Jefferson Park, Urban Island Again on the Upswing

The northwest Denver neighborhood is growing in a hurry, but some things remain the same. Gentrification might be new here, but walkability and a lack of retail space remain challenges for Jefferson Park.
Jefferson Park has emerged as a crucible for Denver's ongoing development boom. With easy access to downtown, Broncos home games and I-25, some see it as the perfect location for a slick new condo, no matter the price. But longtime residents are wary that the uptick in real estate isn't exactly a salve for the neighborhood's ills.

As a legacy Highlands neighborhood, it was certainly a sort of heaven for its first residents, who prided themselves on living on the hill and across from the vice and corruption of downtown Denver in the late 1800s. Back then, Jefferson Park was largely part of the Town of Highlands, incorporated in 1875. However, the neighborhood was subject to the same flight that the city center experienced in the 1970s and '80s and became dilapidated.

Like most of Denver, Jefferson Park is experiencing plenty of growth and development, with new construction and adaptive reuse aiming to meet the needs of Denverites. Its first brewpub, Briar Common Brewery + Eatery, is expected to open in spring 2016.

The neighborhood was named one of 5280's hottest places to live in 2010. At that point, its average home prices was $260,000 -- now a vacant lot in the neighborhood is fetching $235,000. In Jan. 2016, it had an average home price of $766,244, largely because of some multi-million-dollar listings, but prices are definitely high in the neighborhood.

It's seen a reduction in loitering and crime while attracting a wide variety of new residents and new service-focused businesses are moving in. But some things never change.

"People are running by with tires," says Jack Makovsky, a 25-year employee at Ralph's Industrial Power Sewing, a business that opened its doors in the neighborhood 1983. "A few years before that meant a nearby car was on blocks. That's changed." It's no longer bandits, he explains, it's now Crossfit devotees running down the street with tires: A gym took over the former Hensley battery store.

Demographic shiftJefferson Park's central location is a big selling point.

Just a few years ago, the neighborhood's namesake "Jefferson Park was not the place you wanted to go. It was a pretty rough spot," adds Makovsky, vice president of sales at the company. "Now people go there for lunch. It's been taken over by a different group of people."

According to Michael Guiietz, vice president of Jefferson Park United Neighbors (JPUN), that new group of people are empty nesters as well 20- to 30-year olds and the influx is rapid. "Probably by the end of next year the neighborhood will triple in size," he says, meaning that the population could jump from about 3,000 to 10,000 or more residents.

Meeting the demand for housing has led to some unique, residentially dense projects, like remodeling Hotel VQ into Turntable Studios -- one of Denver's more interesting forays into micro-living with 339 square-foot studios now renting for upwards of $1,000 a month. There are also new residential developments in the neighborhood like RiverClay Condos and 2785 Speer.

Within the blocks, tops on older single-family homes are being popped or they're being scraped and razed. Take the case of lifelong resident Gail Wheeler. Her home, which her family bought in 1940, is being engulfed by 27 townhomes. 9News profiled her plight last February.

Despite the new interest in this largely residential old neighborhood, some of the lingering problems persist. "We're basically a neighborhood with limited amount of retail, so our closest retail is downtown," Guiietz asserts. "So give us access so we can go downtown and spend our money."

Indeed, the neighborhood is largely cut off by major arteries: Federal to the west, Speer to the north, I-25 and the South Platte River to the east and Sports Authority Field at Mile High to the south.

That's the heritage of the Highlands. When it was established, residents wanted to be apart from Denver but still have access to it, so they could work downtown and return to their homes in their graft-free area. They wanted a viaduct to connect their neighborhoods over the Platte and the vast railyards that used to blanket the riverfront. In the 1890s, Denver Mayor Wolfe Londoner told Highlanders that if they wanted the viaduct, they'd have to be annexed into Denver.

A walkability gapNow a vacant lot in the neighborhood is fetching $235,000.

Even today, "It's difficult to make your way from our neighborhood to downtown at night," Guiietz explains. "There's no direct route. You're kind of trapped by I-25 and by Federal as a barrier as well as Speer. You want to be able to promote walkability in the neighborhood and you have all these barriers for doing so." The main access points to downtown are the 23rd Avenue bridge, Speer Boulevard or Colfax Avenue, and none are particularly friendly for bikers or pedestrians.

Similarly, most of the neighborhood lacks easy access to light rail since they're all on other sides of the stadium from the neighborhood, a no-man's land below viaducts that's not pedestrian-friendly in the slightest. "There is a way to get there but it's very convoluted and does not have easy access," says Guiietz. "Especially at night, it's dark, you're going through a lot of winding roads, if you were a single female you would not be taking the light rail."

Within the neighborhood, the main crossing point to downtown Denver is the 23rd Avenue bridge, which WalkDenver Executive Director Gosia Kung calls "a fairly outdated piece of infrastructure," adding, "It doesn't really provide pedestrian facilities that are safe and passable. It's a bottleneck between Jefferson Park and downtown."

Kung notes that the city did add bike lanes and a protected walkway, but adds, "The challenge is that the bridge is too narrow and probably needs to be replaced. I'm not sure what, if any, plans there are to accommodate that." It's a problem throughout the city, she says, observing that the city still lacks a dedicated fund for sidewalks and maintaining them.

Still, the neighborhood is getting more access to local services that are taking off inside its borders, perhaps partially catalyzed by the lack of easy connections to the city center. "We're seeing stuff like La Loma taking off," Makovsky says. (But that might soon change: A 15-story, 713-unit apartment tower has been proposed for the longstanding Mexican restaurant's site.) He also mentions Sassafras, a breakfast and lunch spot in the William J. Dunwoody House, a historic mansion. "There are a lot of nice little things that have opened up here."

But retail opportunities in the neighborhood remain constrained. "We have a VIP district at 25th and Elliot," Guiitez says. "2785 Speer is bringing in some retail on the northern edge of the neighborhood. That's really the only space for that type of retail in the neighborhood, except for on Federal. We're hoping that's going to be more robust in the upcoming years."

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.
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