Dozens of night spots and clubs dotted Welton Street in the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Five Points for more than half the 20th century, making it a premier destination that some called the Harlem of the West.
The neighborhood’s rich heritage was recognized in 2002 through its designation as a cultural historic district. Its fragile history remains a living memory for some, and it has been commemorated with an archive at the local public library and in the literature of Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation.
For much of the 1920s to 1950s, the neighborhood provided a haven for African-American residents, who gravitated to areas where housing discrimination was less prevalent and segregation less visible. But much like the urban centers of other cities and other pockets of Denver, Five Points began declining in the 1960s and ’70s and has yet to return to its robust past.
Carl Bourgeois, a property developer who owns the area’s star attraction, the now-empty Rossonian Hotel, where jazz greats would stay, has tried for three decades to revive the neighborhood. He and others point to the trove of historic buildings and landmarks, along with a light rail line, that should be spurring change.
But while nearby areas in Denver have experienced revivals, many buildings along Welton Street sit crumbling and untouched next to dusty plots of vacant land or surface parking lots.
Now, developers are starting projects, encouraged by the formation of a Five Points Business District in 2009 and a push for city approval of a “vision plan” for Welton Street, which was granted in 2011. The area also received a $300,000 federal grant under the Sustainable Main Street program, and individual property owners may be eligible for a variety of state and local tax incentives or grants.
Next Wednesday, the city of Denver plans to announce the “Welton Challenge,” in which three property owners along Welton Street in the urban renewal area will be chosen in a competition over their development plans. At least $250,000 in financing, possibly more, will be made available.
Welton Street “is very close to downtown; it has transportation,” Mr. Bourgeois said. “I can’t see how it can’t be the next hot area in Denver that’s going to pop, and a lot of things are going to happen.”
That “pop” has been a long time coming.
Mr. Bourgeois has struggled nearly brick by brick to bring Five Points back, particularly along Washington Street, one of the three streets intersecting Welton that give the area its name.
The street is home to the fire station that housed Denver’s first African-American fire squad, a building that Mr. Bourgeois has been renovating for possible use as a restaurant.
As the owner of the Rossonian since 2006, Mr. Bourgeois said he’s been working to resolve myriad issues with Denver’s infrastructure before taking on the financial risk of redeveloping the hotel. Those problems — which include an inadequate, 100-year-old drainage system — weren’t on the city’s agenda until recently, he said.
The progress made may have taken just a bit too long for Mr. Bourgeois, who said he’s grown old with the crusade and is poised to retire.
“Right now, we’re kind of on the fence which way we’re going to go with the hotel,” Mr. Bourgeois said. “Nevertheless, I think that if we or someone else develops the property, going forward there’s going to be a lot greater possibility of success.”
Other property developers, younger and newer to the area, said the time was ripe for redevelopment along Welton Street.
Shannon Harris, the 25-year-old president and co-founder of Fuse Living, broke ground this month on a development called Clarkson Green, just off Welton Street, that will have five single-family homes and four town homes, all with solar installations.
“I really wanted to be a part of something that was revitalizing,” said Ms. Harris, pointing out that the homes will have some architectural details, like parapets, that nod to the neighborhood. “It was really the redevelopment plan that drew me to this area, plus the availability of land right in the city was kind of a little gold mine for us.”
The developers of two mixed-use sites planned for vacant lots on Welton Street, each with almost 200 rental apartments, are working to break ground this year as well, said Tracy J. Winchester, the executive director of the Five Points Business District. Some or all of those units will have income restrictions.
In recent years, the Five Points neighborhood has been one of Denver’s fastest growing, with a population now roughly 50 percent white, 25 percent African-American and 25 percent Hispanic. Property owners along Welton Street remain largely African-American, however, and there have been some fears that development is “happening a little too fast,” Ms. Winchester said.
Without significant development of housing, retailers are loath to take a risk in the Welton Street area. But the three residential projects breaking ground this year are a good start toward building the critical mass of potential shoppers that most retailers need, she said.
“We’d like to have a commercial main street here, so you don’t have to walk downtown,” Ms. Winchester said. “But our studies have shown that we need to bring in more housing that targets 30- to 40-year-olds. We’ve got to bring the rooftops before the retail — not everybody’s going to be a pioneer.”
However, one property developer, Nathan Beal, has been just that. Five years ago, Mr. Beal and his wife were living in the neighborhood and using the light rail to commute to their jobs as accountants when they learned of an old two-story building for sale one block off Welton.
“We saw the great bones of the neighborhood,” Mr. Beal said. “The light rail, the density, a lot of the historic structures that had character, and we said, ‘It’s just a matter of time before this neighborhood becomes really desirable.’”
After buying that building and successfully developing it into four small retail spaces and five apartments, last year Mr. Beal renovated a building on Welton Street and leased out four retail spaces to businesses that include the Purple Door Coffee Shop and Winter Session, a manufacturer of high-end, handcrafted canvas and leather goods.
“The first building I renovated, it took awhile to lease the spaces out,” Mr. Beal said. “But with this newer building, there definitely appears to be a much larger demand for space.”
Mr. Beal now does property development full time as Saint Bernard Properties, and his next project is construction of a three-story building on an empty lot on Welton Street, which will have ground-floor retail and two apartments above. Before Mr. Beal’s developments, the last significant project along Welton was in 2002.
Business owners in the neighborhood, like Gregory Crichlow, the owner of Chocolate Spokes Bicycle Shop, one of Mr. Beal’s tenants, said they were entrepreneurs prepared to survive the fits and starts of the area’s revival.
“There’s just this whole culture of small business that’s trying to make it happen,” said Mr. Crichlow, who does general bike repair, along with building custom bicycles and selling “bean-to-bar” chocolate. “And Five Points is kind of ripe to do that, because it’s affordable, and it’s an enterprise zone for the city, so they want investment here.”
At Welton Homes at the Point, the last mixed-use development to open in 2002, Coffee at the Point is the latest in a series of coffee shops that have attempted to make it in a 2,500-square-foot ground-floor retail space.
Ryan Cobbins, the young owner, has struggled for almost three years to make the location a “second living room” for the community, he said. That has included combating negative stereotypes about crime in the area.
“That’s why this area’s such a jewel now, because there’s a population that doesn’t see it yet,” Mr. Cobbins said. “If everybody saw it, it wouldn’t be the diamond in the rough that it is.”
Mr. Cobbins said he recently obtained a liquor license enabling him to serve craft beers and wine, and he’s prepared to stick it out through the long haul.
“Our business plan when we started depended on mobilization of other businesses in the area,” he said. “It’s been a slow-moving process. So we’ve kind of adopted a new phrase, which is ‘We’ll do it with or without anyone new moving into the neighborhood.’”
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(Article courtesy of the New York Times)