Neon yellow vests and hard hats have become the official uniform of Denver, as construction workers and road crews take on jobs around town. The vests are a glaring symbol of change — but they also mean steady business for some local establishments. On most days, Taqueria Emmanuel, at 810 Park Avenue West, is packed with workers grabbing lunch; they share conversation across tables over the din of the oven hood, the clang of spatulas and the sound of soccer on the television above the counter.
But this busy scene is deceiving.
Taqueria Emmanual has a only a few more days left before owner Irma Casillas closes the doors for good. After fifteen years in business, she's lost the lease on the space and will close for good on Friday, June 29. While construction on new condos and apartment buildings sprouting up all around the tiny restaurant have helped create a steady flow of customers looking for a cheap breakfast, lunch or dinner, property values have risen as quickly as the new buildings in the neighborhood — technically part of Five Points, but now being pushed as Arapahoe Square.
Next door to the taqueria, a cannabis dispensary called Universal Herbs is getting ready for growth. The small pot shop will nearly double in size when it expands into the Emmanuel space. "The marijuana shop is taking the lease," Casillas says. "I didn't find out until after I was told to leave."
According to Casillas, who runs the spot with her son, her lease — at $3,100 a month — officially ended at the end of April, and she was not offered the opportunity to renew it at a higher rent. Her landlord did give her two additional months before she had to be out of the space, though.
The weathered Taqueria Emmanuel sign and the bright advertisements for house specials (tortas, tacos, menudo, antojitos Mexicanos) painted on the front windows will soon be gone. Casillas says she doesn't yet know whether she'll be able to reopen elsewhere; there aren't many vacant spaces available in the area, and those that look promising are too expensive. Moving to another neighborhood presents additional challenges, including disappointing her Five Points regulars and the uncertainty of building a new clientele.
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The owner of Universal Herbs did not return our phone call, though an employee of the company, which also operates a second dispensary at 755 Jason Street, confirms the plan to expand into the soon-to-be-vacant restaurant.
The building itself is owned by SKI Park Avenue, LLC and RGP-Park Avenue, LLC, according to city records.
The rapid development of the RiNo neighborhood on one side and the fast gentrification of Five Points on the other is spilling into this no-man's land of aging homes, auto-repair shops and vacant lots. A seat inside Taqueria Emmanuel comes with a view of modern apartments and the gleaming United Way building across the street; even the newish pot shop next door looks tawdry and aged in comparison. The real estate rule of "highest and best use" means that this building, built in 1955, will probably soon see the wrecking ball; the land is worth more than what the sale of weed or tacos can produce in rent — and in a few years, no one will remember either Universal Herbs or Taqueria Emmanuel.
Some shrug and say that's just the invisible hand of the free market at work. But those are the people writing contracts, signing deals, moving money. They're not the ones in the yellow vests crowding the dining room at Taqueria Emmanuel for one last breakfast burrito or plate of tacos before Casillas locks the door for the last time.