LoHi Boom Hits Challenging Crescendo

LoHi has changed completely since the nickname for "Lower Highland" was popularized a decade ago. Now that the grit is for the most part glitz, what's next for the area?
When developer Paul Tamburello started working in LoHi in the 1990s, the now-trendy neighborhood had a diverse population that included Italians, Mexican-Americans and immigrants from Central America and South America.

Known as the "Godfather" of Highland, Tamburello is responsible for the development of a number of properties scattered throughout LoHi. There's Root Down in an old gas station at the corner of 33rd Avenue and Osage Street, and Highland Lofts, a condo project on West 32nd Avenue between Tejon and Shoshone streets.

Then there was the redevelopment of the old Olinger Mortuary complex, now home to popular restaurants like Linger and Lola, as well as the whimsically mimetic Little Man Ice Cream structure that's the focal point of the project and the pulse of the neighborhood.

Those projects, along with the construction of the Highland Bridge over Interstate 25, were the catalyst that cemented LoHi as one of Denver's most popular dining and entertainment destinations.

But not everyone was pleased with the neighborhood's transformation, which many viewed as the gentrification of one of the city's last bastions of cultural diversity. During the construction of a project Tamburello was selling at West 34th Avenue and Tejon Street, someone who didn't like the direction the neighborhood was headed graffitied a man with a suit on one of the garage doors. There was a dollar symbol on the figure's tie and a bullet hole with blood dripping out of it on his head.

"It was clearly a message about gentrification and somebody not really loving what was happening in the neighborhood," Tamburello says. "Anti-gentrification graffiti is still happening.There are a lot of people who feel very marginalized in this neighborhood now. But the notion of people coming in and forcing other people out -- I just don't buy it."

Though anti-gentrification sentiment is still there and the graffiti has continued, newer residents to the neighborhood are turning the tables. Just last year, a sign on a fence post read, "White neighborhood, Mexicans leave."

"It's really easy to build resentment and animosity," Tamburello says. "It's people just not willing to take the time to get to know one another. Both sides are equally responsible for that."

Tamburello has made a concerted effort to include all LoHi residents in neighborhood events such as the White Tablecloth Potluck, Fourth of July parades and tree lighting at Little Man Ice Cream. He notes that Basha Cohen, fashion editor of the North Denver Tribune, hosted the Honor Thy Elders Event, which brought together Jews, African-Americans and Latinos.

"It was a cross-section of what this neighborhood used to be a long time ago," Tamburello says. "When people share space, there's a chance they can build a relationship."

A LoHi primerPaul Tamburello started developing in LoHi in the 1990s.

LoHi's history dates to 1858, when William Larimer and D.C. Collier staked out Highland across from the fledgling communities of Denver and Auraria. Not many people were interested in the area --  land values were so low that owners couldn't give their property away. But when a flood wiped out parts of Denver in 1864, people began to move up the hill, and the Town of Highland, which became a city in 1885, was formed.

Ordinances restricted livestock in the streets, children's games, rude language and the number of saloons. An artesian well provided drinking water, and people supported bond issues for schools a library and other civic improvements. However, the town fathers found it hard to maintain city services, so in 1896, residents voted to be annexed into Denver.

By 1900, the neighborhood had an Italian community centered around a six-block section of Navajo running from West 32nd Avenue to West 38th Avenue. The Germans worked at the Zang Brewery near the South Platte River and the Denver City Brewery on 17th Street. The Irish built St. Patrick's Church at West 32nd Avenue and Osage Avenue.

In the 1920s, North Denver became home to Mexican-American migrants and Mexican, Central and South American immigrants. West 32nd between Tejon and Clay became the modern commercial center of North Denver's Hispanic community. Since 2000, the business strip has transformed as the neighborhood shifts from a working-class Latino population into a gentrified middle-class residents.

"We're homogenizing the neighborhood," Tamburello says. "For a while, we had this balance, this great mix of all these different cultures. Now we're losing more and more of it."

With escalating home prices -- the average listing price in LoHi is $496,959 -- many of the longtime residents are selling and relocating to areas where they can get a bigger, newer house for less money.

"I have never sold a house for a grandma up here because she could no longer afford it, but I've sold many houses up here for people who were completely blown away by what their property was worth and couldn't wait to sell it," Tamburello says. "They can move to a bigger house in Wheat Ridge and can't believe the financial legacy of what they are going to be able to leave their children."

Tamburello estimates that vacant lots sell for $350,000; an existing single-family home for $450,000; and a condo in the high $200,000s. "But it's a studio in the Overlook."

Though there are still single-family homes and townhouses being built in the neighborhood developers have been furiously building apartment projects -- condos have too risky because of the state's onerous construction defects laws.

"It has put a strain on the neighborhood," says Brian Cerkvenik, president of Highland United Neighbors Inc. (HUNI), the registered neighborhood organization for Highland. "Parking is the No. 1 issue according to a survey we did. That being said, it's one of the most vibrant entertainment districts in the city."

LoHi is host to dozens of restaurants, bars and shops, as well as fitness centers and salons. Acclaimed chef Justin Cucci, who has lived in LoHi for nine years, liked the neighborhood so much that he opened Root Down in 2008, soon followed by Linger. A third restaurant, dubbed L5 for now, is being built on the sixth floor of a new building next to Linger.

"A bunch of years ago when I came to Denver, I fell in love with LoHi," Cucci says. "It reminded me of Brooklyn. You can get into the city but not live in the city. I can have a parking space and a yard. There's more of a sense of neighborhood than downtown."

The old Denver Bookbinding building now houses Postino Wine Cafe and Recess Beer Garden. Cozy coexistence?

When developer Regan Schmergel of Infinity Property Collection moved to LoHi about 10 years ago, he could see the potential for development. About that time, the pedestrian bridge was being built.  It would prove to be a catalyst for the neighborhood's growth, allowing people to easily move between LoHi and the Central Platte Valley.

"There were really great bones for growth," Schmergel says. "The neighborhood was ready to take off, and then we had the recession. Coming out of that, it was ready to go."

Schmergel built Tejon Heights, a 29-unit loft apartment project with street-level retail space housing the Freyja Project yoga and dance studio at 35th Avenue and Tejon Street. He also acquired the Firehouse Lofts, a six-unit boutique apartment building at 17th and Erie streets, and the adjacent building that once housed the Denver Bookbinding Co.

Rather than demolish a building and start from scratch, Schmergel likes to repurpose buildings he thinks are worth saving. He's installing new windows and updating the finishes, carpet and paint in a building he recently acquired on the corner of 16th and Boulder streets. The building, which has two street-level retail spaces, also has a handful of small apartments.

"At this point, it's going to remain that," Schmergel says. "There's not much of that available. It's a lower price than a lot of the newer one-bedrooms."

Schmergel turned the old bookbinding building into space for Postino Wine Cafe and Recess Beer Garden. There's still one 3,200-square-foot space available, which Schmergel says is drawing a lot of interest from restaurants. Next spring, he'll reopen the community garden with 10 plots.

"We felt that the bookbinding building had pretty good structure and foundation and it looked like an opportunity to create something using the existing building and make something cool," he said. "We think that between the Firehouse, the bookbinding building and the garden in between, we've created a pretty cool development."

And cool it is. In addition to panini sandwiches and salads, Postino offers $5 glasses of wine and pitchers of beer until 5 p.m. daily. Recess has become a popular destination for millennials looking to unwind over a game of corn hole.

But neighbors have complained to HUNI about the noise coming from Recess, Cerkvenik says.

"I think we are coming close to reaching a saturation point in terms of restaurants and bars in the neighborhood," Cerkvenik says. "But if they're in the right locations, I think we can all live together happily."

Cerkvenik says HUNI is renegotiating its Good Neighbor Agreement with Recess "to put a little more teeth" into it.

Though turning off music at a reasonable hour already is in the agreement, measures that can be added include not dumping bottles late at night and letting customers know if they're being too loud -- even if there's a heated corn hole game in progress.

"They opened up thinking they'd be a LoDo bar with a beer garden," he says. "But they're right in the middle of a residential area."

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Read more articles by Margaret Jackson.

Margaret is a veteran Denver real estate reporter and can be contacted here.
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