RiNo, meet BISON: Long Overlooked Denver Neighborhood on a Tear
Call it baby RiNo. A formerly forlorn corner of the Overland neighborhood in south Denver is showing serious signs of life, with a brewery, distillery and gallery opening in recent weeks -- and plenty more to come.
Nicknamed "The Green Mile" for its countless marijuana dispensaries and grow warehouses, Overland's deep South Broadway is getting more diverse in a hurry.
In the first half of October alone, Cabal Enterprises, FashioNation and Grandma's House Brewery opened on a three block-stretch in the neighborhood.
That's not all. A block west on Acoma Street, Bear Creek Distillery had a soft opening in the middle of the month, and the first bottles from the long-awaited Laws Whiskey House, four blocks north, started showing up at Baker bars at about the same time. And Declaration Brewing is set to open in the shadows of the Evans Avenue bridge around Thanksgiving.
This colorful stretch of the city emerged in the wake of a place that was best known for potholes, payday loans and used cars. The patchwork of industrial and residential blocks west of Broadway had a pair of transportation amenities in the light-rail station and the Platte River Trail, but hadn't seen much in the way of transit-oriented development until last year. That's quickly changing.
"The demographics down here are fantastic," says Jim Norris, co-founder of Cabal Enterprises. "Baker sold out."
He describes Broadway between I-25 and the Denver city limits at Yale Avenue as the city's last great frontier for the young and hip. "There's not that much infrastructure for cool once you get past Hampden."
Norris would know.
He cut his teeth managing the Bluebird and Ogden theaters on Colfax Avenue for N.I.P.P. before opening 3 Kings Tavern with Jeff Campbell and Marty Killorin in Baker in 2006. He took over Mutiny Information Cafe, the used-bookstore and all-ages venue up the block, with Matt Megyesi and Joe Ramirez in 2013.
And Cabal Enterprises is his latest endeavor.
At the hybrid gallery/studio/incubator, there's a gallery upstairs -- featuring a bathroom clad ceiling to floor with black velvet paintings -- and studio space downstairs.
There are plans for events and services. "We're going to do band design, and merchandising," says Norris. "Everybody keeps different hours."
"Everybody" is an eight-headed artistic monster that splits expenses, comprised of Norris, Joshua Finley, Girr, Michelle Scheffer, John Baxter, Vincent Cheap, Mar Williams and Jesse Frazier, a.k.a. and d.b.a. FAIM Worldwide.
FAIM Worldwide was born of a sticker of a star-spangled motorcycle helmet. Frazier printed 60 at Kinko's and starting slapping them up in Capitol Hill and Baker about 10 years ago. Now he's printed 60,000 and FAIM is literally worldwide -- the stickers have been photographed all over the planet.
The stickers "changed my life," says Frazier, leading him to start creating large-format, mixed-media pop art. He describes Cabal "as a chance to work with my favorite artists around Denver. Having a spot to have retail and a gallery spot with a workspace is a dream come true."
Frazier forecasts an arts boom in Overland, and Cabal is spearheading the creation of a new creative district in the neighborhood. "We're very fortunate to get here on the ground floor, the first wave," he says.
A different era
Overland's big headlines were much different 20 years ago.
Two blocks east of Cabal sits the Shattuck site, the toxic concrete monolith turned urban EPA Superfund site that, now clean, is a target for a transit-oriented residential development.
The site is now under contract to a developer, according to current owner Jon Cook. Several hundred units could follow on the 1800 block of South Bannock Street.
A mile to the north, the 41-acre Gates Rubber site sold to Frontier Renewal, a Denver-based brownfield developer, in September. It could see thousands of new units in the coming decade.
To South Broadway entrepreneurs like Matt Fuerst, such a residential boom would be a very good thing.
A little over a year after taking possession of a former antique store at 1710 S. Broadway, Fuerst opened Grandma's House, a collective brewery that allows outsiders to make use of the fermentation tanks in early October.
"We've got about four signed up now and about four that are very interested," says Fuerst of finding collaborators. "They're all sort of breweries in planning. I don't have to have all 12 taps be my taps."
Fuerst splits sales down the middle with collaborators. He's hopeful some of these brewers will ultimately invest in equipment to brew on the premises. "I'm hopeful they can afford to put in a fermenter or two," he says.
The place looks like your grandma's living room -- if your grandma has personality to spare. There's crocheted tap covers, an Elvis bust, board games and a bar that's made from an actual epoxied quilt. Expect even more quirk to come. "Any weird thing I see," says Fuerst, "I have a license to buy now."
Fuerst quibbles with a recent comment Tweet intimating that breweries should focus on the beer above any theme. "This is not window dressing to make bad beer," he assures. "We can do both. I didn't want to be a the umpteenth brewery with an industrial feel."
As for Overland, Fuerst says the neighborhood is a good match for Grandma's House. "It definitely fit my concept," he says, noting that he was priced out of Baker. "At first, I didn't want to come south of I-25, but the more I learned, there was a lot of turnover and cool things coming in. I felt the timing was perfect."
He also has more space in Overland -- 6,000 square feet -- than he could have ever hoped for in Baker, giving him plenty of room for expansion.
The collaborative nature of both Grandma's House and Cabal will help bring activity to an area that recently lacked just that.
Exhibit A: Gaijin 24886, the soon-to-launch craft sake maker that works out of Grandma's House.
Co-founding the operation with Keith Kemp, Marc Hughes named the company after his employee number in Japan. Hughes says they'll sell their first bottles of sake in late November.
He met Fuerst through a mutual friend. "We were looking for a space," says Hughes. "We did the song and dance with the liquor board and here we are."
Bear Creek Distillery opened for a Saturday in mid-October, and the proprietors plan to do the same thing again in November before establishing regular hours in December.
Jay Johnson, one of the founders, says the team looked in RiNo and downtown Littleton before settling for the very western storefront at 1879 S. Acoma St., a block west of Broadway and a block east of the Shattuck site.
Johnson says the plan was to eschew miners, cowboys and other cliches of whiskey marketing, but the building was too perfect. It's a print shop that dates to 1973, not 1873, but it looks straight out of the Wild West. "We said, 'Holy shit, we're going to buy a saloon!'" says Johnson, noting that the woodsy exterior was tempered by a contemporary interior.
"Now that we're here, I can't imagine being anywhere else," says Johnson. "At first, we wanted to be on a major thoroughfare, but now we're glad we're not."
Dubbing his neck of the woods as a "middle ground" between Antique Row and Old Englewood, Johnson says he sees revitalization push coming from both north and south. "It's a no man's land, but not for long."
That description might be inapplicable before the year ends. There's soon to be three breweries within three-quarters of a mile of Grandma's House. Throw in the two distilleries on Acoma Street and you're talking about a notable crawl from and back to Evans Station.
Add these new businesses to Corvus Coffee Roasters, Azucar Bakery, La Cour Bistro & Art Bar, Angelo's CDs & More, Massif Studios and Former Future Brewing Company, and South Broadway has notably changed since Public Works' two-mile, $28 million paving and streetscaping project wrapped up about a year ago.
It's difficult to argue the project didn't catalyze a livelier South Broadway. Apartments at Shattuck and Gates would only add fuel to the fire.
Fuerst of Grandma's House says the strip still needs restaurants, and he wouldn't be averse to even more breweries. "That's the nice thing about a neighborhood like this," he notes. "A rising tide raises all ships."
Another missing piece: branding. Overland is one of the city's more anonymous neighborhoods.
"I didn't even know that was the neighborhood's name until recently," says Fuerst, before evaluating a few nicknames. "Antique Row doesn't fit. They were talking LoBro -- that doesn't fit. They were talking Gates -- I don't care for that."
How about the Green Mile? It's exclusionary to most of the businesses, just like Antique Row.
Fuerst suggests simply "The Row."
Baby RiNo? Nah. Let's keep our wildlife-inspired names local and go with BISON (Broadway from I-25 South in the Overland Neighborhood).
But I'm open to your ideas.
Correction: The Shattuck site was never in foreclosure as an earlier version of this article indicated. We regret the error.