Gentrification Threatens to Change the Community Dynamic of Denver’s North Park Hill

Philip Walker
May 3, 2019 · 8 min read
Graffiti on an electrical box across the street from the newest land development in North Park Hill expresses community anxieties about the project.

The jagged skeleton of an upscale housing and commercial complex now looms over the east side of the 2800–2900 block of Fairfax Street in North Park Hill. The two-and-one-half story and soon-to-be very gray Park Hill Commons rises from the depths of a dusty pit at an astounding rate. Situated between a commercial strip to the west and a row of post-war ranches and Craftsman bungalows across the alley to the east, the new development is the talk of the block.

Denver’s development boom over the last decade or so has radically changed the city’s historically downtrodden — and historically black — neighborhoods. Neighborhoods like Five Points, Riverside North and The Highlands that were redlined in the 20th century have seen the most rapid development, but with most of that primo real estate already accounted for, North Park Hill seems a hot new prospect. Though it was not one of Denver’s redlined districts, North Park Hill is a majority black neighborhood and has some of the lowest rent in the city. With average rental prices across the city having risen more than $600 since 2010 and residents’ incomes stagnant, the neighborhood may no longer be an option for its longtime residents and business owners.

In an interview with Greater Park Hill News, co-owner of the Fairfax commercial strip Dean Brown Jr. said, “We know we’re leasing below market; we’re not making a killing, but we haven’t had to take a loss either. We’ve been blessed, and we pass the blessing on. But if taxes go up, then we’ll have to deal with that.”

Partially built town houses at Park Hill Commons tower over Fairfax Liquors.

On the southern corner of the Fairfax commercial strip, Fairfax Liquors serves all types of drinkers, from those dine with fine white wine to those who just need a single 12-ounce can of beer. Roman, an Ethiopian immigrant who co-owns the liquor store with her husband, is worried about the rent increases at their corner location, but she’s hopeful that revenue from new residents will outpace them. “We’ll find out,” she said. “Since they started, it’s slow motion. Just let it be done. I hope it will be good! We’ll find out.”

Roman poses for a portrait behind the counter of Fairfax Liquors.

At the northern corner of the commercial strip is a brand new craft brewery, The Long Table. The inside has enough room for maybe 50 people to sit and sip craft brews at the reclaimed wood and corrugated metal bar or to sit at a scrabble-tile table to chat or play Chinese checkers with friends holding babies on their laps. Shop-style garage doors lead to a patio with room for nearly 50 more people to sit at picnic tables with their dogs underfoot. Occasionally, someone might drive by and yell at them, “Get the fuck out of our neighborhood!” Nearly all of the patrons are white.

Patrons of The Long Table enjoy craft beers and each other’s company.

The Long Table opened April 27 of last year, and Nate, the tap house manager, says business is booming.

Nate poses for a portrait in front of The Long Table’s brewing tanks.

“I think the neighborhood likes it. A lot of the people we see are walk-ups with kids. You’d be surprised. These young parents need beer! So then like 15% of our whole crowd is under three years old. It’s too bad they can’t buy beer, but in 20 years? Then we’ve got ‘em.” In the shorter term, he’s confident that business will continue to boom, both at the brewery and down the rest of the block once new people start moving in. “Ultimately, I think it will be good for the neighborhood,” he said, “and I hope there’ll be some beer drinkers over there.”

HM Capital, Park Hill Commons’ developer, expects the complex to be livable by autumn 2020. Those living spaces will occupy both ends of the mixed-use complex, with studio apartments on the north end, town homes on the south end and retail and office space surrounding a park in the middle. The 420 square foot studios will rent for as low as $1,200 per month, which makes them 50% more expensive per square foot than the average Denver apartment. The three bedroom, three-and-one-half bathroom town homes range from 1,619 square feet to 2,010 square feet. Lease pricing is not yet available. The commercial spaces that will surround the 15,000 square foot park are not yet under contract, but their leasing brokerage, Antonoff and Co., anticipates filling them with pizza and coffee shops, a breakfast spot and chiropractor and dermatology offices.

A digital mockup of Park Hill Commons shows the physical scope of the development. (via Zaga Design Group)

Park Hill Commons is one of three major North Park Hill redevelopments over the past decade, but it stands alone as the one that the community is reluctant to accept.

In 2008, Holly Square was burned to the ground. Members of the Denver Crips firebombed the shopping center after an altercation with some Park Hill-based members of the Denver Bloods at Bash Nightclub just hours after Denver Crips founder Michael Asberry was murdered in Aurora. Little Saints Daycare, Park Liquor, Steve’s Style Shop and Tyson’s Food Market were reduced to ash overnight.

In 2007, Holly Square is bustling before the fire. (via Google Street View)

With support from the city, the Urban Land Conservancy purchased the site and contracted to redevelop it into a community center geared toward children. The block now hosts Roots Elementary School and the Jack A. Vickers Boys & Girls Club in the Nancy P. Anschutz community center alongside the preexisting Pauline Robinson public library and Hiawatha Davis Jr. recreation center.

A half mile west, there is a similar story of resurrection. In the same year as the Holly Square fire, the blocks bounded by Dahlia and Elm, 33rd and 35th were nothing but dirt and weeds. Dahlia Square was, for a time, the cultural center of the neighborhood, the largest black-owned shopping center in the United States, but rapid corporatization and shifting consumer habits left it mostly abandoned and decrepit by the end of the 20th century. In 2005, the Denver Urban Renewal Authority contracted the demolition of Dahlia Square.

Developers then collaborated with the community to determine its needs. McDermott Properties built low-income housing for seniors, and the Mental Health Center of Denver built the Dahlia Campus for Health and Well-Being. Through the Dahlia Campus, the underserved neighborhood now has access to all-ages therapy and mental health programs; in-ground farming and an aquaponics greenhouse for freshly grown vegetables and fish in what is otherwise a food desert; a teaching kitchen for healthy cooking; an office for affordable children’s dentistry; a gymnasium for all-ages exercise classes; a preschool.

With each redevelopment, community members feel that they have been heard and valued in the process, and the new amenities serve them well. The same cannot be said of Park Hill Commons.

An excavator on the Park Hill Commons construction site frames a proud Denverite’s municipal flag.

HM Capital purchased each property on the east side of 2800–2900 Fairfax one by one. An abandoned church, two abandoned businesses, a pair of houses, a fried catfish joint. Nobody in the neighborhood knew that a new development was coming until chain link fences with branded banners went up in 2017. Greater Park Hill Community president Tracey MacDermott said Park Hill’s representative to Denver City Council, Christopher Herndon, “didn’t bother to tell us” about the redevelopment. Neither HM Capital nor councilman Herndon requested community input on the project. When 14 of 16 members of the GPHC board voted to approve a resolution requesting that the city not execute a land swap with HM Capital for a former Xcel substation, to instead designate that land a park and to collaborate with the community in the park’s development, the request was ignored. HM Capital will contribute $650,000 to build a park, but it will be built in the center of its own property without community collaboration.

Armani, who lives across the alley from the Park Hill Commons town houses, grew up in Park Hill. He lives in the house his aunt bought in the 1970s and has two sets of grandparents just a few blocks away, so he laments the lack of concern for his community. “What they did on Dahlia is what they should have done with this,” he said. “That helps everybody already in the community. What they’re doing here, I don’t think that helps everybody.”

Armani’s biggest concern with the development is losing his family’s privacy to his new neighbors across the alley. “They can look straight into our backyards. We’ve got French doors that go from our master bedroom to our backyard. Now we can’t have the curtains open at night. They can look right down at us.”

Armani takes a break from picking up leaves to pose for a portrait while a partially built town house peeks between his and his neighbor’s houses.

He’s also worried about a change in the neighborhood’s social dynamic. “We have people over often, and that may be an issue for the people moving in,” he said. “If we’re trying to hang out, we might get noise complaints. Like next door, he’s a cop, but he’s never called a noise complaint on me because we’re neighbors. We know each other. Sometimes we’re hanging out by the fire pit until 3 AM. Now there might be somebody new trying to bitch about us doing the things we’ve been doing, but they’re moving into our space.”

Now he’s considering moving.

“My fiancée is a teacher, which she can do damn-near anywhere, so we’re good to go see what else is out there. That’s what we’re preparing to do, but the reason we haven’t made any commitments yet is because we have a two-year-old. He’s still a baby. We can’t just pack up and go just right now. And a lot of my family is close, which is a big help having them close to help out with him. We might stay in Park Hill, just maybe not here.”

Until he and his family are ready to make the move, Armani is trying to keep an open mind. “I’m just interested to see how everybody gets along. We’ll just try to coexist.”

For a sonic tour of the block, see my highlight “Fairfax” on Instagram.

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