Can redevelopment help preserve a neighborhood’s soul? Uptown Denver’s main street straddles the line between its roots and the city’s ongoing boom

East 17th Avenue has been known for several things over the last century or so: a streetcar line, the city’s “restaurant row” and a concentration of LGBTQ bars and hangouts.

Now, as highlighted by some notable building vacancies and one big redevelopment project, the street is a thoroughfare straddling the line between new and old in Denver’s Uptown neighborhood.

It is insulated from downtown-scale density by zoning rules that cap most buildings along its curbs at eight stories and 110 feet tall east of Logan Street. But there has been recent speculation that 17th Avenue, harboring a number of ever-rarer surface parking lots and set to welcome its tallest building in years in 2019, is ripe for a wave of new max-height structures and/or developers seeking zoning variances from the city to go higher. It’s a prospect that excites some and worries neighbors hoping the storied street can stay true to its low-slung, 20th-century roots amid Denver’s ongoing reach for the sky.

“I’m concerned that we will get too many very tall buildings in the neighborhood and that will change the feel of the neighborhood,” said Judy Trompeter, a longtime resident and a board president of the Uptown on the Hill neighborhood organization. “I prefer a more human-scale bunch of buildings. I like all the trees we have, the wide parkways and nice, wide sidewalks.”

The big build

Nashville, Tenn.-based Southern Land Co. broke ground in November on a 316-apartment, mixed-use project at the southwest corner of 17th Avenue and Pearl Street. When completed late next year, it will hit 10 stories thanks to a zoning variance granted by the city, but its height will still peak at the maximum-allowed 110 feet.

Work on the project was delayed about a year when Southern Land, responding to the concerns of neighbors and local preservationists, retooled its plans to build around the 1900-built former grocery store building at 538 E. 17th Ave. that since 2001 has housed the Tavern Uptown bar and restaurant. The building was not historically protected and could have been demolished, but it and a neighboring single-story storefront will now be repurposed as the project’s 17th Avenue face, before the structure shoots up to eight and eventually 10 stories as it extends to the south before dropping off again to six floors near 16th Avenue.

Michael McNally, Southern Land’s senior vice president in charge of multifamily development, said the company is excited to be underway on the parcel, which it viewed as a perfect spot for residential density.

The historic structure that was home ...
Joe Amon, The Denver PostThe historic structure that was home to the Tavern Uptown at 17th and Pearl streets is being built into a new 10-story luxury apartment building in Denver’s Uptown neighborhood. Feb. 9, 2018 in Denver.

“You know, I think that neighborhood and the location was primed for it. It was just a surface parking lot for the most part and an old apartment building,” McNally said “Obviously, with Denver’s housing needs, both for-rent and for-sale, being pretty tremendous right now, we feel like it’s a good spot where people want to live.”

She supports that project — Uptown on the Hill printed signs thanking Southern Land and Tavern Uptown for their work saving the grocery store building — but Trompeter hopes the project is an outlier, not the beginning of a trend along Uptown’s main drag.

“I hope that we don’t continue to have too many tall buildings in our neighborhood,” she said. “The taller they get, the more they block out the sun, and they’re just unapproachable.”

Frank Schultz owns Tavern Hospitality and is a former co-owner of the 17th and Pearl lot. He will eventually move Tavern Uptown back into the preserved building with a renovated interior and new rooftop seating. He’s happy to be sticking around the neighborhood where he opened his first Tavern, now part of a nine-location chain, calling it “the most neighborhood, everybody-knows-everybody place that I have.”

Denver’s brisk real estate market motivated Schultz and his mother to sell the property, he said. With a few other high-profile building vacancies within blocks of that corner, it’s easy to envision similar sales/redevelopment transactions popping up in the near future.

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Empty eateries, appetizing opportunities

The former Hamburger Mary’s (later M Uptown) bar and restaurant at the southeast corner of 17th and Washington Street has been vacant for just under a year. Owner Stewart Jackson said that’s not due to a lack of interest or any planned redevelopment. Forty-five would-be tenants are lining up for interviews that should start this coming week, he said.

The only change he has in mind for the property right now is adding 16 employee parking spots just off the back patio. Jackson also owns the 60-space parking lot directly across 17th Avenue and said he has been approached by a number of developers seeking to build multistory projects over the years, but he has turned them down. He enjoys being part of a vibrant restaurant scene and expects his building soon will be part of that mix again.

“17th is a big deal,” he said. “It’s just a matter of finding the right people.”

Tony P’s Bar and Pizzeria Uptown closed in January after more than five years in the vividly painted building at 777 E. 17th Ave., on the same block as Jackson’s properties. Real estate brokerage NAI Shames Makovsky manages and is part owner there, but the firm did not return messages seeking comment on its future.

Tony P’s owner Tony Pasquini has an educated guess: It will be redeveloped.

“They’ve said they are keeping all their options open, but they were doing soil testing and such and I didn’t have a long-term lease there, so I just think that is what is going to happen,” Pasquini said of his former landlord. “There are only a few good neighborhoods that are centrally located, and I think 17th is ripe for that.”

Tony P's a short way down ...
Joe Amon, The Denver PostTony P’s a short way down 17th street from the Tavern Uptown that is being built into a new 10-story luxury apartment building in Denver’s Uptown neighborhood. Feb. 9, 2018 in Denver.

Pasquini, who is now focusing his attention on his pizzeria in the Highland neighborhood, said delivery business in Uptown was great but he felt walk-in traffic left something to be desired. He thinks density — like what Southern Land’s 316 apartments will bring — will be a good for the businesses along 17th Avenue.

“Ten more of those would be great,” he said.

For restaurateur Josh Wolkon, who opened neighborhood hot spot Steuben’s in an old garage at 523 E. 17th Ave. in 2006, the street is a great fit the way it is. Steuben’s and its sister restaurant, Ace Eat Serve, at 501 E. 17th Ave., have their own parking lots, a luxury so close to downtown, and the neighborhood is a mix of long-term, older residents and younger people, he said. There may not be much high-density residential on 17th itself, but there is plenty of it nearby in Uptown, he said.

Still, Wolkon sees the same development trends everyone else does and would not be surprised if the Southern Land/Tavern project is the first in a trend. Looking out the wrap-around windows in Ace’s dinning room on a recent afternoon, Wolkon pondered the future of the block of low-slung commercial buildings a block to the west of his restaurant. The strip, located between Logan and Pennsylvania streets, houses the Park & Co. burger joint, Williams Tavern and Be On Key Psychedelic Ripple bars, a frame shop, a dry cleaner and the Avenue Theater.

“I love that little stretch. It gives the neighborhood character,” Wolkon said. “But I could easily see someone coming in and buying that whole block and building eight, nine stories.”

Authenticity as a selling point

For Historic Denver executive director Annie Levinsky, the work now underway at 17th and Pearl is proof that growth and redevelopment can occur in a way that preserves a neighborhood’s soul, if developers and property owners are willing to put in the time and energy.

While there is no historic designation protecting 17th in Uptown, Levinsky said a number of buildings have historic significance, citing the building at 630 E. 17th Ave., built in 1924 and long occupied by the Avenue Grill. She said the street’s LGBTQ history, dating to the 1970s when the concentration of LGBTQ-friendly bars and clubs there earned it a reputation as “Lavender Row,” also offers an opportunity for preservation.

Many of those business have closed or moved — like Tony P’s predecessor JR’s Bar & Grill — but the buildings they occupied still stand. Historic Denver is performing a building survey on 17th and continues to talk to property owners, to the extent it can reach them, about the historic character of their buildings, Levinsky said.

She believes there is a strong case to make that maintaining and preserving the historic character of a neighborhood, even as it redevelops, is good for business.

“We think that when it happens, it will contribute to a more sustainable and enduring city in the long run, because it will preserve a sense of place and authenticity, and I think that’s what people are looking for in their communities,” she said.

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