East Denver small business owners want say in development plan to prevent displacement

Businesses and community members in the East Colfax Area want a new development plan to include a strong committee charged with development decisions

Brendan Greene, a member of the East Colfax Community Collective, speaks about the group's recommendations for development in the East Colfax area at the Queen of Sheba restaurant on Feb. 5, 2020. (Photo by Forest Wilson)
Brendan Greene, a member of the East Colfax Community Collective, speaks about the group's recommendations for development in the East Colfax area at the Queen of Sheba restaurant on Feb. 5, 2020. (Photo by Forest Wilson)

A group of East Denver residents and business owners is calling upon the city to ensure that community members can shape development plans for the area. 

The East Colfax Community Collective has been meeting with the city, which is working on a plan for the neighborhoods of East Colfax, Hale, Montclair and South Park Hill. The neighborhoods are among the city’s most diverse, home to apartment buildings and small businesses run by immigrants and refugees and to expensive single-family neighborhoods. 

City planners want to create a special district along East Colfax to preserve the local businesses and community. One recommendation proposes a steering committee, made up of business owners and community members, to oversee the creation of the district. 

Brendan Greene, a member of the collective, said the group wants that steering committee to have real power over new development in the area. 

“The most important thing is they [committee members] need to be given true decision-making power over how tax incentives are used in this neighborhood because our neighborhood isn’t going to sell our own neighborhood out,” he said.

The East Area Plan is part of Denver’s Neighborhood Planning Initiative, which breaks the city’s neighborhoods up into 19 areas, each with targeted development plans. The 2017 initiative will be rolling out in multiple phases over the next 10-12 years, and fits into the city’s Blueprint Denver and 2040 Comprehensive Plan, which broadly map out the city’s development goals for the next 20 years. 

“We’re asking for the city to use all of its power to prioritize the protection of the legacy businesses…,” Towanna Henderson, a member of ECCC, said at a Wednesday morning press conference recapping discussions with the city. 

Zewditu Aboie has owned the Queen of Sheba Ethiopian restaurant since 1993. She said she wants the new plan to keep rents stable and give local businesses incentives to remain despite new development. 

“We’ve seen a lot coming and going and we don’t want to go away,” she said. 

Once completed, the plan will serve as a guideline for new development and won’t control detailed regulations, just like all other city plans, said Curt Upton, a city planner and co-manager of the East Area Plan. 

Even so, the plan recommendations include the creation of incentives for landlords to keep rents low and developers to either keep small businesses in the area or allow them to reopen on the ground floor of new development. Planners also recommend the creation of a program to help small businesses during periods of construction in the area, when many businesses see a drop in revenue. 

Cherlyn Haliburton owns The Word, a Christian bookstore on Colfax. In the last year, she said, her property taxes — as well as those of other small neighborhood businesses — doubled, a financial burden she said she brought up with city planners. If new development and rising property values push small businesses out, she said, no one will be there to protect the community.

“I’m thankful that my property has good value, but at the same time how do they expect us to keep it… why should I have to take out a loan on my building just to pay taxes?” she said. 

Zewditu Aboie poses for a photo at her restaurant, Queen of Sheba, on Feb. 5, 2020. (Photo by Forest Wilson)
Zewditu Aboie poses for a photo at her restaurant, Queen of Sheba, on Feb. 5, 2020. (Photo by Forest Wilson)

Other business owners and the ECCC also recommended expanded property tax relief for small businesses to city planners. The group also presented recommendations for added protections for low-income community members. It has been formulating such protections since its creation in November. Those recommendations include providing tax relief for nonprofit affordable housing, stopping real estate “flipping,” providing incentives for five-story affordable housing developments and ensuring affordable housing isn’t lost. 

More than 450 people attended the city planner’s last open community meeting, providing input on the 20-year development plan. Much of the contention centered around how new and old development will be zoned, such as whether single-unit lots can be transformed to hold multiple units, if high-rise buildings should be allowed and how affordability fits into the equation. 

ECCC and city planners have scheduled two follow-up meetings for Feb. 22 and Feb. 24. Laura Swartz, communications director for the department of Community Planning and Development, said planners are still gathering input from representatives of Hale, Montclair and South Park Hill. The city had aimed to have the draft plan ready by early spring, Swartz said, but that deadline has been pushed back to later this spring.

 

 

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