Change on Horizon for Athmar Park

Athmar Park is a quiet west Denver neighborhood that is primed for change. Projects on both sides of the South Platte River could catalyze new development and, residents hope, better connectivity and walkability.
A century ago, celery farms covered the land that makes up Athmar Park. The neighborhood, bordered on the north and south by West Alameda and West Mississippi avenues and on the west and east by Federal Boulevard and the South Platte River, was developed during the early half of the 20th century. Its quiet curved streets are full of bungalows built between the 1920s and the 1950s.

Athmar Park was also home to one of five city dumpsites along the river, and although the neighborhood offers stunning views of downtown Denver, it was cut off from nearby downtown for most of the last century by the dead zone of pollution and industry along the South Platte. Because of this, the growth that other Denver neighborhoods have seen over the past twenty years has been slow to arrive in Athmar Park.

But now the neighborhood is positioned to benefit from major developments along its eastern edge. After a decades-long cleanup process, the South Platte -- though still not fully resuscitated -- is becoming a destination for Denverites. And the simultaneous redevelopment of the former site of the Gates rubber factory and revamping of the I-25 and Broadway Station could improve access from Athmar Park to surrounding areas.

An urban "donut hole"The Gates site breaks up the streets running through the neighborhoods adjacent to it.

One theme that has emerged when developers and city planners talk about the future of the area is connectivity. The former Gates site comprises more than 40 acres near Santa Fe and I-25. The Broadway and I-25 light rail station, which sits adjacent to the old Gates property and is one of the busiest light rail stations in the city, is currently in early planning phases for a much-needed update.

The former Gates site breaks up the streets running through the neighborhoods adjacent to it. "If you go down there, you'll notice there's a hole in the donut, in the sense that you really can't go through the site today at all," says David Gaspers, senior city planner. Only two major thoroughfares -- Alameda and Mississippi -- connect Athmar Park with neighboring Baker.

Gaspers is the project manager for the redevelopment of the I-25 and Broadway Station and surrounding area. He says that one of the goals of the station area plan is to improve connectivity -- not just to the rail station but also through the site itself, so that neighbors can move through the area. The station will eventually be reconnected to the city’s street grid.

Development plans for the area call for connecting Athmar Park with not only vehicle access, but also bicycle and pedestrian access.

This isn't the first time the area has tasted the promise of development. The site of the former Gates rubber plant was originally supposed to be developed almost a decade ago.

Ian Harwick, president of the Athmar Park Neighborhood Association, bought his home in August 2008. He chose the neighborhood because it was affordable, close to the city center and -- at the time -- the Gates site was supposed to be on the cusp of redevelopment.

Despite those plans falling through, Harwick still loves his neighborhood. "It's this weird smorgasbord of people," he says. "It's this weird melting pot . . . everyone is either 32 or 68 or 90. It's funky in that way." Harwick also loves the diversity of the area. And though Athmar Park is beginning to see a steady influx of young white couples in their thirties, Harwick isn't worried about the character of the neighborhood changing. "I think a lot of the people that make up that funkiness are [here] to stay."

Though the neighborhood hasn’t yet seen the big changes it expected a decade ago, it has seen incremental change. In addition to the Asian restaurants the northwest corner of Athmar Park is known for, it now has its first brewery in Chain Reaction Brewing Company, which just celebrated its one-year anniversary.

Positive change has already come to the area in the form of the new and improved Johnson-Habitat Park, the most recent project to be completed along the river by the Greenway Foundation. The land the park sits on was once the neighborhood’s landfill and now it boasts enhanced pedestrian and bike trails, areas for play and learning and even an urban campground for kids' groups.

Harwick is hopeful that new investments in the area will lead to greater connectivity for all of southwest Denver. "The neighborhood feels like the city has never really invested, not necessarily just in Athmar Park but in the neighborhoods west of the Platte River," he says. The neighborhood has four parks, but they're not currently well lit or well maintained. And while Johnson-Habitat Park is great, it's still not easily accessible for residents on foot, who have to cross busy South Jason Street to get there.

Vinh Xuong Bakery.A bright future

"I think Athmar Park will become one of the hot neighborhoods in Denver," says Denver City Councilman Chris Nevitt. In addition to those views of downtown, the neighborhood is close to amenities like the South Platte River Trail, he notes, and it's still affordable and nicely located to benefit from the investments along the South Platte and South Broadway.

Councilman Nevitt sees no reason why the Gates redevelopment shouldn't actually happen this time around under new owner Frontier Renewal. Last time, the great recession stalled plans for the site, but now buildings are down and much of the surrounding area has been cleaned up.

"The nuts and bolt of executing a successful development program on this site -- we know a whole lot more than we did ten years ago, and I think we'll be able to move both more quickly and more effectively," says Nevitt.

Councilman Nevitt thinks that the entire area will see a ripple effect from developments along South Broadway and the South Platte. He points to the Overland Park neighborhood as a good example of the ripple affect business and infrastructure investments can have on a residential area.

"We threw an investment rock into the pond at South Broadway and it's rippling out. You can see what's happening in the parts of Overland Park that are adjacent to Broadway," says Nevitt. "I would say that the 'River South is heading toward where the River North is. . . . I would expect that same kind of impact, that ripple, will roll across the river into Athmar Park."

The station area planning process will be complete by the end of this year. Then comes rezoning and construction. Real infrastructure might be in place by 2017, which means this dream of connectivity for Athmar Park could be realized within the next five years. "Denver is smoking hot," says Nevitt. "Unless the bottom falls out, we will continue to have considerable momentum."

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Read more articles by Sarah Harvey.

Sarah Harvey is a Denver-based writer and editor. She is currently editor of the Denver VOICE.
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