Hard edges of Denver’s West Colfax begin to “soften” — and 2017 may bring more change, faster

West Colfax Avenue is adding hundreds of new residents and new amenities like an Alamo Drafthouse Cinema.
5 min. read
Art in the intersection on West Colfax at Raleigh Street. Jan 9, 2016. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) west colfax; business improvement district; kevinjbeaty; denver; denverite; colorado;

Lake Steam Baths at 3540 W. Colfax Ave. is one of the longest operating businesses in the West Colfax neighborhood. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The brown paint is chipping in the dining room of the Lake Steam Baths on West Colfax Avenue, but that's how some longtime customers want the 90-year-old business to stay.

"When I painted the walls years ago, there was controversy because there was change," said Amy Hyman, owner of the bathhouse. "Would I love to redo the whole business? Absolutely, but I have to use caution."

Lake Steam Baths is trying to balance the desires of residents who have supported the business for decades with the wants of a new population entering the community. The Russian and Turkish-style bathhouse's dilemma mirrors what West Colfax Avenue is facing overall with the addition of hundreds of new residents and new amenities like an Alamo Drafthouse Cinema.

The site of the future Alamo Drafthouse Cinema on West Colfax Avenue. (Courtesy of Mark Colomb)

"People like it the way it is," Hyman said. "I think the next time I paint, I'll put a survey out."

Hyman took over the Lake Steam Baths in 2015 after her husband, Hannon, died.

"It's challenging. He was the heart and soul of this," Hyman said. "I try hard to keep it the way he would and not make too many changes."

Hannon Hyman's family started the business in 1927 to cater to the customs of what was then a predominantly Russian Jewish population. Over the next 90 years, West Colfax added hundreds of new residents and became more than half Hispanic in population.

The Denver-based Piton Foundation identifies West Colfax as one of the city's most at-risk neighborhoods with almost a third of families living in poverty in 2014. Twenty-nine percent of residents 25 and older have less than a high school diploma, according to the nonprofit focused on low-income children and families.

Art in the intersection West Colfax and Raleigh Street. Jan 9, 2016. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Changing Colfax

The West Colfax Business Improvement District formed in 2006 partly to attract new development and make the neighborhood a mixed-income area, said Dan Shah, executive director of the district.

"The objectives that were really laid out were for a more densely-populated community with mixed-use development along Colfax," Shah said. "Most importantly, we wanted to be neighborhood-serving, pedestrian-friendly and a place for community gathering — sort of reclaiming Colfax Avenue from a state highway to a main street."

Experts believe having the mixed-income communities — where poor, middle-class and rich people live near one another — leads to better quality housing, improved services, increased neighborhood amenities and safer communities.

West Colfax saw new amenities and incomes come in after the demolition of the abandoned, former St. Anthony Central Hospital complex in 2013-2014, Shah said.

The roughly 20-acre area between West Colfax and West 17th avenues now includes retail space, the recently opened Sloan's Lake Tap & Burger and Starbucks, the future Alamo theater, the 369-unit Alexan Sloan's Lake complex and other residential properties. Altogether the mixed-use development is being branded as Sloans.

The development is juxtaposed with the car dealers and Mexican eateries that are peppered along the corridor.

"Nobody's trying to make this like Belmar. That's never going to happen," Shah said. "I don't think West Colfax is at risk of losing its hard edge, but we want to soften it a little bit."

St. Anthony's Hospital Demolition Time-lapse 2013-2014 - Denver, Colorado from Conrad Olivier on Vimeo.

In May, the eight-screen, nearly 800-seat Alamo Drafthouse Cinema theater is expected to open at the northeast corner of Stuart Street and West Colfax Avenue.

The theater will be more than a draw to the area for Tom DeFrancia, a co-owner of the theater. DeFrancia's grandparents and father lived near West 29th Avenue and Stuart Street, he said.

"You have to look at it historically. When people started moving to suburbs and leaving the city that neighborhood became stuck for a long time," DeFrancia said. "If you drove through it a couple years ago and drove through today you’d notice a huge difference. It's going from run-down to built."

The Alamo is a nearly $14 million investment in the community and will be an anchor for the Sloans development. The Denver Urban Renewal Authority kicked in about $3 million incentives for the project, he said.

Harlow sits on the couch in Urban Gypsy on West Colfax Avenue. Jan 9, 2016. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Laurie Kleiman hopes to see more development come to the neighborhood. She recently opened Urban Gypsy, an art gallery at 3603 W. Colfax Ave.

"It's still Colfax. There's still a lot of crime, drugs and prostitution," the Denver native said. "That's starting slowly to change, but you still see a lot."

Kleiman said she's looking forward to having a different demographic around in the community. The old guard of West Colfax doesn't see the need for art and a gallery the way younger, new resident do.

Across the street, Hyman is also looking forward to a changing Colfax.

"I know it sounds really silly, but to have Starbucks here, it's like we've made it. ... It's kind of like all we need now is Whole Foods," Hyman said. "I truly believe the direction Colfax going is the right direction."

Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article misstated the number of screens expected to be at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema on West Colfax Avenue. The correct number is eight.

Business & data reporter Adrian D. Garcia can be reached via email at [email protected] or twitter.com/adriandgarcia.

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