The Baker Boom: Revitalization on Broadway Hits Fever Pitch

Development in Baker has exploded in recent years, and the curve is steepening as of late 2013. Can one of Denver's most distinctive 'hoods balance explosive growth with the preservation of its quirky character?
Parking sucks, music started it. 
That's the short version of the Baker boom, particularly on Broadway where it seems as if a new storefront opens everyday. Despite the Dunkin' Donuts that's replaced the A&W at 4th Avenue, the trend is toward ultra-local businesses with young business owners who live in the neighborhood and whose employees enjoy the historic neighborhood, one of Denver's oldest and the spot where all the city's numbered east-west avenues begin. 
Baker is bordered by 6th Avenue on the north and the abandoned Gates Rubber Factory on the south, Lincoln Street on the east and the South Platte River on the west. It stretches back to the early 1800s but the city officially designated it the Baker district in the 1970s, named after Baker Junior High School. Broadway, Baker's most commercial street, came to be when Thomas Skerritt drug a lengthy tree behind his wagon to clear broad way into Denver in 1871. 
Today it has more than 5,000 residents -- and counting. New apartments are sprouting up on and around Broadway at an impressive pace, and many more are on the drawing board.
As the neighborhood has changed, the makeup of businesses that dot it's streets has changed. "Even five years ago there were a lot less restaurants, a lot more antique stores, book stores, sex shops, head shops -- all that kind of stuff," observes Sweet Action Ice Cream Co-Owner and Founder Chia Basinger. Now it's increasingly a place for people to shop and eat. 
One of the old sex shops recently became Eslinger Art Gallery, for instance. New, locally grown businesses on the street level range from Hope Tank, the charitable boutique -- the owner contributes profits from sales to roughly 70 organizations -- to Sweet Action to the recently opened Breathe, a yoga and cycling studio next to the brand new Illegal Pete's burrito-plex and bar. 
The second floors of most Broadway buildings are similarly filled with local businesses. "It's all young independent business owners," says Basinger. "You don't see many other neighborhoods like that in Denver."
Matthew Brown, owner of Baker-based crafting mecca Fancy Tiger, sees the transition occurring in the heart of the residential neighborhood as well. "I love that Humble Pie moved over to 3rd and Elati," he says. "The minute they opened up, whoever owned the property across the street from them just sunk a bunch of money into it and developed it. Now they're looking at renting it or selling it."
Music makes for changeThe 3 Kings Tavern moved into Baker in 2005 and brought in a younger crowd.
Basinger, Brown and other local entrepreneurs largely attribute the resurgence of Baker's popularity to music venues moving into the neighborhood. 
"When I first came in there was just the Hi-Dive," says real-estate entrepreneur and Baker resident John Crays. "Nothing else was here as far as bars go. There was Famous Pizza, the Irish Rover was The Shamrock. The guy that owned the Shamrock was some big, bald sonofabitch and he would knock people's teeth out and there were teeth that he had knocked out under the bar." 
When Crays bought a foreclosed home in Baker about a decade ago his neighbor was, well, a condemned building. "They had rats, bones and we'd shoot windows out of it with rocks. Since then that building got revamped into these $350,000 condos," he says. "I started noticing that all of these buildings were kind of changing, the neighborhood was going from these older people who had been in these houses for the last 30 years to a younger generation."
"When 3 Kings Tavern came in [in 2005] that made a big difference -- we have music and music usually brings in more creative minds," Crays contends. "That was bringing in more young people as opposed the guys smoking cigarettes and drinking beer at 7 a.m." 
During a recent meeting at Mutiny Information Cafe of the Baker Broadway Merchants Association, a roughly year-old coalition of local business owners and entrepreneurs, parking was the topic du jour. Parking issues might not be a bad thing however, it's reflective of the neighborhood's resurgent popularity. It's no longer a seedy cousin of Colfax where stupefied bums freely spark crack pipes in front of businesses, says Fancy Tiger's Brown. "People smoke crack in my alley rather than in the front of my store," he quips. "There's more pressure on people now that are doing less savory things down here to do it in secret."
Fancy Tiger is one of the earlier new guard businesses that set up shop in Baker, opening its doors in 2006. Since then it's split from one store into two -- one for crafts, the other for unique, fashionable clothing. The latter has moved four times and now both stores are beside each other and next to Buffalo Exchange (formerly on 13th Avenue). The owners of Fancy Tiger and Buffalo Exchange partnered to purchase the building they now reside in, Brown says. Fancy Tiger is one of the retail stores that lines Broadway.
As Fancy Tiger moved, it also helped bring new businesses to Broadway, Sewn, a boutique specializing in local clothing and accessories, and Happy Coffee are now in its former storefronts. "We courted or invited every business that's in our previous locations," says Brown. "It's so hard to get space down here that when space opens up it usually goes to a friend of a previous owner and they seal that deal three months before it's even public." 
Sweet Action Ice Cream, which opened its doors in 2009, was also a welcome addition to the neighborhood, enjoying lines out the door on most summer days. Basinger says he remembers the neighborhood as a child. "It was always a pretty cool neighborhood, but it was always sketchy," he says.

Basinger explains that he and Sweet Action Co-Owner Samantha Kopicko decided to open up the ice cream shop in Baker about a year after they moved there. "When we moved here, there were a couple of places we were looking at moving and we decided to move into the Baker neighborhood because honestly it felt the most like New York City," he asserts. "We like having an urban lifestyle, we like having an urban and walkable neighborhood with a lot of things you need within walking distance. You have bars, you have restaurants, you have a movie theater [the historic Mayan Theatre], you have all the amenities you want so that was attractive for us."
Like Buffalo Exchange, Lindsey Hanahan's Move Studios, a Pilates and movement therapy facility, is in the final processes of signing a lease to move into the neighborhood, but from Cherry Creek. "Cherry Creek rents are going crazy and we're in a bad situation there right now, so we're looking for a new site," explains Tom Geissler, who's helping Hanahan with the transition. "We needed to find a larger space that we could grow into. We needed to try to make it convenient enough so that we can retain the majority of our clients," he says. The new space will have more than 2,000 square feet -- the current facility has about 1,200. 
It took Move Studios two years to decide on a new location, searching from 8th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard to I-25, Geissler says. They chose Baker because "it's a dynamic area, it's a neighborhood we think is still transitioning. It also happens to be kind of on the way for a lot of our clients. We have a fair number of people that work downtown, then they come south," he explains. He also thinks the studio could draw new clientele from the neighborhood as well as remaining close enough to Cherry Creek to retain its clients there. 

More to come
There are still eyesores, like Kitty's South -- the now-closed adult theater with an unclear future -- or the abandoned Foot & Ankle Clinic, which Crays has tried to purchase. The strip mall south of Alameda, home to Albertsons and other big-box stores like Kmart and Office Depot, sits in stark contrast to the character of the neighborhood, which is characterized by brick storefronts and turn-of-the-century Queen Anne-style Victorian homes. It was redeveloped in the 1990s and the target for another redevelopment today.
"At the time they didn't know they weren't aesthetically pleasing," says Push Gym Owner Martin Levine, who's lived in the neighborhood most of his life. Levine founded the Broadway-based gym nine years ago. He calls the redevelopment two decades ago a good and bad thing. "There was a lot of yuck there. The Montgomery Ward was there but getting run down, the houses there weren't very nice," he says. 
Still, newer developments promise a more lasting appeal, like the 388-unit Alta Alameda Station apartments -- across the street from the strip mall and the Alameda light-rail station. They'll start leasing at over $1,200 a month and are just one of number of new multi-unit buildings under construction in the neighborhood. To the south, the Denver Design District is the subject of a long-term redevelopment that could double the population of Baker in 20 years, and bring a hotel and more than a million square feet of retail space to boot.
With all this growth the neighborhood could use some more business diversity, say most of the merchants. "I would like to see the growth in bars slow down. Let the retail catch up," says Brown of Fancy Tiger. "I just want to see a balance. I want to see as many people who want to shop in the day as there are coming down to drink at night." 
Sweet Action's Basinger echoes the sentiment. "Albertsons is our only real big grocery store and none of the other places on Broadway are really delis or markets…something where you can pick up foods," he says. "I think that's something that would be really good for us to have. "I would love to have a sandwich shop. Just being able to walk down here and go to a market or a deli or something like that."
It looks like they may be in luck. Nooch Vegan Market will be opening very early in 2014 at 10 E. Ellsworth Ave., according to Co-Owner Vanessa Gochnour. And with new restaurants like Gozo and Denver Biscuit Co. opening, the neighborhood might just get that sandwich shop that Basinger craves.

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Read more articles by Chris Meehan.

Chris is a Denver-based freelance writer, editor and communications specialist. He covers sustainability, social issues and other topics.
Signup for Email Alerts