Colfax Avenue in Denver has evolved from a Native American trading route, a key passage to the rivers and mines of the 1850s gold rush, and a ­mansion-lined corridor to become the “longest, wickedest street in America,” as dubbed by that guide to wickedness Playboy magazine. And Colfax Avenue is evolving still. The 26-mile-plus (42 km) corridor connects the plains to the mountains. Often touted as America’s longest continuous street—connecting Aurora, Denver, Lakewood, and points beyond—Colfax once again is a conduit for new growth and development.

Change is happening in cities along the great avenue. Aurora recently adopted a new infill zoning category that allows greater flexibility in hopes of spurring redevelopment and is undertaking a visioning process for the corridor. Denver is directing the physical development pattern back to a main street lexicon through its new zoning code. And Lakewood in 2011 created two mixed-use zoned districts to support reinvestment.

American pop culture references to Colfax are strong. “We went off and drank in the Colfax bars,” beat-culture author Jack Kerouac wrote in On the Road. Iconic venues along the avenue have been referenced in the television show South Park and the movies Every Which Way But Loose and About Schmidt.

Electric tramways arrived in 1886, and 14 years later a trolley connection to Aurora allowed one of Denver’s first suburbs to grow. Buses appeared in 1928, just 12 years after Colfax Avenue had been paved, and the last trolley ran in 1950. But after Interstate 70 sliced through the metro area in the 1960s, the golden years connected to Colfax began to wane.

The development patterns on Colfax changed along with the changing transportation modes of the time. Stately mansions became mansions appended with storefront retrofits stretching to the street edge. Pre-1950s main street retail development created commercial nodes along the extensive avenue. Vehicle-oriented development patterns emerged in the 1950s and dominated for several decades, bringing midcentury motels and, eventually, small and big-box retail sites. The corridor now includes a wide variety of establishments, from mom-and-pop businesses to chain restaurants and shops, offices, major medical facilities, and residences. The state Capitol, the U.S. Mint, Denver city and county government offices, and the 12-acre (5 ha) Denver Civic Center Park, a laudable example of the City Beautiful movement of the early 1900s, all lie along Colfax Avenue. Many historic schools and churches also flank the corridor.

The impetus for new growth along Colfax is multifaceted. The Regional Transit District (RTD) 15 bus, which traverses Colfax and becomes the 16 along West Colfax, is the busiest bus transit line in the Denver metro area. A study was launched this summer to identify means for enhancing and improving mobility, including modes such as bus rapid transit and streetcars, along a ten-mile (16 km) stretch from downtown Denver to I-225. The two-year study, designed to find ways to meet passenger demand over the next 25 years, is funded by a $2 million Federal Transit Administration grant with a $1 million match from Denver.

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Fitzsimons Village Phase I, a Class A office building by Corporex Colorado.

The Denver Energy Challenge, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Initiative, has provided free energy evaluation rebates and other incentives to more than 125 businesses on Colfax. Upgrades have eliminated more than 300 metric tons of carbon dioxide—equivalent to taking 58 cars off roadways for a year. Various agencies representing the corridor have coordinated on garnering other funding, including a recently awarded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency brownfields grant of $900,000 to support revitalization along Colfax in Denver and Lakewood. The grant will be used to assess contamination at brownfield properties along 15 miles (24 km) of the corridor.

The renaissance along Colfax is also spurred by civic and grassroots leadership. Business support services are burgeoning, including Aurora’s Urban Renewal Authority and its arts district. In Denver, nonprofit strategic entities are the Fax Partnership, Colfax Business Improvement District (BID), Bluebird District, Greektown Maintenance District, and West Colfax BID. The Lakewood Reinvestment Authority and Lakewood West Colfax BID are advancing efforts in that community. Each city’s economic development department is involved, and Colorado enterprise zone tax credits are available for these areas. Each district is working to regenerate a mix of uses, intensify the corridor, improve physical conditions, and create a unique identity for its section of the avenue.

Here is a closeup look at a 15-mile (24 km) section of the road—the part most urbanized—from I-225 westward to I-70.

Aurora

At the eastern end of the metro area, a one-mile (1.6 km) stretch of Colfax is undergoing a transformation, including redevelopment of the 578-acre (234 ha) former Fitzsimons Army Medical Center on the north side of the street. At buildout, the timing of which is yet to be determined, the medical and research campus is expected to have 18.5 million square feet (1.7 million sq m) of space, provide 44,000 jobs, and have two light-rail transit (LRT) stops. The site currently employs more than 17,000 people.

The south side of Colfax is being transformed with mixed-use ancillary development. Fitzsimons Village is a 32-acre (13 ha) phased project developed by Corporex Colorado that includes a 168,000-square-foot (15,600 sq m) Class A office building, 16,000 square feet (1,500 sq m) of retail space, structured parking, and a new 153-room SpringHill Suites hotel by Marriott. Future phases include plans for a 250-room, full-service hotel and a 40,000-square-foot (3,700 sq m) conference center with construction to begin this year, plus a second, 196,000-square-foot (18,000 sq m) Class A office building, 12,000 square feet (1,100 sq m) of retail space, and 20 acres (8 ha) of residential space. This development, estimated at $500 million, is only part of the ancillary development that has already occurred or is being planned or considered.

Farther west, within Aurora’s historic main street area, Medici Communities developed the $32 million Florence Square with phases completed in 2004 and 2007. Florence Square is a 4.5-acre (1.8 ha) mixed-use project with 181 rental apartments and 15,000 square feet (1,400 sq m) of retail space. The project is 95 percent leased and focuses on units affordable to people earning 40 to 60 percent of the area median income (AMI). Since 2000, two additional affordable housing projects have been developed, and Aurora built a new public library, fire station, plaza, and parking.

Denver—East Colfax

Along “the ’Fax” in east Denver, the Phoenix on the Fax project, developed by Sherman Associates, opened this year with 50 apartments and 4,500 square feet (420 sq m) of retail space. The units are 100 percent occupied. This $10.5 million project, partially funded by federal low-income housing tax credits and HOME funds, is the first new construction of housing in decades on the ’Fax. This section of Colfax, along with Aurora’s section, is often referred to as “opportunity triangle” because of its strategic location in the midst of the major redevelopment efforts of Fitzsimons to the east, Stapleton to the north, and Lowry (a former Air Force base) to the south.

Denver—Central Colfax

Across Colorado Boulevard to the west in the Bluebird District, a new 26,000-square-foot (2,400 sq m) Sprouts grocery store being developed by Rosen Properties and Evergreen Development is scheduled to open in 2013. Because it addresses a local food desert, experts consider this development a game-changer in terms of people regarding Colfax as a place to invest. Across the street, National Jewish Hospital, a presence there since 1899, is planning a $235 million expansion. One mile (1.6 km) to the west, the $15.6 million Lowenstein Theater/Tattered Cover bookstore redevelopment by St. Charles Town Company was finished in 2005. It includes 56,400 square feet (5,240 sq m) of renovated and new commercial space with structured parking and serves as an anchor development that has spurred further reinvestment. Historic preservation tax credits and tax increment financing helped fund the project.

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Renaissance Uptown Lofts is a new 99-unit apartment building developed
by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

Chamberlin Heights, a 56-unit condominium project with 5,200 square feet (480 sq m) of mixed-use space was completed in two phases within the past decade. The project is often touted as the first new residential development—and for-sale housing—on Colfax in 80 years. Retail components of Chamberlin Heights were changed to follow a condo format a few years ago. However, a similar and newer development a few blocks to the east has not fared as well: this five-story, 40-unit, 4,300-square-foot (400 sq m) retail condo project is in bank receivership.

A quarter mile (0.4 km) from the Capitol, Renaissance Uptown Lofts is a new 99-unit, $12 million project with 7,000 square feet (650 sq m) of retail space. The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless developed the project, which has units averaging 570 square feet (53 sq m) for low-income and formerly homeless individuals and families. The project was finished in 2011 with both the residential units and retail space 100 percent leased. Catercorner from this site, a project is in the works to redevelop an Office Depot site into a mixed-use development. Improvements to the public realm funded by a bond program were also implemented along a 28-block stretch of Colfax this past spring.

Denver—West Colfax

Much of the activity along west Colfax is just beginning to take off because the avenue is two blocks north of an infrastructure catalyst—the RTD’s planned West Rail Line, a light-rail transit line linking downtown Denver’s Union Station transit hub to Golden. Denver and Lakewood each have four stations, and a fifth is between the communities. The rail line will supply ample development opportunities, with Colfax as a front door and address, and transit as a back door.

The Mile High Vista project, a $32.25 million development and gateway to West Colfax, will include a new Denver library and Avondale—64 units of housing restricted to residents earning 60 percent or less of AMI, and 14,000 square feet (1,300 sq m) of office and community space. A future phase will include 20,000 square feet (1,900 sq m) of commercial space. The development is a partnership between the Urban Land Conservancy, the city of Denver, and the Del Norte Neighborhood Development Corporation. This two-acre (0.8 ha) project is within a ten-minute walk of two LRT stations. Money provided by the Denver Transit Oriented Development (TOD) Fund was used to purchase the land. This fund, established in 2010 as the first TOD acquisition fund in the country, has as its primary purpose supporting the preservation and creation of affordable housing in current and future transit corridors. This project and West End Flats, a Colorado Coalition for the Homeless project with 101 units and a health clinic, are expected to serve as catalytic developments on West Colfax.

The 19-acre (7.7 ha) vacated St. Anthony’s Hospital site is a ten-minute walk from the future Perry LRT station. EFG Brownfield Partners, which is under contract to purchase the site, is to serve as master developer of a $400 million mixed-use, residential-focused project over five years.

Also, $2.2 million in improvements have added on-street parking, streetscape and bus stop improvements, and art to the public realm on West Colfax.

Lakewood

In Lakewood, Colfax was historically flanked by apple orchards and was once the site of a tuberculosis sanitarium. Initial large-scale reinvestment began with the 1999 establishment of an urban renewal district that resulted in 266,000 square feet (25,000 sq m) of retail space on 32 acres (13 ha) at Colfax and Wadsworth Boulevard. This spurred redevelopment at another ten acres (4 ha) in the area. A second reinvestment area was approved in 2005, covering a much larger 813-acre (329 ha) area, and in 2011, the Lakewood West Colfax BID was created by local property owners after it was authorized by the city government.

A fledgling nonprofit organization has started the 40 West Arts District, which is anchored by the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design and the future Lamar LRT station. The organization’s mission is to champion the creative and economic vitality of the region by creating community arts spaces and events, as well as programs such as Arts Along Colfax, through which private art is displayed in public businesses.

Plans call for $1 million in public realm improvements to be completed by 2013 along Colfax and linking Colfax to the Lamar station, which is to open in 2013. Farther west, Weston Solutions Inc., an environmental services and property development firm, acquired a 4.47-acre (1.8 ha) site between Colfax and the future Garrison LRT station. The $8 million first phase of development there includes a 32,000-square-foot (3,000 sq m) building housing Weston Solutions’ offices and a bank pad. The structure has been precertified Gold under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. Future phases will allow up to 110,000 square feet (10,200 sq m) of additional development.

The Next Act

Progressive mobility planning, implementation of new transit, and focused leadership are combining to bolster reinvestment along this historic corridor. In the past five years, at least $1.6 billion has been invested on Colfax Avenue, and an additional $1 billion in investment is in the pipeline. Redevelopment is spreading, with numerous projects under way a block or two off Colfax. Katy Press, principal of KP Consulting & Associates, based in Brighton, Colorado, says the new and more aggressive retailers understand the allure of a revitalized Colfax. “The corridor is starting to be talked about as a place to locate,” she says.

The next decade will mark another critical era in the avenue’s history. Once practically given up for dead, Colfax is again becoming a conduit of vitality that nourishes the communities through which it passes. It is a cultural spine that will allow the creative class to thrive.