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Washington Park: Oasis in the city

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IT’S an unnaturally chilly May evening in Washington Park, heart of the humble, high-end neighborhood that bears its name. About 50 runners, including fathers wheeling babies in weatherproof strollers, maintain a steady, uncomplaining pace through one of Denver’s largest parks.

Walkers and joggers, often accompanied by their dogs, treasure the silence. Couples commune. Parents gently push their children on  swings. Nothing, not even the cold, interrupts savoring their park.

Divided into the West, East and Speer sections, the Wash Park community functions as a single organic unit. When you question random passersby, “Do you like living in Wash Park?” they don’t ask, “Which part?” All they all say is, “We love it.”

The vast area known as Washington Park that extends from Speer to Downing, University to Broadway and Cherry Creek to I-25 was originally an agricultural enclave. Isolated farmhouses dominated the landscape.

Wealthy personalities like William N. Byers, John W. Smith and Rufus Clark chose South Denver (as it was called then) to erect their stately residences in the 1860s.

Further development followed — schools, businesses, restaurants and attractions like the National Mining and Exposition Hall. Housing codes in 1863 required that all homes be brick.

South Denver was annexed to Denver in the 1890s. Washington Park, the city’s first suburb, was also “dry,” offering temperance adherents a respite from Denver’s saloons in the late 1800s.

Architect Reinhard Scheutze developed Washington Park, the neighborhood’s165-acre focal point, between 1899 and 1908. City Planner George Kessler, the Olmstead Brothers and philanthropist “The Unsinkable” Molly Brown influenced its French country-style design.

Smith’s Lake became Denver’s inaugural bathing beach in 1911; J.B. Benedict built the iconic boathouse in 1913.

Gardens, pedestrian paths, groves, meadows and trees populate the park. Walk around the perimeter a hundred times and you still won’t uncover its copious secrets.

In 1911, Charles and Hazel Gates acquired the Colorado Tire and Leather Co. Six years later, the couple relocated CTLC to 999 S. Broadway and renamed the business the Gates Rubber Co.

Many of its 5,500 employees lived in Washington Park.

Numerous homes visible in 2014 were built during the housing boom of 1910-1940 to accommodate these employees.

“The large houses on Lincoln and Sherman — big Denver Squares and Victorians — were for the executive class at Gates,” says Chris Nevitt, city councilman since 2007 for District 7, which encompasses West Washington Park.

“Two-bedroom bungalows closer to the park housed the workers. The corner lots, which were more spacious, were occupied by middle management.”

Merchants flocked to Washington Park. While it may have lacked the moneyed elegance of Capitol Hill, the neighborhood more than compensated with its cozy, tree-lined streets.

Wash Park suffered a steep decline in the 1960s and 1970s. Drugs were rampant. Already affordable housing prices dipped accordingly.

But in the world of real estate, what goes around comes around.

TODAY, Washington Park’s assorted architectural abodes, whether duplexes, Denver Squares, Dutch Colonials or condos, are among the hottest investment properties in Denver — often topping Capitol Hill.

Although these residences are generally smaller, size doesn’t matter to the homebuyers. Typically young families, they like the feel of the place, and the financial promise it holds for the future.

Re/Max Masters’ Arnie Stein, a real estate broker since 1978, sums up Washington Park’s appeal in a few words: “Wash Park is urban.”

“Young families and boomers are following the national trend for an urban lifestyle,” he says. “Across the country and in Denver, people are moving back to the city. People want to walk instead of drive.”

The fact that Wash Park is the address for young couples and families isn’t exactly news. But boomers?

“Say someone is living in a 5,600 sq. ft. house in Cherry Hills Village,” Stein says. “They ask themselves, ‘How are we going to move into a bungalow in Washington Park?’ What we’re seeing is a real building boom in Wash Park.”

As a result of scraping (demolishing existing, rundown homes and selling the land) he says new homes are constantly going up in the neighborhood.

“You’re seeing a lot of different architecture, and not only traditional. Contemporary homes are returning.”

During the recession of 2008 and the ensuing deflation of the housing market, prices in Washington Park remained stable and even soared. According to Stein’s statistics, the highest home sale to date went for $1, 600,000.

The Park Lane Condominiums on the northern edge of Washington Park are now in the high $200,000 to mid-$300,000 range — and that’s the entry level. “The point is, there’s almost nothing in Wash Park that isn’t in this range, which has an effect on the rental market.

“We’ve all noticed a tremendous trend toward renting rather than rather than owning right now. If you own in Washington Park, you have a fantastic rental opportunity.”

Gentrification, especially around the park’s perimeter, brings more traffic congestion and complicates parking, he says. But the essential beauty of Wash Park is undisturbed, Stein believes.

“The ability to sit on your porch, look out at the park and watch the activity far outweighs the traffic situation. These people are living a European lifestyle. It doesn’t get better than that.”

“WHAT’S unique about Wash Park is that it has a fixed supply of an increasingly valuable commodity,” says Councilman Nevitt, who is officially running for Dennis Gallagher’s term-limited seat as city auditor.

He’s referring to land.

“People have really invested in their homes. The yards are nice. Homeowners are popping the top and adding a second floor. They love their homes, but they need more room, so they pop the top.”

There’s nothing wrong with that — but therein also lies the rub.

Nevitt calls homeowners who bought homes in Wash Park during the 1980s “pioneers.” In the 1990s, prices started picking up and really accelerated during the late 1990s through the present.

Even during the recession, having an early 20th-century bungalow near a beautiful park and the Cherry Creek trail was a unique opportunity. Owners held on to their property because the appeal never diminished.

But as Wash Park increased in value, Nevitt says it resulted “in an ironic value disequilibrium” because high-rise towers, expensive homes and duplexes often clashed with the neighborhood’s predominantly modest style.

“If you knocked down a house, the property increased in value. Land became more valuable than the houses,” he says.

Developers built a lot of “monstrous, sometimes cheap buildings, capitalizing on the reputation of Wash Park. But to be honest, they erected some very tasteful duplexes and homes.

“When a neighborhood has been around for more than a hundred years, it happens,” he acknowledges. “But the character of the neighborhood was in jeopardy.”

Nevitt successfully argued for West Wash Park to be rezoned as a single-family designation to stop “McMansions” from proliferating.

(His efforts last month to ban alcohol from the park due to abuses and negative behavior were rejected by the City of Denver April 29. However, officials are committed to improving the situation.)

As night falls with the temperature, a stroll through Wash Park affords a closer inspection of the modern houses and duplexes that blend into their surroundings.

Situated between the original edifices, the new additions seem to contribute rather than detract from Wash Park’s endemic character.

Looming high rises constructed in past years clearly anger concerned residents. Another huge condo is planned for a continguous area from South Ogden to South Downing amid historic three- to four-floor buildings.

No doubt homeowners’ associations and individual voices will channel their objections into strenuous activism. Winning the battle is another matter.

In the end, it’s a personal choice — whether to “pave paradise and put up a parking lot” as Joni Mitchell sang, or in this case an aesthetically questionable structure.

Residents are passionate about Washington Park, despite differences of opinion. All neighborhoods argue about zoning and roofs and other issues. But caring about a community is not synonymous with apathy. It’s a sign of love.

As the light slips away, people remain outside. They feel safe in Washington Park, day or night. And that is priceless.

ARTIST Ira Sherman, who bought his home on South Washington in the 1970s, has witnessed the transformation of Washington Park’s diverse cultural history. Despite his own success, he sounds a bit nostalgic.

“My sister lived north of Exposition, but I couldn’t afford to live there,” says Sherman, who wanted a studio in his prospective house. “So I went to the other side of the tracks, where property was cheap and there were lots of funky neighborhoods.”

Sherman bought his Wash Park home at the right time. The cultural scene was tight. Artists regularly hung out at Stella’s Café, where Sue Bell curated an ongoing art show.

Galleries, coffee houses and bookstores were plentiful. People passed the hours playing guitar on the porch, their rhythms blowing down the streets. Cathy Cohen, a ceramicist, owned the Pugmill Gallery in the 1970s. “That was the place,” he says.

Washington Park “used to be a mixed neighborhood: non-gentrified, with Hispanics and a few hippies,” Sherman says. “A few of us are still active here, but we’re the old guys now.”

He mentions Jerry Simpson, who has “a million things in his yard; Bob Mangold, the patriarch of the neighborhood, a modernist in his late 70’s; Sue Bell.”

“People aren’t moving here to make art anymore because they can’t afford it,” he says matter-of-factly. “The old feeling is gone.”

Yet Sherman and his wife Nancy still love Wash Park — the streets, coffee houses, creative vibe and tranquil disposition.

Sherman’s artwork was selected for public display on the platform of the RTD Light Rail station at Louisiana and Pearl in Wash Park. Another sculpture is at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society at 900 S. Broadway.

While Sherman’s Judaica has earned him solid acclaim, there’s something very special about being recognized in his own backyard — literally.

Broadway is now a chic expanse of specialty shops and restaurants where you can spend a fortune or secure awesome bargains. The art deco Mayan Theater, built in 1931, runs some of the finest films in Denver.

“The Art Students League is right in the middle of Washington Park,” Sherman says. “Check it out.”

The major drawback, in Sherman’s opinion, is gentrification’s impact on the the existing architecture. “At first you pop the top (raise the roof to add another floor), then you scrape it (tear it down), then anything goes,” he says.

“A bunch of stuff is going on that seems to embrace the idea that we’re going to make a brand new neighborhood.

“I prefer the guy who modifies things modestly.”

IN the past, a sizable number of Denver Jews attended Steele Elementary, an architectural wonder that boasts a community garden. No one knows how many Jews reside in Washington Park today.

Denver’ Moishe House, part of an international organization offering activities, Shabbat and holiday dinners for Jews in their 20’s, occupied a space in Wash Park until recently.

Rabbi Yossi Serebryanski, director of Chabad of South Denver, had a Chabad center near the Louisiana Light Rail Station for a few years. “People who wanted to meet with me felt more comfortable in coffee houses,” he laughs.

“I haunted the Kaladi coffee shop at 1737 E. Evans. It was my de facto office. They even have a portrait of me in the shop.”

Serebryanski has his own take on Washington Park.

“I know the houses around the park are skyrocketing in price,” he says. “The owners are young and hip. Many houses are often investment properties that will be rented out. I think most of the homes will be gentrified.

“It’s very much in transition.”

He says that the spillover of Jews living in the Belcaro neighborhood now affiliate with established synagogues and enroll their children in Hebrew school.

Serebryanski plans to resume his Torah strolls through Washington Park once the weather climbs into a warmer range. “We talk about Torah, all sorts of things,” he says. “It’s great.”

Imagine a Chabad rabbi and a group of Jews discussing Torah while navigating a beautiful park alongside the young and old, babies and leashed dogs, bicyclists and leisurely walkers, the past and future.

That’s Washington Park — a deliciously diverse slice of heaven.

Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Last Updated ( Friday, 23 May 2014 02:46 )  

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