‘A bit like nudging a 2-ton boulder’: Locals and officials are trying to revitalize South Sheridan Boulevard

“It was high on the [to-do] list four years ago. It’s been on everyone’s list.”

A mostly empty parking lot at the Super 99 Cents store on South Sheridan Boulevard on Monday, July 8, 2019, in Denver. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

A mostly empty parking lot at the Super 99 Cents store on South Sheridan Boulevard on Monday, July 8, 2019, in Denver. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photo

Take a stroll through the many empty parking lots on commercial plots along South Sheridan Boulevard and you might feel like you’ve traveled back a few decades.

The plots between Jewell Avenue and Warren Avenue in the Harvey Park neighborhood look like remnants of a past era, but instead of provoking nostalgia, they provoke angst of missed opportunities.

Councilman Kevin Flynn, whose district includes the area, jokes that it’s an area so neglected, they can’t even land a $1 store, only a 99 cent store. Starting its revitalization process is high on the to-do list for the recently reelected councilman, who ran unopposed.

“It was high on the list four years ago. It’s been on everyone’s list,” Flynn said.

Asking whether others see gold where there’s mostly pavement is now up to the city, who contracted Progressive Urban Management Associates (PUMA) in April to complete a market and economic analysis study. It’s a step toward eventually creating a more concrete vision of what the strip can become.

Department of Economic Development and Opportunity spokesperson Derek Woodbury said in an email the study will focus on commercial areas alongside South Sheridan Boulevard in the southwest and East Hampden Avenue in the southeast. PUMA President Brad Segal said this kind of site is the “next frontier” in urban redevelopment. The agency is getting ready to release an online survey for residents as part of their study.

“It’s just an outdated assembly of properties,” Segal said. “That thing was humming in the ’80s and ’70s with the type of retail that doesn’t thrive anymore.”

Inside Rosemary Cafe on South Sheridan Boulevard on Monday, July 8, 2019, in Denver. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

Inside Rosemary Cafe on South Sheridan Boulevard on Monday, July 8, 2019, in Denver. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

Segal said another factor making things tricky is that the area includes numerous parcels with some 30 property owners. That makes things a bit tricky for reinvesting, since coming up with a shared vision between 30 owners could prove challenging. Segal said about half of the property owners are from out of town.

“(We) need to figure out which of those owners would be motivated to reinvest in their properties sooner rather than later,” Segal said.

The Rosemary Cafe has been open for 27 years on Sheridan Boulevard and the surrounding plot isn’t totally empty. Owner George Moraitis is somewhat pessimistic about anything actually happening.

“There is plenty of space to develop in this area,” Moraitis said inside his restaurant on Monday.

He’s heard rumors about potential redevelopment, but hasn’t heard anything about the city’s current market study. There are businesses still operating on the site, including Hispanic businesses advertising primarily in Spanish, a thrift shop, a large gym, restaurants and some retail chains. Moraitis believes he would end up selling the property if redevelopment starts taking shape.

A 2017 report suggested locals want a community gathering space.

Back in December 2017,  Flynn invited a team of land use experts convened by the Urban Land Institute to create a plan for the area. Over the years, it had been a thriving commercial center complete with a movie theater, a skating rink and a grocery store. Things turned for the worse in 2011 when an anchor tenant, a 110,500-square-foot Target, packed its bags because another Target opened in nearby Lakewood. That 99-cent store now operates in its place.

Marianne Eppig, manager at Urban Land Institute Colorado, oversaw the organization’s technical advisory panel and wrote the 2017 report filled with details about the area’s history. The 24-page report makes numerous recommendations, but is not a formal plan.

Eppig said the experts spent two days in Denver in 2017 and conducted stakeholder interviews to compile the report. It mentioned the possibilities of creating an entertainment hub with restaurants, retail, housing and better connectivity for pedestrians.

A vacant building near the South Sheridan commercial corridor on Monday, July 8, 2019, in Denver. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

A vacant building near the South Sheridan commercial corridor on Monday, July 8, 2019, in Denver. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

Shelley Fitzmaurice lives in the neighborhood and is a member of an unofficial steering committee that gets together to discuss the area’s potential. Fitzmaurice said everyone around the site “wants something to happen.”

“We need to get developers interested. I appreciate these studies, but something needs to be done,” Fitzmaurice said. She thinks talking to the thrift store property owner is the best place to jumpstart everything because of its visibility. “I just think those places that are more visible on the streets, if we get a developer involved in that area right there, that would stimulate other developers behind it.”

Segal said they won’t be limiting their approach to the site to just retail. He wants to consider additional amenities and potential housing options. Adding a park or a green space is another option.

“We’re going to try and balance those things, with what the market tells us and what the neighbors want to see,” Segal said.

Whatever ends up happening, it’s clear this will be a long-term project.

“This is not an easy redevelopment project,” Eppig added.

Segal said their market study should be completed by the fall.

Flynn and Fitzmaurice have a similar outlook. But to Flynn, getting the market study completed is, in his words, a bit like nudging a 2-ton boulder.

“I’ve always been a natural-born pessimist, so I always — I think it’s going to be a long, slow process,” Flynn said. “We’ve been pushing at the boulder. It’s not something that will happen next year or the year after.”

Down the road, another project is already taking shape at the Loretto Heights campus. That area is much larger and there’s already a formal draft plan in place. In other words, it’s got something the South Sheridan site is slowly building: momentum.

“I think people are tired of things happening elsewhere, seeing restaurants or nice coffee shop open elsewhere in town and that place that used to serve the neighborhood for 20 years, 25 years, is just sitting there gathering dust and tumbleweeds,” Flynn said.

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