This is the third installment of a new series where we will examine the possible changes to Denver’s neighborhoods in the next five years. To read the others before this, go here for Sun Valley and here for RiNo.
Colfax Avenue was one of the main highways to and through Denver before I-70 or I-25 ever existed, running from Golden all the way to Strasburg — a place located further east than the airport. Once the interstate highways were built, Colfax fell from the neon-lit heights of its heyday to a strip of the road better avoided unless you were looking for trouble. The avenue holds a heavy history in Denver, but one that many who live or own businesses on it today are perhaps oddly proud of. In many ways, Colfax has undergone a reverse gentrification, starting with the single-family mansions built along the eastern stretches before the 1900s and experiencing a steady decline until becoming the jewel of the middle class in the ’60s and ’70s. After that resurgence, the avenue fell again from its heights into a notorious reputation by the ’90s that revolved around sex workers, shady business dealings, crime, traffic and poverty. Known as the “Gateway to the Rockies,” Colfax Avenue not only brought people to Denver, it always connected various iconic places through the Mile High City, even during its most wicked days.
West Colfax’s development occurred later than East Colfax, only getting paved in 1914, after earning the designation as a state highway (US Highway 40, to be exact). It was during Prohibition that West Colfax earned its infamy, with back-alley bars and “scofflaw roadhouses” populating the strip.
“It used to be a vibrant, commercial destination. There are so many stories of people meeting their wives or going on dates on that strip. It was a destination — lighted golf courses in the 1960s, theaters and [skating] rinks. While we celebrate that lore of our history as a transportation corridor, a thoroughfare, once the Interstate opened the whole area went into a 30-year decline,” commented Bill Marino of the West Colfax Business Improvement District (BID). The BID was founded in 2006 to attract new development to the area and revitalize the street. In an article by Denverite, Dan Shah of the West Colfax BID said “Nobody’s trying to make this like Belmar. That’s never going to happen. I don’t think West Colfax is at risk of losing its hard edge, but we want to soften it a little bit.”
Part of that “softening” includes improving the safety of the road itself, creating more opportunities for affordable housing and lessening the number of seedy motels, incorporating more art and culture into the neighborhood and making sure the area is connected to the rest of Denver via public transportation.
A New Art District For Families
As one of the newest art districts near Denver, 40 West may not seem like a cultural hub compared to Santa Fe or the Golden Triangle districts, but they are building on the legacy of what Colfax Avenue used to be to Denver residents and visitors — a destination. With the move of several of Denver’s longest running art galleries, like Pirate and Next to the 40 West Art District, it’s obvious the price point out there in Lakewood is only one of the reasons why it’s attracting creatives. Even though rent on West Colfax has been pretty cheap for the last several decades, it’s the people living and working along that strip who are paving the way for creativity to blossom. “In December of 2016, we found out through the rumor mill that our rent was going to triple at the end of our lease in April,” Craig Robb from Pirate Contemporary Art Gallery recounted. Pirate used to be located in the Navajo Art District for 35 years, after a few different relocations in Denver, before moving to Lakewood last year. ” [Apparently the rise in rent was] due to increases in property taxes. Unable to afford the increase, we started looking for affordable solutions. We had a potential immediate solution that was in the concept stages located in Commerce City… Our search led to a location in Lakewood but again, we weren’t happy with the space and couldn’t agree on numbers. The people at 40 West got very excited at the prospect of Pirate moving into the district and started working with us. Our current location became available in April  and they worked with the owner and us to create an affordable lease that fit our needs.”
“We landed on arts and culture as a catalyst for transformation,” reported Bill Marino of the West Colfax BID. “What if we could have an art district? What if West Colfax could once again be a destination? What if a Friday night consisted of deciding between LoDo, Cherry Creek, RiNo or West Colfax? We just wanted to be in that mix again. There are still plenty of problems to solve and things to do. But it’s becoming a destination again. We have over a dozen art galleries, hip and cool breweries, restaurants. We are five or six years behind RiNo, but we are happy with our improvements.”
At the beginning of this summer, the district began a project they hope to continue into the future for an undetermined amount of time. It’s a four-mile walkable, bikeable and skateable path called the ArtLine, punctuated by artistic sculptures, installations, ground murals and other pieces of creative expression by local and national artists. By connecting three of the area’s major parks with the route, the ArtLine is projected to move residents around the neighborhood in a creative way while also inspiring fitness and outdoors activities. Plus, some of the art on the way is kid-friendly — a smart move for the district, who will probably do better attracting young families than they will do attracting the 20-something crowd that RiNo entertains. The ArtLine crosses over Colfax by Casa Bonita and also re-introduces pedestrian traffic to that area.
READ: 40 West is the Newest Art District Near Denver to Keep Your Eyes On
Local businesses along Colfax are in full support of the revamp around art and culture. During the summer, 40 West throws a one-day-only mural festival in the parking lot of Casa Bonita and in the surrounding areas. Murals are painted on the businesses directly surrounding Casa Bonita — like Arc Thrift Store and Winchell’s Donuts — and artists also paint move-able stationary “walls” to be affixed to buildings that are further from the central festival area. According to the executive director of 40 West, Liz Black, “there are a lot of underutilized buildings on West Colfax, or buildings that haven’t had as much love as they had in the decades prior. And folks close to the corridor really found mural art as a way to beautify the area and provide representation to the district. It gives a sense of place— you know you’re in a certain area when you see a familiar piece of art.”
Affordable Housing Will Be A Priority
In the last few years, there have been some major developments already taking place along West Colfax in regards to housing and amenities for residents. Near Sloans Lake, in the area that used to be the St. Anthony Hospital, the Colorado-based development firm EnviroFinance Group started building apartments and commercial spaces nearly two years ago. When the hospital moved, that area was primed for renewal — with the lake views, the proximity to the W RTD line and the promise of a reinvigorated West Colfax already in the works. Now, a few years into the development, the old St. Anthony Hospital plot has several towering apartment complexes, the second Colorado location of Alamo Drafthouse, the second location of Highlands Tap & Burger, a Starbucks and significantly more residents. The roughly 20-block area between West Colfax and Sloan’s Lake is called the more general “Sloans” complex and includes several different apartment buildings.
The newest addition to the Sloans complex is the Vida building, the operations of which were handed to the Denver Housing Authority. Under that management, the Vida building promises to have 175 low-income restricted units for senior and/or disabled persons with almost 30,000 square feet of commercial space and health services on the ground floor to assist the surrounding community. Though the original timeline had the building finishing up in “Fall 2018,” the updated projection is sometime in late 2019. Chris Spelke, the senior developer at DHA, explained about the Vida project, “this will be the largest single affordable housing project that DHA has developed in nearly 30 years and it comes at a time when the City is experiencing an unprecedented need for more affordable living options… Vida allows the overall Sloans Neighborhood to be a more inclusive mixed-income community, with 20 [percent] of the total 1,100 new residential units reserved for low-income seniors and families.”
One of the pivotal moments for the redevelopment of West Colfax came in the form of zoning codes — which, until recently didn’t matter because the lots were filled with single-family homes who needed ample parking. The lots along West Colfax are mostly zoned for high-density units but have lagged behind other areas around Denver when it came to developing them. Some developers, after the construction of the RTD W-Line especially, started seeing the opportunity to fit four or five units into a single-family lot and sacrifice some of the parking requirements. Even though single-family homes are on the decline, the increase in higher density units like the apartment complexes in the Sloans development will hopefully pave the way for more affordability. Instead of a single family taking on the expenses of the entire lot, the cost is split between two, three, four or more apartments, townhomes or condos. This is a great sign for those searching out affordable housing in or near Denver.
As an example of how developers are looking to make their housing units affordable, Zocalo Community Development purchased an empty parking lot near West Colfax last year that they hope to turn into a 515,000 square feet mixed-use building. At the beginning of 2018 they proposed a program to build up to 170 market-rate residential units, 185 affordable rental units, retail/restaurant space, office space and off-street structured parking. They also want to offer affordable family houses reserved for those making half of the average income in the area and “targeted for families with formerly homeless schoolchildren” as the development website states.
Connected to Downtown Denver in Minutes
The promise of being able to access and use all of the new developments along West Colfax more or less hinges on the success of the RTD light rail W Line. Although the businesses and developments of West Colfax will obviously be accessible via car or bus, as they are now, real estate developers and the West Colfax BID are betting on more traffic congestion in the next years which will lead people toward commuting by train. Living on or near West Colfax would then be highly desirable because you’d be within a short train ride from Union Station — the central hub for all other public transportation through and across Denver — and yet your home neighborhood would still have the charm and amenities of living in an urban setting, rather than a suburban one.
READ: A Mapped Guide on How to Experience Denver Via the RTD Light Rail
Currently, the W Line (which stands for West Line) includes just over 12 miles of track from Union Station to Golden. There are 11 stations and six park-and-ride facilities, making it a well-established route for many individuals who live west of Denver. Although the line runs a few blocks south of Colfax, the stops are within walking distance to the avenue and are pretty aligned with the new developments like the Alamo Drafthouse (three blocks from the Perry Station) and older attractions like Casa Bonita (two blocks from the Lamar Station).
If the promises for more affordable housing along the West Colfax corridor continue to come to fruition, the accessibility of the rest of Denver via the light rail will be a major benefit. And, looking ahead at the next five to 10 years, if Denver continues to be a place in high demand to live and work, the use of public transportation like the W Line will be imperative to a higher standard of living.
Fixing the Forgotten Highway
When Colfax crosses over I-25, it turns into West Colfax and though this section has similar problems to the East section when it comes to general road maintenance and safety, it also has some special issues alone. The issues begin with the Colfax Viaduct — the stretch that rises above I-25 and connects Sun Valley with Santa Fe Drive. Though Colfax is known on both east and west stretches as a pedestrian thoroughfare, the viaduct is one of the last streets a pedestrian or biker might choose when needing to cross over I-25 — a statistic that has been studied by the West Colfax Business Improvement District (BID).
Moving further west, the interchange between Colfax and Federal Boulevard has gotten the attention of surrounding neighborhoods because of the wasteful, confusing and dangerous design. Known as the “Colfax Clover” the interchange takes up 29 acres of open space, with Colfax running beneath a raised Federal Boulevard and four on/off ramps in semi-circles connecting the two roads. Over the Colfax Clover is a group that is just that — over it. Citing danger to pedestrians and bicyclists, most of whom avoid the “Clover,” as well as the obvious waste of space, Over the Colfax Clover is bent on finding a solution and reimagining that intersection into something useful. One of the major complaints is that the entire Clover is designed for a two-road interchange — something that could easily be managed with a regular stoplight. But the more palpable evidence that the Clover isn’t working is the injury toll — 25 people walking or biking between 2012 and 2017. Based on a design meeting in 2017 with engineers, urban planners, developers and government agencies, the next steps forward will depend largely on further cooperation from such different groups with goals that are sometimes at odds with one another.
In June 2018, a demonstration and community gathering took place within the Clover. During the pop-up block party, community members were able to vote on what they thought could improve the wasted and dangerous space — although both Federal and Colfax are state highways and therefore technically controlled by the Colorado Department of Transporation (CDOT). Short-term solutions were announced, including speed humps, flashing crosswalk lights and raised sidewalks, but the long-term solutions that the community, Over the Colfax Clover and the West Colfax BID truly want to see are probably at least a decade from coming to fruition. According to The Denver Post, Amy Ford of CDOT said “We are absolutely as an agency open [to the idea] and have started thinking about how we reimagine the Federal and Colfax interchange.”
West Colfax is no longer the forgotten stretch between the mountain abodes of Golden and the urban setting of downtown Denver — it is once again becoming its own destination. With a focus on art and culture and affordable living, West Colfax is primed to develop into a neighborhood for young families. The exciting part about West Colfax’s development, compared to RiNo or even Cap Hill, is the diversity of people who want to live there and the priority of developers who want to be inclusive to that diversity. Since the area has been largely neglected for a few decades, redevelopment has generally been accepted and even requested by local, long-time residents — proving that West Colfax’s improvements will most likely not perk up as many gentrification concerns as other neighborhoods in Denver, like nearby Sun Valley. In five years, West Colfax might just be a new destination alongside LoDo, RiNo or Cherry Creek — but it will also be sure to retain its historic legacy and unique reputation in the process.