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DISPATCH FROM DENVER

Spending Gives New Nightlife to a Half-Dead Downtown

Eateries have helped revitalize the area as the city's big investments begin to pay off.

November 02, 2003|Roger Vincent | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — It's not hard to see why the favorite downtown of National Hockey League players is said to be this one.

Bars and restaurants in the heart of the city where the league's teams come to play the Avalanche are so thick that they compete with elaborate decorating themes, live music and such old-fashioned appeals as "ladies night."

One establishment on a frequently rollicking street not far from basketball and hockey's Pepsi Center and baseball's Coors Field boasts, "Cold beer, fine food, live snakes."

There are about 280 restaurants in downtown's 120 blocks, feeding office workers, residents and visitors fare that ranges from lobster to buffalo burgers. A dozen years ago there was a fraction of that number of eateries, and very few residents or visitors.

It scarcely seems to matter now which came first -- the restaurants or the diners -- but the reemergence of downtown Denver nightlife after fallow decades has been more of a carefully crafted comeback than an organic evolution.

Among the levers that lifted the city were the formation of a downtown business improvement district in the early 1990s, the opening of Coors Field in 1995 and the ongoing doubling in size of the convention center.

The change hasn't been seamless, and years of spending downtown has produced striking contrasts between the old city and the emerging one. In the historic LoDo (for Lower Downtown), the Rocky Mountain Seed Co. does business across Market Street from Executive Tans tanning salon and a P.F. Chang's bistro with uniformed valet parkers. On a recent weekday, a rusted-out convertible Volkswagen beetle was parked next to a late-model Volvo sport utility vehicle with vanity plates reading "NO GLT," as in "no guilt."

But the energy in this revitalized downtown puts it ahead of many -- ahead of Los Angeles' by at least five years, some real estate observers say -- in its quest to grow from a high-rise office park that empties at dusk into a 24-hour city.

Among the people swept up in Denver's pull toward the center was Jena Stanford, 31, who loved her school years in San Francisco and wished she could afford to buy a home in an urban center that felt like a real city. A graphic designer for the Denver Art Museum, she found a century-old house on the northwest outskirts of downtown for $250,000. "It's not like San Francisco," she said of home prices in the city. "You can live downtown or around the general area and be able to afford it."

Prices are going up, however, as homes in the neighborhoods around downtown are snapped up by young buyers like Stanford who want to be part of Denver's urban renaissance. Prices for condos and lofts in LoDo run from $130,000 to $1.5 million. Apartment rents range from $675 to $1,500 per month.

Driving the market is downtown's emerging street scene, which is powered by large-scale attractions such as fancy retro-style Coors Field and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, where patrons can find as many as four different live shows a day ranging from ballet to comedy.

Other big-ticket attractions in or near the historic core include Invesco Field, where the Denver Broncos play football, and Pepsi Center, home to professional basketball, hockey and lacrosse, plus performances by popular entertainers. There's even a Six Flags amusement park with roller coasters and other thrill rides.

While some cities have been disappointed by the amount of business lured to their neighborhoods by new professional sports venues, the gamble has paid off for Denver, which put up $435 million in voter-approved public funds over the last decade to help lure pro franchises to the central city.

It has succeeded to the extent that Sports Illustrated, in its assessment of the good and bad of being a hockey player on the road, reported last fall that Denver's LoDo is the favorite of players in the league and that their favorite hangout is the ChopHouse -- where appetizers include buffalo carpaccio.

"When I first moved to Denver 10 years ago, downtown was a ghost town on the weekends," said real estate developer Casey Gebhard. He traded a three-bedroom house in the suburbs for an 800-square-foot downtown condo in the late 1990s because, he said, he "wanted to be closer to all that action."

The opening of Coors Field in 1995 brought a pop in real estate values and "a whole bunch of nightlife" to LoDo, said Gebhard.

Only about 6,800 people live in the downtown core, but the population count rises to 65,000 in a 1 1/2-mile radius that includes gentrifying neighborhoods like Highland, where Stanford lives, and upscale Cherry Creek to the southeast, where townhouses sell for as much as $4 million.

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