Friday morning, Dick Celeste and other dignitaries looked forward to formally breaking ground for the United States Olympic Museum.
Located on a long-desolate stretch of land in long-desolate southwest downtown, the museum is being touted as the city’s latest superpowered development engine.
Construction cranes will jostle for space as hotels, apartments and office towers rise above bike/pedestrian-friendly streets. Restaurants, bars, art galleries and other cool retail establishments will line the streets. Upscale? You bet — no more cracked sidewalks and abandoned buildings! We’ll rename Vermijo Avenue to better identify the district. How does Fifth Avenue sound?
I can hardly wait to ride my bike across Cascade Avenue, past the museum, across the iconic Fifth Avenue Bridge to America the Beautiful Park, and thence on the Midland Trail to the rapidly gentrifying Westside.
Fantasy or reality? First, we need to let go of the idea that southwest downtown is like Denver’s LoDo in the 1980s — a bunch of vacant warehouses adjacent to a reasonably vibrant central business district.
Artists, galleries, preservationists and urban pioneers settled in LoDo a decade before redevelopment began. The old warehouses were (and are) beautiful multistory brick and stone structures, legacies of Denver’s long history as the commercial center of the Rocky Mountain West. Fragmented land ownership allowed entrepreneurs like laid-off geologist John Hickenlooper to buy and renovate a junky old building, open a brewpub and ride the beer express to the governor’s mansion.
Like Denver’s Central Platte Valley, our southwest downtown is a tabula rasa, a blank slate. The existing buildings aren’t candidates for renovation — they’ll be torn down. Jenkins family interests own most of the 100-acre site, and since they also own multiple vacant parcels in central and near-central downtown, there may be no rush to develop the southwest.
LoDo was already a modest success story in the mid-1980s when Denver boosters identified a vacant parcel at 20th and Blake as the preferred site for a baseball stadium.
After Denver was selected for an expansion team in 1991, taxpayers ponied up 75 percent of the $215 million cost ($345 million in 2017 dollars) with bonds supported by a voter-approved .1 percent sales tax. The stadium opened in 1995; bonds have long ago been paid off.
By contrast, Colorado Springs couldn’t get its act together to build a $60 million stadium/events center in southwest downtown, even with promised state sales tax increment funding of $18 million.
LoDo and Coors Field sparked the redevelopment of the adjoining Central Platte Valley and the Ballpark Neighborhood northeast of the stadium where 12,000 residents now live in the three neighborhoods, compared to 200 in the mid-1980s.
Something similar might happen here, but it’ll take a while. Once the museum opens, will visitors walk several blocks to shops and restaurants, or just climb back in their cars and head for the interstate?
And what about all those visitors? If Los Angeles is awarded the 2024 Olympic Games, that should help kickstart visitor numbers. But if, as rumored, the IOC has cut a deal to give Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028, that might delay the visitor bump.
Here’s my LoDo story. In the early 1980s, I partnered in a few small real estate investments with Colorado Springs Symphony conductor Charles Ansbacher. He was connected to some Texas heavy hitters who were mildly interested in Colorado properties, so I pitched a vacant four-story building at the corner of 17th and Wynkoop streets, half a block from the Oxford Hotel and across the street from Union Station. The price: qualify to take over an existing $300,000 loan and pay closing costs.
Charles and I met with the heavy hitters and their consulting engineer. The deal: Charles and I would get half, the heavy hitters would get half, and we’d figure out how and when to renovate. The engineer took one look at the gutted building and killed the deal.
“This place is structurally unsound,” he said. “I recommend that we get out immediately.”
As it turned out, it didn’t matter. It was Oct. 19, 1987, and the stock market was crashing. The Dow was down 24 percent by the end of the day.
The heavy hitters left in a panic, but 30 years later the building is still there, developed into retail and loft spaces. Now it’s worth — oh, never mind!