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CollaborEAT Chews on Arapahoe Square

Great Divide's Brian Dunn speaks at CollaborEAT on 21st Street.

The event drew more than 200 people.

A DJ provided a soundtrack for the brainstorm.

The key to making a great place, as always, is doing something awesome.

On Sept. 25, CityBuild Denver threw its second annual CollaborEAT bash on 21st Street between Lawrence and Arapahoe. More than 200 diners broke bread and engaged in a conversation on how to create a more vibrant Arapahoe Square.
Arapahoe Square has long been considered downtown Denver's most undeveloped and anonymous neighborhood.

This status has been changing, however, with new businesses opening and apartment towers rising in the past few years. But Arapahoe Square hasn't truly arrived -- yet.

Just how to get it there was the topic of discussion at last week's CollaborEAT. Organized by CityBuild Denver, the event was the second annual al fresco dinner designed to get attendees talking about building a better Denver. The first one had attendees talking about collaboration citywide, but this one narrowed the focus onto the ongoing metamorphosis of Arapahoe Square.

Bordered by 20th, 24th, Lawrence and Stout streets, the neighborhood has some can't-miss features -- namely its central, walkable location, sandwiched between LoDo, Uptown, Five Points and Ballpark -- but it also has its fair share of challenges.

Navigation here can be confusing: Not only is the neighborhood bisected by Broadway, it features plenty of one-way streets and the commingling of the downtown grid and the city grid. It's also dominated by surface parking lots.

Nonetheless, the potential is there, but a big change requires thousands of small changes first. "This truly is the Central Platte Valley of this generation," says Brittany Morris Saunders, VP of public affairs for the Downtown Denver Partnership (DDP). "It will take 10, 20, 30 years to develop this part of the city."

Regardless how long it takes, the development to date has lit a fuse for bigger things to come. "There's a lot of momentum already on the private side," says Caryn Champine, development and planning supervisor with the city's Community Planning and Development Department.

The patchwork of privately owned parking lots is a big hurdle for developers, but that dynamic is changing as development pushes east. Champine says the "investment and energy" that started at Coors Field has crossed Lawrence Street, and the eastward push has been further driven by the wave of development in and around Union Station.

To take the neighborhood to the next level, Champine says the city needs to build on the momentum. "The private market is doing what it needs to do," she says. "It's time for the city to be serious about a public investment in the neighborhood."

 At CollaborEAT, DDP President and CEO Tami Door set the stage for brainstorming over dinner. "Even it it's a crazy idea, put it out there. Enjoy your dinner, have a great night and really, really think big."

One topic at hand: How can we make Arapahoe Square a destination -- a place to go to instead of through? There are already some great places  on the map: Great Divide Brewing Co., Wonderbound's rehearsal space, the Mile High United Way's new Morgridge Center for Community Change, 2020 Lawrence and the Mercury Cafe. Maybe it has yet to hit critical mass, but it's getting close.

Looking ahead, 21st Street is a big target for placemakers. "It's going to be about that public realm," says Champine. "The vision is for 21st Street to be the gathering place and a destination. We have a chance to redevelop that street so it's different than anyplace downtown."

A place for everyone

An innovative 21st Street concept is just one part of the puzzle. Champine says that an update to the zoning code will also help push for more projects like Zocalo's 10-story 2020 Lawrence, with ground-level retail and upper floors set back from the sidewalk. "That type of building is exactly what we want to see," she explains.

Of the more established businesses, Great Divide has been at 2201 Arapahoe St. since 1994. "For us, it's our 'hood," says Brian Dunn, the brewery's founder. In his 20 years, he's seen business come and go, and towers rise from rubble. "It's changing, but it's all good changes," says Dunn, summing up the shift as "fewer parking lots, more people."

The question is how to activate the neighborhood for everybody, and not just those who can afford apartments in the new high-rises. The challenges presented by poverty and homelessness aren't germane to Arapahoe Square and Arapahoe Square alone -- they're broader issues facing the entire city. But the neighborhood is unavoidably at the center of both issues, and the question of gentrification pushing away the less fortunate was at the heart of the CollaborEAT discussion.

In the words of Mile High United Way President and CEO Christine Benero, "It is about setting a place at the table for everyone in this neighborhood."

It's a tricky balance. There is currently more demand for affordable housing, shelter beds and social services than there is supply, leading to long lines at facilities in the area. The lines are easy targets for drug dealers and other malefactors.

Champine says "dispersing the services so it's not so concentrated" is one possible solution. Another could be bringing in a more diverse crowd.

Festival central

Many of the millennials in attendance at CollaborEAT saw festivals and events as the key to the neighborhood blooming. Caitlin Lehmann attended the first dinner in Civic Center Park and "loved it so much I wanted to come back this year." Her advice for planners Arapahoe Square: "Have more events like this that bring people out."

"They should make it a festival area," echoes Jeremy Collins, an agent with Wisdom Real Estate in Denver. "Do little events like this and each block can have its own thing." He says older generations might be turned off by the urban grittiness of Arapahoe Square, but not him. "You're not going to scare me off."

The DDP's Saunders says the festival streets idea is under review for the next iteration of the neighborhood. "It's actually constructed in a way that's easier for  festivals," she says, highlighting the numerous curb ramps and wide sidewalks.

As inspiration, the DDP's Urban Exploration Trip to Seattle in June included a visit to the new Bell Street Park. "We got some pretty cool ideas from that street that we hope to bring back to Denver," says Saunders. Seattle has also implemented a rule that converts existing streets into "festival streets" that only require one permit for a year's worth of events involving temporary closure to traffic.

Calling CollaborEAT "a great starting point," the city's Champine says the design process for 21st Street will be underway soon and a plan should be unveiled by early 2015. "Once we have that fine-tuned, we can work with the Partnership, the Rockies and landowners, and find the money to get it done."

In the meantime, let's push for crazy and creative. Unusual architecture. Unforgettable public art. One of-a-kind events.

But it's not going to happen without people thinking big and taking a chance.

I'll stand by the idea I wrote on my card at CollaborEAT: "Have someone brilliant do something awesome."

Go forth and be that brilliant someone. Tell them I sent you.

The conversation about Arapahoe Square will continue this weekend at Reimagine Your Downtown with "Arapahoe United: Reimagining Space Today...A Stronger Community Tomorrow." The event takes place at 21st and Curtis streets on Oct. 4 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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