Anyone who has spent any time in Colorado can crack a quick joke about the folks who “work” on Colfax — whether it’s the lawmakers at the intersection with Broadway or the seedier denizens on the eastern and western stretches.
Still, no matter its problems, Colfax always has and always will be one of the main arteries pumping lifeblood into the area’s economy.
The stretch from Clinton Street east to Geneva Street has been branded the Aurora Cultural Arts District, though you’re forgiven if you cruise those few blocks and don’t notice. Pawn shops remain among the most-popular retailers, much to the quiet chagrin of head honchos at city hall.
City leaders have hoped and tried for years to reshape the iconic road and attract the sort of chic businesses that could pump sales tax dollars into Aurora’s coffers, but the results have been mixed at best. Despite generous tax incentives, more than 40,000 vehicles motoring by each day and a location between the booming Anschutz Medical Campus and Downtown Denver, luring new businesses has been a chore.
In recent years, the city has had deals in place to help open four different businesses in the heart of old Aurora, but just one of those came to fruition. That one, Mu Brewery just east of Dayton Street, has been churning out beers now since 2014, but even it opened several months behind schedule amid a laborious bureaucratic slog.
But today, officials are betting Colfax is on the cusp of major change — the sort of change that will finally see it be home to the mix of trendy restaurants, hip bars and sought-after artists that many have long-dreamed it would. The rub, though, is that the heightened hope for a Colfax resurgence isn’t due to the area’s long-held strengths. Instead, officials are banking on the opening of the Stanley Marketplace near East 25th Avenue and Dallas Street — about 10 blocks north of the heart of Original Aurora — being the seismic change that finally draws developers and their checkbooks to Colfax.
Aurora barely resembles the bedroom community it was a half century ago when Colfax reigned as the city’s undisputed heart. City hall has moved further away from that old hub twice now, and Aurora’s growth and economic development has shifted south and east, too. Southlands Mall near the E-470 toll road and Smoky Hill Road is a full 17 miles from Dayton and Colfax, and feels even further away. Whereas Colfax is dotted with liquor stores, art galleries and pawn shops, the swanky mall out southeast is home to high-end retailers and neighboring mansions that have garnered spots along the opulent Parade of Homes.
Here’s some Cold ‘Fax
Still, no matter how many $1-million homes spring up in the southeast corner of the city, no matter how far the sea of smaller luxury homes stretches beyond those original borders, and no matter the number of high-end retailers drawn by those eastern Aurora rooftops, the Colfax corridor still matters. It’s still Aurora’s original downtown. It’s still one of the few truly historic — and older — neighborhoods in town. And it still defines Aurora.
“Part of it is sentimental,” says Tim Gonerka, a retail specialist in the city’s planning and development services department. In his three years in the position, Gonerka has served as city hall’s point man when it comes to attracting new businesses to the northwest corner of the city.
As the city’s original downtown, northwest Aurora, or Original Aurora, or Downtown Aurora, or whatever you choose to call it, and especially the Colfax corridor, will always be close to the heart for a huge chunk of the population, he says.
But that’s not the only reason the city has focused on rehabbing Colfax. Chances are the city wouldn’t be quick to dole out millions in tax breaks for purely sentimental reasons, no matter how strong the area’s history pulls on old-timers’ heartstrings.
No, Gonerka says, there are entirely practical reasons for wanting to draw new businesses to the area. One piece is the steady stream of traffic, and those 40,000 vehicles a day make Colfax a retail spine that the city would be foolish to ignore.
But the biggest reason is reputation: As northwest Aurora goes, so goes Aurora.
“The reputation of the city actually comes off of that neighborhood, fair or not,” says Gonerka.
The city tends to make local news headlines more for crime or other woes in northwest Aurora than for any other part of the city, and Gonerka says that helps shape the perception of what Aurora is. That perception, in turn, impacts home values for everyone with an Aurora address, not just those who live near the corridor.
Still, despite that importance, reshaping Colfax and drawing new businesses has seen more setbacks than successes, at least so far.
Gonerka admits he was a little too ambitious when he took the job. A salesman at heart, he came to the city from the real estate world and brought some of those private-sector ambitions with him. His bosses told him when he started to aim for getting one new business for Colfax nailed down in that first year.
Gonerka said he’d do five.
Two years later, just Mu Brewery is up and running.
The biggest trouble spot so far has been Florence Square, the residential-over-retail development at Colfax and Florence. Gonerka calls the area his “50-yard line,” and to say it’s crucial to any redevelopment plans is an understatement.
Across the street sits The Aurora Fox Arts Center and MLK Library, and a short distance away are Mu, the Vintage Theatre and Kim Robards Dance. Plus, the building is one of the newest in the area, and at three stories, one of the biggest and most prominent along Colfax.
When it opened in 2005, city officials said Florence would be the sort of catalyst the area needed, an affordable draw that would lure artists and other businesses to the area. Artists would populate the apartments, and chic retailers could set up shop in the first-floor spaces facing Colfax. It’s the sort of mixed-use, urban infill that planners salivate over.
But it hasn’t happened that way.
Two years ago, two businesses — a second location for longtime Aurora eatery Cafe Paprika, and Granny Annie Peachy Pie — seemed poised to move into the west side of that first level. Gonerka had worked closely with each business and with the city’s help, the plan was for the two restaurants to share some equipment, such as grease traps and venting systems, to save money. The two would have some outdoor seating, and add to the short list of long-standing staples on the area’s dining scene, including La Cueva and La Morena, two Mexican restaurants on Colfax near Dayton.
In summer 2014, Gonerka said he was hopeful they would open by that Thanksgiving.
But both projects, along with a planned panini restaurant on Emporia Street south of Colfax, fizzled.
Gonerka said the Florence Square restaurants were about “95 percent” done and ready to open when, for a variety of reasons — including cold feet by the building’s landlord — they failed.
Those failed projects at Florence still irk Gonerka, who calls the three-story building his “baby.”
“It’s a little sad to see that it hasn’t happened,” he says.
Other projects are in the works for the building, Gonerka says, and he hasn’t given up hope that the first floor of Florence will one day be a hub of dining along Colfax. The goal is to get the space built out so even if the first restaurant to move in flops, the next one will be able to quickly jump in the space because the infrastructure will already be in place. That long game, the one that will hopefully lead to a sustainable series of restaurants and bars calling Aurora’s stretch of Colfax home, is Gonerka’s end goal, even if it takes a while to get there.
“What we are really investing in is the neighborhood,” he says.
Colfax road to riches
As the gritty stretch of Colfax that cuts through the arts district scuffles toward a new day, a few miles east, a once-struggling stretch of Colfax is realizing that redevelopment dream. But that stretch, too, had to slog through a slower-than-hoped for redevelopment process, and even now — despite dumping billions into the local economy each year — the area isn’t quite what some leaders hoped it could be.
Ask any Aurora wonk where the city’s economic engine hums, and you will likely be pointed to two developments nestled along a mile-long stretch of East Colfax Avenue from Peoria Street to Interstate 225.
Along that corridor sits the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and just north is the Fitzsimons Life Science District.
The Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation describes the 184-acre Life Science District as one of the largest in the country, that when complete, will support more than 43,000 bioscience professionals. That’s on top of the nearly 30,000 people employed at the neighboring University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus — which houses two hospitals and the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Anschutz, according to the Aurora Economic Development Council, pumps more than $4.5 billion a year into the local economy.
The reason the campus does so well, says Tony Chacon, an urban renewal supervisor with the city, is that the area is not as directly tied to the ups and downs of the economic market as other commercial sectors in Aurora. Even in an economic downturn, people still need medical treatment.
And with a staff and student population that is growing every year, Chacon says the rise in retail and commercial development both in and around the campus largely has to do with the increased need for ancillary services in the area for those individuals.
Longtime Aurora City Councilman Bob LeGare has served on Aurora City Council since the sprawling medical and bioscience centers emerged from the ashes of the former Lowry Air Force Base, which formally closed in 1999.
“We’re more than 10 years in on the base being closed. The speed at which Fitzsimons has developed, that’s very fast in the picture of a base redeveloping,” he says.
But to the chagrin of many Aurora politicos, LeGare included, Anschutz has developed as an island, a distant entity largely isolated from the rest of the city by East Colfax Avenue to the south, Peoria Street to the west and Potomac Street to the east. And coaxing developers to pursue projects outside of those borders, particularly along the southern periphery, has been a nagging thorn in the city’s side.
Following about eight years of failed projects at Anschutz’s nefarious southeast corner, the city is finally planning to infill a long-empty lot at the corner of East Colfax Avenue and Potomac Street.
Last October, Greenwood Village-based Catalina Development Company broke ground on an $81-million mixed-use residential project known as the Forum at Fitzsimons. The initial plans for the development call for two resort-style swimming pools, 397 rental homes and 28,000 square feet of restaurant and retail space. The residential and retail center will be located about a quarter mile away from the new Colfax light rail station that is set to open later this year at the intersection of East Colfax and I-225.
Acting as the Aurora Urban Renewal Authority, city council approved $10 million in incentives to construct the new development. The first $9 million of that sum will come from tax increment financing, while the remaining $1 million is in water tap incentives, which are only offered at TOD sites, according to Andrea Amonick, manager of the city’s development services division.
LeGare says the city has built out most of the Anschutz and bioscience corridor this way.
“There has been somewhere between $1 billion and $2 billion of investment in new infrastructure and new buildings (there), and the vast majority of that is essentially from taxpayer and rate payer dollars,” he says. “There are pluses and minuses to it. Overall, it’s a huge net positive, the minuses being all the money is flowing into TIFs and incentive and so many buildings are not taxable.”
LeGare says Anschutz is only in the first generation of development and that the city will likely have to wait another 20 years before it sees private development occurring on its own.
He says the city’s financial hand in speeding Anschutz along has not been outweighed, however, by the tangible benefits, such as jobs, and the intangible benefits the campus brings to the city.
Anschutz is consistently ranked as one of the top medical schools in the country, with the University of Colorado Hospital ranked the state’s best hospital in 2015 by U.S. News & World Report.
“The bragging rights are very important, too,” he says.
This year, the new Hyatt Hotel and Conference Center is set to open just across from the campus. The project is the first of its kind for the city, and for the hotel’s part, the Hyatt website boasts that the hotel and conference center is “located in one of Metro Denver’s most up and coming areas.”
It will include 249 hotel rooms and 31,500 square feet of conference space, which almost matches the conference capacity of the Hyatt Regency in Downtown Denver. A terrace will connect the main building with an adjacent 41,000 square-foot parking structure that will house 525 parking spaces. The city has agreed to pay $25 million to the project’s developer, Corporex Co., to build the conference center and manage the facility for a $50,000 annual fee.
Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan has long touted Aurora’s growing force as the third-largest city in Colorado and not simply a bedroom suburb of metro Denver. He says the numerous projects springing up along the Anschutz campus in what was, only a little over a decade before, an active military base, are a prime example of Aurora’s future potential.
“That’s why I say our future is unbelievably bright,” he says. “No other community in Colorado has the opportunities we have, to be able to redevelop areas that are hundreds of years old, and at the same time build brand new areas.”
It’s the art of Colfax that’s curing what ales the aging strip
Perched on a stool at his brewery at 9555 E. Colfax Ave. and sipping a sour cherries ale, Nathan Flatland didn’t mince words about the struggles he faced in getting Mu Brewery off the ground.
“We opened with bad beer,” Flatlands says with an honest shrug. “Those were a dark first couple months, you know.”
Mu’s initial estimate for turning the old temporary staffing facility into a brewery were way below the reality, Flatland says, and the opening date — fall 2013 — that city officials pushed him toward was entirely too ambitious. Working with the city meant some helpful tax incentives, but it also meant working through the bureaucratic morass that comes with urban renewal projects that get some help from taxpayers.
For a first-time small business owner like Flatland, all of it meant delay upon delay.
Eventually, the brewery opened in summer 2014, but by then finances were tight and they needed to open simply to get some cash flowing. That meant the beers didn’t soak the way Flatland wanted, and didn’t taste the way he wanted, either.
With a few awards hanging on his brewery’s wall, Flatland knows those dark days on the beer front are in the rear view now. The beer pouring from his taps is beer he’s proud of, and beer that’s attracting a loyal following. These days, Flatland says he has a keen handle on the intricacies of his brewing system, and that means tweaking the bigger batches to rid them of any troubles is easy.
With a steady stream of customers from nearby Stapleton, as well as the sort of beer tourists every craft brewer can count on for a few pints a week, business is on the upswing.
But that isn’t to say things in the neighborhood couldn’t improve.
When he launched the project, Flatland says he was under the impression Mu would be one of several new bars, restaurants and other businesses coming to the neighborhood. That strategy — turning Colfax into the arts hub many have pined for — would have meant a steady stream of not just beer lovers, but customers swinging by to see other businesses who could duck into Mu for a quick beer.
“The fact that there seemed to be a strategy for that is definitely what attracted us to the area,” he says.
That hasn’t panned out, but Flatland still hopes it can. Maybe a speakeasy type bar a few doors down, a pizza joint in the area or a coffee shop. Anything, he says, that gives people a few more reasons to venture to the farther reaches of Colfax.
The Art of Making Big Changes on Colfax
It wasn’t that long ago that the notion of establishing an arts district along East Colfax was laughable.
Then in 2012, after years of vacillating between sporadic surges of commitment, the city of Aurora finally and wholeheartedly embarked on a mission to turn the strip of Colfax between Clinton Street and Geneva Street into a viable, even profitable, creative arts district.
And although gradual, the steps taken were considerable. City officials helped to recruit local art district guru Tracy Weil to replicate in Aurora what he had spent the past several years fostering in Denver’s posh RiNo Art District. Planners began methodically scooping up and redeveloping several of the many derelict properties that dot the notorious thoroughfare. What’s more, officials were handing the keys to the properties over to creative entities at significantly reduced cost to do with them as they pleased. Most recently, the city has taken early steps to begin seriously analyzing how the Aurora Cultural Arts District could double down on recruiting more bohemians to the burgeoning creative hive by adding legitimate studio space to the neighborhood — something it has long lacked.
Because of those efforts, those familiar with the area and casual observers alike are slowly, but definitively, seeing subtle hints of improvement.
“We’ve been improving steadily each year with what I’ve seen,” says Satya Wimbish, owner and founder of The Collection Gallery at 9801 E. Colfax Ave. “And hopefully we’ll be able to multiply those efforts and make things move a bit faster as the years come along.”
The ACAD welcomed more than 100,000 visitors for the first time in 2014, which is a 25-percent boost from the year prior, according to Weil, now executive director of the ACAD. New tenants are popping up on a semi-regular basis — Theatre Esprit Asia and 5280 Artist Co-op both moved into the ACAD studio at 1400 Dallas St. this year. The performing arts, which have been the lifeblood of the district’s resurrection, are thriving.
“We’re having our best financial year on record,”says Craig Bond, co-founder of Vintage Theatre Productions at 1462 Dayton St. “We were right around 13,000 (attendees) in 2013 two years ago when we came to Aurora. This year we will have served closer to 24,000 people.”
Just up the street at the Aurora Fox Arts Center, Executive Producer Charles Packard says that his theater has more than doubled it’s goal for season subscriptions this year, having increased the total number by 26 percent over last year.
“My goal for the year was to be up 10 percent, which in itself was a pretty bold promise to make my board of directors,” he says. “But (the increase) probably just means that Tracy’s efforts of image control for the neighborhood have been successful.”
But despite the recent buoyancy, the ACAD has a ways to go before becoming any sort of artistic paradigm. And everyone and their paintbrush has a different idea for how the area could eventually mature into the bustling bohemian pocket it has been billed to become.
From establishing an art supply store, to bolstering perks for ACAD’s some 35 members, the inventory of ideas for enhancing the area is by no means lacking in length or creativity. But simply filling commercial vacancies, letting people know that they are, in fact, in an arts district, and providing space for artists to live, sits firmly atop the majority of ACAD wish lists for 2016.
“We still need restaurants,” Wimbish says. “I’d like a different variety and something more reflective of the neighborhood and the residents.”
Indeed, enticing restaurateurs to set up shop in any of the numerous empty storefronts that line East Colfax has long been an ongoing struggle. Many of the district’s juggernauts, like Weil, claim that investing in more eateries and watering holes will help all nearby entities by keeping patrons in the area for longer.
“We have 100,000 people coming here and a lot of times they’re eating out of the district before they come,” Weil says. “It would be a much more convenient and holistic experience if they could park, get a bite and go to a performance. It’s about convenience and a community that could thrive around food and art.”
After observing the accelerated evolution of Denver’s RiNo Art District after The Source opened there in 2013, Weil says that he’s hoping the forthcoming Stanley Marketplace, which is slated to house dozens of new eateries just a few blocks off of East Colfax, will allow people to eat in the area before catching a show at a nearby theater.
“One of the biggest projects I see happening is Stanley,” Weil says. “It’s a game changer, for sure. And now I think it’s time to bring together Stapleton and all the things that they’re doing there into one larger community.”
One way Weil is thinking of luring the largely Stapletonian Stanley crowd south to the ACAD is by expanding the district’s boundaries. Currently, the arts district is delineated by East 14th Avenue to the south, Clinton Street to the west, Geneva Street to the east and East 16th Avenue to the north, as well as a northern jog that includes city park. Weil says his goal is to expand the district by adding a narrow, flag pole-like extension that would connect the area to the Stanley traffic filtering out of North Dallas Street.
“Maybe we extend to about 25th (Avenue) and then come down like Elmira or Florence to create that flag pole,” he says. “And I’m open to going west to Yosemite if something interesting pops up. But why I’m interested in Stanley so much is because there are great warehouses and buildings that could be very interesting creative spaces.”
Adding those creative studio spaces to a supposedly art-friendly pocket has been a priority for many longtime ACAD residents, though progress has been slow. After years of hollow promises, the district boasts just two buildings that rent spaces to visual artists, one on Dallas Street and one on Florence Street. The city took control of the current ACAD Studio Gallery at 1400 Dallas St. in December 2013 after the former tenant, The Other Side Arts, defaulted on prior loan agreements. A former District 1 police sub station, the facility now houses 14 fully-occupied studios, which average about 240 square feet in size and cost roughly $1 per square foot in monthly rent. The only other available studio space in the ACAD is housed within Sunrise Artworks at 1556 Florence St., although the property is currently for sale, according to Walt Weinberg, owner and operator of Sunrise.
Weinberg says he has been frustrated by the city’s inability to properly develop studio space in the ACAD. In particular, he takes issue with the way officials handled the opening and rental of the nearby, affordable housing complex Florence Square.
“Florence Square has been a tremendous debacle,” says Weinberg, who has been in his Florence Street space for about 17 years. “Before it opened, the city brought in every artist they could find and asked us what would be needed there. But when they opened it up, they didn’t put in any of the things we had mentioned, and they didn’t go out and recruit artists. They had a couple (artists) move in, but they just real quickly rented it out to everyone. To me, that was terrible.”
There is hope, however, that the city will recommit to at least think about adding more studios to the ACAD in 2016. Last fall, city officials gave tentative approval for planners to hire ArtSpace, a Minneapolis-based, art-centric consulting firm, to evaluate the possibility of adding live/work studios to the area. And although promising, the consulting route can take time that many creatives simply don’t have.
“I’d really like to fast track that project, because those projects can take 3-5 years sometimes,” Weil says. “But the city of Aurora has a chance to foster that idea (of studio space), which I think could be super important.”
In the meantime, merely letting patrons know that they are walking or driving through an arts district is a more immediate project heading into the new year.
“The most essential thing, in my opinion, is lighting and way finding,” Packard says. “We feel that when we turn the marquis on, the neighborhood changes — but that’s only three times a week. I want something that makes it like that all day every day.”
Though there has been improvement following a $200,000 Colfax lighting initiative started in 2012, Packard says priority should be paid to more parking, security and street-level lighting, as well as banners that run across the street.
For Wimbish, signage and lighting along the periphery of the district that has the potential to corral passersby is paramount.
“I’d like to see more directing people to the district along the outskirts,” she says. “We have different murals and things around the area that people don’t know about, so I’d like to get it so that people see that and make their way over to The Vintage or The Fox or Mu (Brewery).”
But despite the scroll of shortcomings in terms of lighting, studios and restaurants, optimism for the district in 2016 is approaching a fever pitch.
“I have seen lots of ideas and programs come and go,” Packard says. “I have never felt more optimistic about the neighborhood than I do right now. And much of that is due to Tracy’s efforts and the city’s investments.”
Weil echoes Packard’s positivity, and says that those efforts and investments could take a more tangible form in the coming months.
He says that a potential state accreditation as a fully-fledged arts district as well as a $75,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which the district is asking the city to match, are among the top possible highlights for the ACAD in 2016. Although the district has yet to hear back about the grant, the award could pay for several new lights and signs.
“I think 2016 is our year quite frankly,” Weil says. “We’ll be a certified art district, the Stanley will open, our attendance is growing — we’re pulling the pieces together. I think this is the year for us; this is the year for us to turn from an emerging arts district into a full district that’s organized, accessible and inclusive.
“I’m really excited about it. This is going to be our moment to shine.”
hen they looked at northwest Aurora a few years ago, city planners circled two primary neighborhoods: the Arts District along Colfax, and the far northwest corner near 25th and Dallas, former home to the Stanley Aviation factory. Both neighborhoods could have bright futures, they thought, changing the face of the once struggling area.
The few blocks near Stanley could tie in nearby Westerly Creek and be a sort of bridge linking Aurora to Stapleton.
But, Gonerka says, that was always supposed to come after Colfax had drawn a few new businesses and become the tony arts district everyone envisioned. After all, Colfax boasts the traffic counts and the proximity to Anschutz. That success would lure developers to the area near Stanley.
Those plans have flipped.
Gonerka says the plans for the Stanley largely fell into the city’s lap. A staffer in the planning department overheard talk about the idea for a grand-scale beer garden and development while they were at a moms’ meeting in Stapleton. They brought the idea to the rest of the staff and they quickly reached out to the developers.
Now, after working out a tax incentive plan to draw Stanley, the $25-million project is set to open next year with between 35 and 40 businesses, including Endorphin Fitness, Logan House Coffee Company, Denver Biscuit Company, Stanley Beer Hall by Kevin Taylor, Sweet Cow Ice Cream, GoodBird Kitchen, Rosenberg’s Bagels and Comida.
Names like Rosenberg’s and Taylor’s are well-known to local foodies, and Gonerka says that’s hugely important not just for Stanley’s success, but for Colfax’s as well. Now, those sorts of names have Aurora addresses, and hopefully others will see that and consider an Aurora store-front that they may have scoffed at in the past.
“It’s gonna create a reason for people to come,” he says.
When he looks at the area’s potential, Gonerka doesn’t see the hard streets that many people see. He sees the area as a future version of the Highlands neighborhood in northwest Denver, one of the swankier locales in the area thanks to a huge influx of wealthy residents and retail investment.
Now, if you’ve spent a night on the town in the Highlands, say near West 32nd Avenue and Lowell Boulevard, you’re probably struggling to envision northwest Aurora one day mirroring that corner of town. But Gonerka doesn’t. Northwest Aurora has all the pieces, he insists — from traffic counts to affordable housing stock to a location 20 minutes from pretty much everywhere. And, probably most importantly, Stanley will give the area a credibility to investors, and help young up-and-coming chefs wipe away the stigma once associated with having an Aurora address.
“We are really poised to be what’s next,” he says, grinning confidently even after witnessing a few hiccups that would wound the confidence of many.
Is he overly ambitious about the neighborhood? Only time will tell.