DENVER — It is a typical warm, summer night at Coors Field, Denver's retro-style new ballpark, where the red brick faade melds seamlessly with the old warehouses of the city's lower downtown. Yet another capacity crowd of 50,000 cheers wildly as its Rockies boom home runs into the Mile High City's thin air. Not even a loss dims the crowd's good mood. Fans empty into surrounding streets - some filling nightspots with chatter, others heading home to fashionable loft apartments carved out of the brick warehouses. A few years ago, such a scene didn't exist. Downtown Denver was a forest of cold, steel and glass office towers, devoid of life after working hours. LoDo, as the area around the ballpark is tabbed, was a notorious neighborhood of decaying old buildings, parking lots, and cheap bars. What accounts for this remarkable change? Certainly, the opening of Coors Field in 1995 has spurred downtown development. But the roots of this renewal lie earlier, much earlier. From its establishment in the 19th century as a railhead for cattlemen and miners to the high-rolling days of the 1980s oil boom, Denver has been a cultural and economic center of the American West. And today is no different. With one foot firmly planted in tradition and one in the future, Denver has revitalized one of its most historic districts, creating a people-friendly downtown where none had previously existed. "We've seen so much of the [type of development] where cities took everything and really sterilized it. That's been one of Denver's advantages - other places have done it so badly, and Denver could learn from their example," says Patricia Limerick, historian at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "There's a great enthusiasm for the Old West here - [LoDo] may be a simplified version - but it appeals to that."
Some 9,000 people now live in central downtown, where none lived only a few years ago. Virtually every development project now includes mixed residential use, including several office buildings converted into apartments. For the most part, the newcomers are people without families, either young singles and couples or "empty-nesters," who left the 'burbs after their children left home. "They were people looking for a new lifestyle," says Dana Crawford, founder of Historic Denver, a preservationist organization. "They would tell me proudly, 'I haven't used my car in three weeks.' " Using everything from street fairs to Friday night jazz performances in front of the train station, LoDo residents have created a community from scratch. "There was no neighborhood here before," says Diane Blackman, head of Lower Downtown District Inc., a neighborhood association. "A piece of our mission was creation of a neighborhood identity." The opening of the ballpark two years ago has sent this process into orbit. The stadium was built without large parking lots around it - a conscious move to force people to either take public transportation or park in midtown and walk. This has spurred a vibrant nightlife throughout downtown that goes on even when the team isn't in town. "All of a sudden it's cool to live in the suburbs and drive to downtown Denver at night," says Barbara Pahl, head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's regional office in Denver. In LoDo, loft apartments are selling like hot cakes, prompting several projects to build new residential complexes in the area. Prices are also jumping accordingly. Years of work But the boom didn't just come out of nowhere. It is the fruition of decades of work by Denver's preservationist movement - one of the oldest and most active in the West. The odyssey began in 1970 when concerned citizens founded Historic Denver to save the mansions of Denver's turn-of-the-century silver millionaires from the wrecking ball of urban development. Among its founders is Dana Crawford, a public-relations expert and mother of four who brought a love of historic architecture west from her native Boston. She was drawn to Larimer Street, once the center of old Denver. Built at the turn of the century, the brick High Western Victorian-style buildings had become Denver's skid row. "Everything was slated to be torn down in urban renewal," Ms. Crawford recalls. Beginning in the mid-1960s, along with her geologist husband, she embarked on a second career as a developer, buying up the old buildings and ultimately turning them into Larimer Square, a complex of upscale shops, restaurants, and offices, set in the restored buildings. "Dana showed there was life for old buildings other than skid row," says architect Richard Farley, the former deputy director of the city's planning department, now with Civitas, a private design firm. Crawford and others then turned their eyes toward adjacent LoDo. In 1980, she bought the Oxford Hotel, a block from the train station and once considered the best hotel in town. More than a century after it was built, decades of neglect had turned it into a $10-a-night flophouse, its once-elegant lobby filled with three pool tables. "It wasn't a great part of town, but the buildings were great," says Ms. Blackman, who helped run the hotel in the early '80s. "There isn't anything like that, as a collection, in the American West anymore." After restoration, the Oxford reopened in 1983, but business was hardly kind for these downtown pioneers. Sitting in the hotel's beautifully restored 1930s-era Art Deco lounge, Crawford laughs about going into "Chapter 22" - declaring bankruptcy twice - during the '80s. In the meantime, speculators buoyed by the strong oil market were buying up much of LoDo, hoping to transform the area into more office space and high rises. But in the mid-1980s an influential new player entered the battle over the fate of downtown Denver - the Downtown Denver Partnership. An association composed of retail merchants, the partnership was formed in 1955 and was one of the earliest such organizations. In its efforts to stem the flight of customers to suburban shopping malls, the association - with federal funding - opened the 16th Street mall in 1982. The I.M.Pei-designed pedestrian-only shopping street today forms the core of mid-downtown. 'Cold to the feet' Before then, downtown Denver was "pedestrian unfriendly, cold to the feet," says William Mosher, president of the partnership. Unlike older cities such as Boston or New York, which were built around merchanting, Denver was "built by real estate developers," he says. In 1985, the partnership, in alliance with preservationist groups, drafted a downtown plan that, among other things, called for Lower Downtown to be declared a historic district, restricting further destruction of the old buildings. They were backed by Federico Pea, who was elected mayor in 1983 on a platform of transforming Denver into a "great city." Ironically, this campaign was aided by the almost overnight bust of the oil-shale market in 1986. Developers were stuck with half-empty office buildings, and speculators saw the value of their property fall through the floor. "The economy bought us some time - nobody was going to pay to tear those buildings down," says Ms. Pahl of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. After a bitter battle over property rights, the historic district came into being in 1988. The result was to cap the land speculation and to encourage would-be office-tower builders to sell their property cheaply. In the late 1980s, a dozen local developers such as Crawford and Blackman began to transform LoDo into what it is today - a vibrant urban village of art galleries, bookstores, restaurants, and offices. Then, in the midst of hard times, Mayor Pea embarked on what seemed an almost foolhardy set of development projects from 1989 to 1991. With voter approval, the city passed bond measures, tax increases, and the like to finance the development downtown of a zoo, an amusement park, a convention center, the ballpark, and a new main library. The money was also used to construct new roads and a light-rail system providing access to downtown, and to remove viaducts that passed over LoDo.
"We invested in ourselves, and what was remarkable about that was we were still in the economic trough," says Jennifer Moulton, an architect who went from leading Historic Denver to becoming the city's director of planning and development. "Then we got lucky - the economy turned around." In 1991, newly elected Mayor Wellington Webb called a downtown summit that set a new goal - bringing people not only to play but also to live in the center of the city. Downtown's 9,000 new residents bear witness of the success. Leading by example The LoDo example is now being eagerly followed by other neighborhoods close to downtown, which are trying to combine a restorationist ethic with development. "Almost every neighborhood is feeling the impact of people coming back to the downtown of the city," says Tyler Gibbs, director of urban design for the city. Restoration has become almost a craze in Denver. The Central Platte Valley, a huge vacant area once occupied by rail yards adjacent to LoDo, is now slated for construction of housing and office space. The city aims to turn the train station into a terminus as well as for light rail, an express train to the airport, and buses. Beyond this area, new parks are being built along the Platte River, turning an industrial area into a new recreation center linked to downtown. The prospect of all this development does not seem to worry most denizens of LoDo. While some have concerns about the noise that has accompanied new nightlife, the area is pressing forward. The neighborhood association is drawing up a plan to ensure that new construction maintains the architectural standards of the historic buildings. Merchants want to ensure that there will be easy pedestrian access for their new neighbors to stores and restaurants, as well as a route for them to the river parks.
"Other than that," says Blackman, "it's the more, the merrier."