For Wheat Ridge, 38th Avenue a corridor of change
Valente’s Italian Restaurant, a Wheat Ridge dining institution for four decades, is now home to Colorado Plus Brew Pub, which boasts 56 local craft brews on tap and serves picquillo peppers stuffed with merguez sausage and goat cheese.
Across the street and to the west, a formerly fire-damaged building hosts Compass Construction, a yoga studio and an acupuncturist.
Nearby, Wheat Ridge Cyclery operates an airy and modern showroom complete with a repair shop, custom fitting area and warehouse.
Ron Kiefel took the risk of expanding the store his father started 40 years ago, in part because he believed in a comeback effort the city was undertaking.
“Businesses that invest and reinvest in themselves can thrive in this environment,” he said. The same applies to communities, he adds.
All the changes are part of a transformation taking place along West 38th Avenue, one civic leaders hope will allow Wheat Ridge to attract a new generation of residents and short-circuit the blight that older neighborhoods typically suffer before gentrification.
More than 30 new businesses have located on the corridor, which stretches from Sheridan Boulevard on the east to just west of Wadsworth Boulevard. Many were assisted by the city and a group called Wheat Ridge 2020, which stepped up their efforts two years ago in a program called Ridge at 38.
Sales-tax revenues in the district in the first quarter were up 15.1 percent from a year earlier, driven by energetic entrepreneurs such as Susannah Burley, who started a flower shop called Posey Girl.
“I had to follow my dream,” said the Capitol Hill resident, who adds that she is looking to move to Wheat Ridge soon.
Home prices in the area are rising, up 13.3 percent as of June 30, compared with a year earlier. New Town Builders and Urban Green Development are adding inventory to a housing stock that stopped growing decades ago.
“There is a lot of new life there. It does feel a little more young for us,” said Sarah Paterson, a West Highland resident who this month will join a growing wave of transplants.
Wanting to start a family but unable to afford a home in the northwest Denver neighborhood they enjoy, Sarah and her husband, Kyle, considered Lafayette and Louisville before settling on Wheat Ridge.
“We got a house for the low $300,000s that might have cost $550,000 in (Highland),” she said.
In a way, the Patersons aren’t that different from earlier generations, many Italian-Americans, who left west Denver, lured by more affordable homes in Wheat Ridge, new Arvada and Lakewood.
But unlike those who initially populated the ring suburbs, this generation wants the amenities that older urban neighborhoods offer — a modern vibe played in an old instrument.
“It is nicer to be able to walk somewhere, to go have a drink or a bite to eat,” said Paterson, in her early 30s. “I want a place with local character, not an Applebee’s.”
Eugene Khang, one of the owners of Colorado Plus, explains it this way. Old-timers will come in and ask for a Coors or Budweiser, but those watered-down brews won’t fly with his generation and they aren’t on tap.
For years, Wheat Ridge seemed stuck in midcentury Americana as Arvada redeveloped its Olde Town and Golden its downtown and Denver’s Highland area flourished. Even Lakewood transformed a run-down shopping mall into Belmar, a mixed-use zone with older urban sensibilities.
Facing a diminished sales-tax base that was putting the city on a downward spiral, officials and business leaders adopted a neighborhood-revitalization strategy in 2005.
An initial focus was on rehabilitating the older housing stock, which was contributing to a high concentration of rentals, said Britta Fisher, the group’s executive director.
Over time, the emphasis shifted to boosting the sense of community and creating an environment that would appeal to younger residents, one reason for the focus on 38th Avenue.
“We need to create our own identity, and you need a reason for people to want to get here,” said Steve Art, the city’s economic development and urban renewal manager.
Trying to create an extension of Highland or replicating strategies used in older neighborhoods that developed before the car became dominant won’t work, he said.
Much of Wheat Ridge’s development occurred under more lax county guidelines — the city didn’t incorporate until 1969. That explains blocks without sidewalks and storm sewers and an independent streak that made it more difficult to adapt to change.
“You have a multigeneration neighborhood trying to figure out where it is going,” said Zachary Urban, a candidate for City Council.
Urban said the complaint he hears most is about the “road diet” that has taken 38th Avenue from five lanes down to three and shaved 10 miles per hour off the average speed.
“We need a compromise — maybe it is four lanes,” he said regarding the city’s main east-west artery.
Fisher argues that the slower speeds are necessary to create a “main street” environment and for pedestrian and bike traffic to have a chance of taking hold.
Another concern Urban has is that the 10-block area is more stretched out than other districts, including even the 16th Street Mall. A more concentrated effort would better serve the city than a diluted one that fails, he argues.
“We are not playing with a whole lot here, and we don’t have millions to try again,” he said. “We are short on cash and time.”
But if Wheat Ridge gets it right, the city could offer a redevelopment model for the aging and car-centric suburbs that ring an increasingly expensive Denver.
Aldo Svaldi: 303-954-1410, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/aldosvaldi
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