Officially known as the Union Station neighborhood until The Denver Post’s Dick Kreck first referred to it as LoDo (as in Manhattan’s SoHo) in a 1983 column, Lower Downtown Denver has become a national model of how a decaying core city neighborhood can be converted to a thriving residential, retail, and recreational district. Union Station remains the anchor building in an area that arose with predominantly rail-related enterprises, most notably the Wynkoop Street warehouses, Seventeenth Street hotels, Market Street bordellos, Larimer Street saloons, and various retail and manufacturing operations.
Another street, Little Raven, commemorates the chief of the Southern Arapaho tribe that for decades camped on this site during the winters. The 1858 discovery of gold in Cherry Creek and the South Platte brought in a flood of gold seekers who soon ousted the Native Americans.
LoDo borders the South Platte River area once known as “the Bottoms,” an undesirable floodplain where Native Americans, transients, and poor immigrants lived. In recent decades, some of the city’s priciest lofts and apartments have sprouted in the once disreputable “Bottoms.”
The official LoDo neighborhood is bounded by the South Platte River on the northwest, Cherry Creek on the southwest, Larimer Street on the southeast, and Twentieth Street on the northeast. Once the core commercial and rail hub of Denver, the neighborhood began a descent into a skid row during the 1930s. In 1988, the city designated the portion of LoDo between Twentieth Street, Larimer Street, Cherry Creek, and Wynkoop Street as a historic district. This zoning move curbed demolitions and decay by providing incentives for preservation. The strong Denver Landmark Preservation Commission ordinance enables the commission to oversee any changes involving a building permit within a landmark district, where the commission may also deny a demolition permit. Subsequently, LoDo evolved quickly from core city blight into an area featuring million-dollar lofts, swanky restaurants, upscale boutiques, and trendy nightclubs. During the 1990s, LoDo became the place to party and attracted young, late-night crowds from throughout the metro area.
What was once an area dominated by transients has also become a residential area with many new lofts. Dr. Emanuel Saltzman and his wife, JoAnn, created the first LoDo loft in 1980. Inspired by his brother’s loft in New York City’s SoHo, Saltzman bought and converted the Spice and Commercial Warehouse, at 1738 Wynkoop Street, into his family loft. Larimer Square developer and preservationist Dana Crawford followed with the Edbrooke Lofts, Flour Mill Lofts, restoration of the Oxford Hotel, and other projects. Ongoing residential construction caused LoDo’s population to soar to over 22,000 by 2015.
Crawford’s Larimer Square Project, initiated in 1965, saved the 1400 block of Larimer Street from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority’s (DURA) wrecking ball. DURA demolition doomed much of old Denver between Cherry Creek and Twentieth Street and from Larimer to Curtis Streets. That obliteration made way for new high-rise development. Meanwhile, Crawford transformed the formerly derelict 1400 block of Larimer Street into successful retail and office space. This first step in urban preservation inspired the much larger reclamation project known as LoDo. As old buildings became harder to acquire in LoDo, new buildings were erected in a style that made them look old. City planners promoted a popular trend of first-floor retail and upper-story office or residential space.
In 1988, John Wright Hickenlooper Jr. and five partners converted the John Sidney Brown Building at Eighteenth and Wynkoop Streets into Colorado’s first brewpub, the Wynkoop Brewing Company. The brewery was among the first in a new boom industry; by 2014, Colorado had more than 230 craft breweries and brew pubs. Hickenlooper’s brewery success propelled him into office as mayor of Denver (2003–11), then governor of Colorado (2011– ). Joyce Meskis, who in 1974 founded Tattered Cover, the region’s largest independent bookstore, converted the Chester S. Morey Mercantile Building at Sixteenth and Wynkoop Streets into the largest branch of her bookstore chain in 1994.
The success of LoDo inspired Major League Baseball’s Colorado Rockies to build their home, Coors Field, on the northeast edge of the Historic District at Twentieth and Blake Streets in 1995. HOK Architects sank the ballpark below grade to keep its walls at the same height as surrounding warehouses and borrowed LoDo’s red brick, stone trim, and other historical elements. At the other end of LoDo, just across Cherry Creek, the Pepsi Center opened in 2000 as home for the National Basketball Association’s Denver Nuggets and the National Hockey League’s Colorado Avalanche. These two giant venues made LoDo a sports fan’s paradise. The vintage-style ballpark and modern Pepsi Center attracted many suburbanites and visitors from throughout the state and region. They found LoDo safe and pedestrian-friendly and with no shortage of bars, boutiques, art galleries, restaurants, and other amenities.
Renewal of Adjacent Neighborhoods
The reincarnation of Denver’s once notorious skid row as the trendy LoDo District sparked further revitalization in adjacent neighborhoods, including Auraria, the Central Business District, Five Points, and Highlands. One of the most spectacular rebirths came in the downtown South Platte River corridor, long a polluted industrial strip. This corridor became prime real estate as Denver refocused on the South Platte River as a natural asset. Denver mayors William H. McNichols Jr., Federico Peña, Wellington Webb, and John Hickenlooper all worked to expand the city’s urban greenway trails and park systems, especially along the South Platte River and Cherry Creek. This promoted pedestrian and bicycle travel to and within the core city.
Transportation and Education
Union Station, the centerpiece of LoDo, reopened in 2014 as the Crawford Hotel and a multi-modal transit hub focused on revitalized rail service. Union Station, once the hub of a vast, steel spiderweb of rails, again became a travel nucleus. Most of the adjacent maze of railroad tracks was ripped out to accommodate new bus and rail services. The rest of the area between Wynkoop Street and the South Platte River boomed in the early 2000s, with new office, retail, and residential construction. Behind Union Station, in 2014, the Regional Transportation District opened a spectacular underground twenty-two-bay bus terminal and five rail tracks designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill under a soaring white fabric canopy.
Across Cherry Creek from LoDo, the Auraria Urban Renewal Project also promoted core city revival by replacing a poor, heavily Latino, light industrial neighborhood with the Auraria Higher Education Center. Home to the Community College of Denver, Metropolitan State University of Denver, and the University of Colorado–Denver, the center is the largest campus in the state, with 43,000 students providing a customer and employee base for LoDo.
Future of LoDo
Redevelopment of LoDo drives the broader revitalization of downtown, exemplifies the twenty-first-century trend toward downtown living, and reestablishes the key role of urban areas in western history. The gentrification of the once-declining core has also reshaped urban demographics. For the first time since the 1920s, the city is becoming whiter and richer, as the poor and many minorities are priced out of the core. The presence of a red-light and saloon district led many residents to flee what became skid row. Here, at the bottom of the social ladder, people of color unwelcome elsewhere found cheap housing and more tolerance. The Chinese, for instance, remained in LoDo even after the Anti-Chinese Riot of 1880, the city’s worst race riot. Blacks, Latinos, and Japanese Americans also gravitated to the area, as did some of the poorer and more discriminated-against European immigrants. The down and out remained LoDo’s majority population until the 1980s. This twenty-first-century reshaping of the metropolis reversed the twentieth-century pattern of urban blight and suburban flight. LoDo has helped make Denver a pacesetter in this national transformation. After losing population between 1970 and 1990, the City and County of Denver has been growing again in recent decades and remains the largest city in the state and the Rocky Mountain region. Starting with the reincarnation of the once-decaying LoDo at the heart of the city, the Mile High City has enjoyed a twenty-first-century renaissance.