlers shout greetings to one another and discharge copious amounts of that evening's conspicuous consumption--"from various orifices," Manny notes. And then there's the music blaring from dozens of restaurants and bars.

Trendy chain eateries have a thing about outdoor music. Both Cucina Cucina and Rodizio Grill thought it would be a good idea to pipe music to the outdoor patios of their new locations in the Ice House, at 18th and Wynkoop. The Salzmans and other neighbors disagreed.

Recently, both restaurants changed their plans. After neighbors protested at the liquor-license hearing, Cucina Cucina's outside loudspeakers were nixed by Beth McCann, director of Denver's Department of Excise and Licenses. Rodizio, which opens this weekend, agreed to drop outdoor music from its menu after meetings with the St. Charles Neighborhood Group (SCNG), which represents roughly 300 LoDo residents.

Both decisions constitute modest victories for the Salzmans and other SCNG activists in their quest to keep LoDo livable in the face of a wave of sports bars, new loft developments and megaprojects in the nearby Platte Valley, such as the Pepsi Center. A key to their efforts, the Salzmans say, is getting city officials and entrepreneurs to recognize that there are now plenty of people living--and trying to get some sleep--in the "mixed-use" district.

"People know there's street life and bars here, but both groups need to help each other out," says Joanne, who is a member of the powerful Lower Downtown Demolition and Design Review Board and is active in several other LoDo community organizations. "I think it's reasonable to expect that your neighbors aren't going to have loudspeakers going until two in the morning."

The Salzmans have been a driving force in LoDo since 1980, when they moved from their home in Hilltop into a four-story warehouse on Wynkoop, converting the top floor into a 3,500-square-foot loft. They weren't the first loft-dwellers in LoDo, but they have been among the most visible. They've played a key role in getting the area declared a historic district, in launching the SCNG (Manny, former chief of radiology at Denver General Hospital, is a founder and past president of the group), and in transforming an abandoned railroad bridge across Cherry Creek into a pedestrian/bicycle pathway (known as "Manny's Crossing"). An avid bicyclist, 78-year-old Manny jokes that he's "one of the oldest residents of LoDo--in both senses of the word."

For several years the Salzmans were living on the edge of nowhere, with only the occasional Ripple-swilling transient for company. Then came more loft conversions, a few upscale restaurants and art galleries. Then Coors Field, the inevitable sports bars--and the couple found themselves living at ground zero in the hippest area of a booming city.

Through the SCNG, Manny and Joanne soon became embroiled in battling the rising levels of noise, traffic and squalor. Borrowing an idea used successfully in Capitol Hill and other, more traditional residential areas, the group began to approach liquor-license applicants, asking if they would enter into a voluntary "contract" that would address neighborhood concerns about noise, traffic, hours of operation and so on; one key provision stipulates that the establishment will earn no more than half its gross receipts from the sale of alcohol. Those who signed such an agreement would be welcomed by the neighbors; those who didn't could expect stiff opposition from locals at their license hearing.

Manny says the contracts tend to work best with "businesses that are intending to be responsible anyway." The group has had less success, though, with sports bars on blocks that have few residents directly affected by the operation.

"If you go up and down Market and Blake streets, you'll find establishments that refused to sign it," he says. "They're running bars, not restaurants. That's where we've had our greatest instances of failure."

Attorney Keith Gross, who's worked extensively on the agreements as vice-president of the SCNG, notes that the contracts haven't been tested yet but could be enforced through a civil court action. "Fifty percent profits from food is no problem in the world for a good restaurant," he says. "Of course, most restaurants don't want a neighborhood group involved in telling them how to operate, but each one gets customized to some degree."

In many cases, the Salzmans say, the issue comes down to the attitude of the individual manager. The couple objected repeatedly to the noise issuing from Flat Pennies, a restaurant and bar in Union Station, but its successor, Larry Walker's Sports Grill, has been (as Joanne puts it) "compatible with a mixed-use neighborhood."

Whether the watering holes choose to work with the neighborhood group or not, the growing number of loft-dwellers has given the SCNG increasing leverage with city officials. Their clout became clear last year, when locals successfully shot down the proposed Planet Lodo nightclub on Wazee Street. The club was seeking a locally administered cabaret license as well as a state liquor license, but in the teeth of vocal opposition from loft owners, McCann's office denied both applications.

"It was a turning point," Manny says. "I think it sensitized the city administration and Beth McCann that this problem is getting out of hand."

Yet the couple have had their share of defeats, too. Both felt the nine-story Palace Lofts project on Blake Street was out of character with the surrounding neighborhood; although the development was slightly scaled back, so that only a portion of the high-rise stretches above 100 feet, Joanne remained the one dissenting vote on the design review board that approved the project. The couple is now battling the threat of other hulking structures in the district, including a proposed eight-story residential high-rise on Wazee and a 280-car parking garage on Wynkoop.

With permanent covered parking in LoDo selling for as high as $25,000 per space, "parking has become a big issue," Joanne notes. "If they can get that kind of money, they can turn every one of these surface lots into parking garages."

For several years the Salzmans and other activists have been pushing for the city to adopt a new neighborhood plan for LoDo, the first one in town ever drafted by neighborhood interests themselves. The plan, currently under review by the Denver City Council, would limit the height of most new construction in the district to 55 feet. But Joanne notes that the new plan allows buildings of up to 85 feet (if they're "in context" with existing structures) and even up to 130 feet in three areas--a major concession to developers that threatens the human scale of the neighborhood.

Even if the SCNG is successful in keeping other high-rises out of LoDo, other developments in the Platte Valley are giving the Salzmans plenty to think about. In addition to the much-ballyhooed entertainment venues--the Pepsi Center, Ocean Journey, Elitch's--there's the prospect of the Trillium Corporation's planned mixed-use complex behind Union Station, which could result in nine high-rises of up to 25 stories.

"They're adding a density that may very well overwhelm lower downtown," Manny says, shaking his head. "The developers have a lot of power. They have lobbyists, they employ people, they have a lot of money. And they almost always win."

But that doesn't mean the Salzmans are giving up without a fight. They talk about recruiting more local businesses to their cause, pushing for more subsidized housing (like the Mercantile Lofts adjoining the Tattered Cover) so that LoDo doesn't become simply a refuge for a wealthy elite, and mobilizing the troops to keep the dream alive.

"We love it down here," Joanne says. "We wouldn't move away for anything. But it requires a lot of work. You've got to constantly find a way to make it work.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast