A proposed development could change the look of Bonnie Brae. How has it remained intact this long?
The potential sale and demolition of Bonnie Brae Tavern could change an iconic Denver retail strip.
Bonnie Brae Ice Cream’s manager, Kerry Dougherty, got an unexpected call last Thursday from a despondent man.
He’s 71 and he told her he had grown up going to the ice cream shop on the corner of University Boulevard and Ohio Avenue. He wanted to know if the shop was closing.
“He was very worried about everything changing,” Dougherty said, inside the white shop lined with cherry-red striping. He’d even tried the mayor’s office first.
He called her just a few days after it came to light that the ice cream shop’s across-the-street neighbor, Bonnie Brae Tavern, might close. The restaurant has been a neighborhood institution for decades and is run by the Dire family, who still own the property. It could be sold to potential buyers who would demolish the building and build a three-story complex with 43 homes and space for businesses.
“I think he thought Bonnie Brae was owned by one person, like the whole strip,” Dougherty said.
The restaurant’s sale, demolition and redevelopment could mean a drastically different look for this little retail strip along University Boulevard sandwiched between Exposition and Ohio Avenue.
A walk down this University Boulevard strip takes you in and out of different decades.
Some buildings looked pulled from a Main Street postcard. Others have been redeveloped already. It’s sprinkled with less romantic storefronts, like the Conoco and the ink! Coffee (though the gas station has been there for decades).
But as the councilman for this area, Paul Kashmann, notes, this retail strip in his district hasn’t seen as much change as so much of Denver, or even the surrounding neighborhood.
“Why, with Washington Park to the west, developing and developing with big new houses and so on, and Bonnie Brae and Belcaro and Cory-Merill off to the east developing and improving, this lovely little strip has stayed substantially in the 1970s for quite a while?” Kashmann said. “I would have expected it to pop earlier.”
Change could happen quickly, when it comes. The area is zoned to allow buildings up to three stories, which Kashmann said caught some people off guard. There was no need for potential developers to request zoning adjustments for the proposed project height.
Kashmann said generations of local residents likely drove by the strip and remember grabbing food at the ice cream shop and restaurant. Change is always jarring, he said, especially when it’s as drastic as knocking down a one-story building and replacing it with a three-story one.
“So there’s that element of, ‘It’s always been there, it can’t go away,'” Kashmann said. He added, “What will be interesting to watch is will this then precipitate a domino effect where other parcels on the block begin redevelopment?”
Bob Pailet, who co-owns Bonnie Brae Ice Cream, said in a voicemail to Denverite that in a nutshell, it would be nice if things stayed the same.
“But change is inevitable,” Pailet said. “It is zoned for a three-story building, so be it. I’m not upset about it, and I hope the new developer keeps some of the flavor of the neighborhood. That would be wonderful if they did that.”
Bonnie Brae Tavern co-owner Rick Dire doesn’t think their sale would suddenly mean a burst of redevelopment in the area.
Dire said he believes the property owners next to the tavern are all committed to staying there as long as possible. Dire added that even if the sale of the tavern’s building does go through, they have explored possibly relocating the tavern. When the news broke of its closing, calls poured in. It made for a pretty busy weekend.
“We’ve gotten to know so many people so well,” Dire said. “We know what they eat, we know what they drink. We know how they want things. It’s nice that people care.”
CU Denver urban and regional planning associate professor Jeremy Németh spent some time in the area. His father used to live a block away from the strip. He said the economic makeup of the area probably contributes to its lack of change.
“It’s like frozen in time and yet it’s abutting, literally million-dollar bungalows,” Németh said. “My immediate thought is basically investment happens in places where developers can make the largest return on investment.”
He said property investors typically look to exploit the “rent gap”, which he describes as the difference between the current rental income of a property versus its potential rental income. Németh said that’s why developers often end up in places like the Northside, Globeville, Elyria-Swansea and west Denver, places where they can “put the same three-story condo and make a killing.”
Bonnie Brae Neighborhood Association President Robert Inman suggested another reason for the lack of development: Stability. Inman compared the area to Larimer Square, which over the years been updated while retaining its historic character. He said some of the tenants along the Bonnie Brae strip have been there for decades.
He thinks that’s because the strip does its job well. It serves as a place for residents to eat, drink, clean their clothes and maybe buy a case of beer.
“It works. If every store is filled, with little businesses, why would you change that?” Inman said.
This strip is packed with businesses, with Inman counting at least 22, including several owned by the same families for years.
Inman said since the plans are still tentative, he doesn’t have an opinion on what a new building on University Boulevard could mean. More broadly, however, he said he said he supports anything that enhances the living experience of residents and improves access to retail services.
He said he plans on keeping an eye on the project. Calls and texts to Joe Jundt, who is listed as a contact for the Bonnie Brae Tavern project, were not immediately returned this week.
“We don’t know what it is yet,” Inman said.
Similarly, Dougherty said the ice cream shop doesn’t know much beyond what’s been in the news. The ice cream shop opened in 1986, replacing the older Denver chain Dolly Madison. It’s the kind of place where people who grew up nearby return to show their children.
“That kind of the reputation that we have anyways,” Dougherty said. “I think it’s hard for them to see changes of that magnitude.”
Both Dougherty and Inman noted how the end may not yet be in sight for the tavern.
It is, after all, a tentative plan.
Inman mentioned how Bonnie Brae residents mobilized after a marijuana dispensary tried to move to a storefront along the strip in 2018. City documents show the licensing department received 43 emails, mostly in opposition, before the dispensary’s hearing date with the city in November 2018. After the hearing, the hearing officer recommended approval. The licensing department then got eight more emails in opposition.
The application was voluntarily withdrawn by the dispensary the next month.
Dougherty brought this episode up as well.
“The neighbors that have lived here a long time, they are gonna have a say,” Dougherty said.