Checking out the 'Fax: Revitalization Accelerates on East Colfax

East of Colorado Boulevard, business owners on Colfax Avenue see promise in underserved neighborhoods, but some stretches are coming along faster than others. The Fax Partnership is helping catalyze revitalization on what was once dubbed "the longest, wickedest street in America."
The building on the corner of East Colfax Avenue and Fairfax Street had been a hardware store and before that a Safeway, built in 1925 when Colfax really was Denver's main street and not just "the longest, wickedest street in America," as Playboy once dubbed it. Pete Marczyk and Barbara Macfarlane believed in the area enough that they bought the building and opened their second Marczyk Fine Foods there two years ago.
"We had evidence that a lot of our customers came from that area," says Macfarlane, explaining the decision to branch out from their original Uptown location on 17th Avenue and Clarkson Street. "When the Colfax building came up for sale, it was like, ‘It's time to pull the trigger.' We have customers, we have accessibility, we have well-populated, stable neighborhoods around it. That's what was going right for Colfax. I mean, someone's just got to take the chance on a funky street like that. I see more and more people taking the chance because it's so dense over there, and those people aren't being served."

A neighborhood hubPete Marczyk and Barbara Macfarlane opened their second Marczyk Fine Foods on East Colfax two years ago.
Hilarie Portell sees Marczyk's on the Fax -- as the owners have dubbed their second store -- as a catalyst to encourage further investment. Portell is Executive Director of The Fax Partnership, a nonprofit promoting investment and revitalization on the three-mile stretch of East Colfax from Colorado Boulevard to Yosemite Street, where Denver ends and Aurora begins. The area known as the Elm District has attracted particular investor interest.
"It's shaping up to be a fun neighborhood hub," Portell says of the area around Elm Street, rattling off establishments such as The Elm bar and restaurant, and the Jett Asian Kitchen and Sushi Bar. "There's a yoga place, there's a little coffee shop, the Cork House wine bar; and Africana Cafe, one of the great Ethiopian restaurants in town."
This stretch of East Colfax hasn't matched the pace of development that's occurred from Colorado Boulevard to Broadway, but demographics of surrounding neighborhoods suggest a population primed to be served. The average household income of residents within a one-mile radius of the "Fax District" is $80,039, according to the Fax Partnership, and 66.6 percent of them have college degrees. 
"Each section of Colfax is different, and it serves a different population," Portell says. "There are different employers and demographics around it. Closer to downtown you have the downtown crowd and a lot of single professionals and young professionals, which really feeds that nightlife that you find on Colfax and Uptown and the Colfax Bluebird area. It's a little calmer as you go eastward because you start to hit older stable neighborhoods like Park Hill and Montclair and Mayfair -- really strong, desirable neighborhoods, very strong demographics when it comes to retail recruitment."
Demographics of surrounding neighborhoods were what prompted Mayfair resident Chris O'Sullivan to snag the lease on a building across the street from Marczyk's that started out as a Taco Bell in the 1960s and more recently was a check-cashing service. He plans to open an old-fashioned ice cream parlor, Nugg's Ice Cream, on the site early next year.

O'Sullivan knows a thing or two about the food business. He and his brother, Nick, launched Brothers BBQ in Denver in 1998 and have grown it to five locations and a catering business with no outside investment.
"I've lived here since 1990, and I've seen how Colfax has grown," O'Sullivan says. "It almost seems like it happens in sections, a block at a time. One block will get good, then you'll have a couple challenged blocks, and then another one will pop up, and it continues to grow."
Like the Marczyk Fine Foods owners, O'Sullivan's belief in this area of East Colfax known as the Elm District stems from the surrounding neighborhoods. "Hilltop, Mayfair, Park Hill – really affluent areas, tons of kids, tons of schools, elementary schools and middle schools," he says. "I thought the opportunity, especially for an ice cream store in that area, was just second to none – having a free-standing building right there in that neighborhood. With all the other things that are going on around it, it was just the perfect combination."

Strong local investmentAfricana Cafe is one of the great Ethiopian restaurants in town.
About the time O'Sullivan secured the site for his ice cream parlor, two more entrepreneurs saw a for-lease sign next to it on Colfax's Elm District and pounced on it as the site for an Irish pub, Abbey Tavern, that's slated to open this fall.
What the principals in the ice cream shop and the Irish pub have in common is that they all live in the area. Investor John Bachman, who bought both buildings on the 20,000-square-foot site in early 2013 with the idea of leasing them to local businesses, is a Park Hill resident. O'Sullivan has lived in a house off 14th Avenue and Forest Street for 13 years; Abbey Tavern Co-Owner Andrew Cudden lives in Park Hill; his business partner, Glen Eastwood, is only a little off the Colfax path, residing in West City Park.
"The trend I'm seeing now is really strong investment by local people who either live in the area now or grew up in the area," Portell says. "They understand where things are growing."
Other recent investment on East Colfax along the three-mile Colorado Boulevard-to-Yosemite stretch includes Phoenix on the Fax, a 65,000-square-foot mixed-used development featuring a Pasquini's restaurant and 50 affordably priced apartments on Poplar Street; Weisco Motor Cars and Avalon Motor Sports European auto service, both on Olive Street; and Ace Hardware, which opened in 2012 on Pontiac Street in a building that had been empty for six years. 
Of course, Colfax, originally U.S. Highway 40, has been evolving nonstop since the stretch of Interstate 70 was completed in the early 1960s, allowing travelers to bypass Denver's "main street."
"I would say the hardest part of our district is the Eastern section between maybe Trenton and Yosemite," Portell says. "You know, Colfax at one time was the highway through town, so it's peppered with these little motels, and unfortunately in our area some of the motels -- not all of them -- have really become prey to drug rings and prostitution. It's very difficult to sell those properties right now because there isn't a synergy of new investment around them. So the strategy we've taken is to just keep pushing investment eastward, block by block, and then to work really closely with the police on crime and safety response in that area.
"It's a little bit of a tough area, but it's getting better all the time. It's almost like they're about five to 10 years from where Colfax is closer to downtown, I think."

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Read more articles by Mike Taylor.

Mike Taylor is a freelance writer in Denver. He is editor of ColoradoBiz magazine and previously wrote for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram and The Anchorage Times.
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