Denver’s Bonnie Brae neighborhood endures tug-of-war between past and future

For Bonnie Brae, 2022 is proving to be a time of transition as the forces of change and redevelopment are often coming into conflict with the desire to preserve its historic past.

After two years of the pandemic, it’s a tale familiar in Denver’s historic neighborhoods: Several neighborhood institutions close, while others still hang on. In Bonnie Brae, the closing of the Bonnie Brae Tavern was a major blow for those nostalgic about the neighborhood’s past glory, though the resiliency of the Campus Lounge remains a bright spot.

Residents and employees of surrounding businesses are torn about the changes.

“I don’t like it,” said Olivia Hamblin, a front desk lead and spa coordinator at Hydrate IV Bar at 753 S. University Blvd., which opened in 2016. “Bonnie Brae is such a historical Denver neighborhood, and this little strip is what everybody’s used to.”

The Bonnie Brae Tavern, a restaurant established in 1934, served pizza and burgers for the last time at its 740 S. University Blvd. location on June 25. Originally opened by Carl and Sue Dire, the couple’s family sold the tavern and nearby property in May for $4.5 million to Alpine Investments and Revesco Properties, which plan to build an apartment project in its place.

Brightmarten also shuttered its restaurant doors at 730 S. University Blvd. earlier this year, with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic playing a strong role in the decision. Ni Tuyo, a restaurant by Nathan and Karina Ayala-Schmit, is set to take its place.

“A lot of people in this neighborhood are very upset about the changes,” said Sarah Daigle, a bartender at Campus Lounge at 701 S. University Blvd. since January 2020. Rumors floated around that the self-described “elevated dive bar” might also close, but owner Owen Olson quickly squashed them.

On the other hand, Nicole Matta, owner of Halo Salon Denver at 2322 E. Exposition Ave. and Bonnie Brae resident of over a dozen years, doesn’t consider the tavern’s closure to be significant.

“I’ve only eaten there with my kids one time in 13 years,” she said, “but I think, for die-hards, it’s probably a big deal.”

Matta pointed to her neighbor’s recent purchase of a nearby Bonnie Brae building with plans to refurbish it, adding, “I’m excited about the upgrades.”

“I just think we’re going in the right direction, honestly,” she said.

Neighborhood residents had an opportunity to safeguard the Bonnie Brae Tavern in 2019 when the property owner applied for a certificate of non-historic status, now called a certificate of demolition eligibility, said Laura Swartz, communications director  for Denver Community Planning and Development.

It triggered a landmark preservation review to determine if the restaurant could be a potential landmark, and “we said, ‘Yes, it could be a landmark.’” The next step was asking the community if it wanted to see the property preserved.

“After a month, no one had come forward, and said that they wanted to see it preserved,” Swartz said in a telephone interview. “Because there was no community interest in preserving the structure, we issued the certificate of non-historic status,” which can allow the property owner to sell and/or demolish the building.

Notably, the Bonnie Brae neighborhood actually doesn’t qualify as a historic district, unlike University Boulevard Parkway, La Alma Lincoln Park Historic Cultural District and Alamo Placita, according to a map of the Mile High City’s historic landmarks and districts.

“It is an older, lovely neighborhood, but it’s not actually considered historic,” Swartz said. Denver’s historic districts are registered with the city, which “takes support from all of the residents in that area to file that application.”

Denver currently has 58 historic districts and 358 individual historic landmarks.

Still, the streets of Bonnie Brae offer glimpses of both the future and bygone times. Development of the neighborhood began in the 1920s and hit completion in the 1950s, according to the Bonnie Brae Neighborhood Association. Paul Baily and his wife constructed the neighborhood’s first home at 898 S. Josephine St. in 1926.

Bonnie Brae translates to “pleasant hill” in Gaelic, the association reported. A drive through the area means paying tribute to Tudor-style architecture, along with Spanish-inspired, Bauhaus-style and postmodern houses. Bonnie Brae Park sits as a community marker.

Geographically, the neighborhood is bordered by Exposition Avenue to the north, Mississippi Avenue to the south, Colorado Boulevard to the east and University Boulevard to the west, according to Lifestyle Denver, which is run by realtor Libby Levinson-Katz.

In the late 1920s, real estate developer George Olinger pushed a racist policy to limit the neighborhood’s property owners to specific white ethnicities. However, the integration of an Italian family, who moved to 934 S. Josephine St., threw a wrench in his plan for segregation.

Andrew Mitchell, a barista at ink! Coffee Bonnie Brae at 709 S. University Blvd. for under a year, still described the make-up of the community as “affluent white people – a lot of lawyers and tech people and finance people,” adding that their customers do often tip well.

Hannah Routon, another ink! Coffee barista, described the main drag as “a good street of small businesses.” Still, she’d like to see more diversity in the community.

“I always think that supporting small businesses is great, but, again, you run into gentrification and accessibility,” she said. “There should be a balance because, if they are building condos, how great if it were affordable housing?”

Tyler Bray, director at Cushman & Wakefield, said certain small Denver communities, such as Bonnie Brae, are in “very high demand,” attracting interest from potential residents, retailers and restauranteurs. He described it as a high-profile, family-friendly area with a lot of pedestrian foot traffic.

However, “Bonnie Brae has always had very limited inventory,” he said. “There’s only so much space that you have in that Bonnie Brae submarket.”

He pointed to one hurdle that the neighborhood has faced: limited parking, which is crucial for retailers. If a family with children wants to sit down for a meal in a Bonnie Brae restaurant and runs into parking issues, “it’s going to likely deter them from going to that area.”

Alternatively, one larger market that’s performed very well during and after the COVID-19 pandemic is Cherry Creek, which has experienced a lot of traction in the food and beverage sectors.

These businesses “want to be next to other quality operators because it just drives more traffic,” he said. “They want healthy competition, and, when you have more people coming to an area, you’re more likely to see more transactions, more customers coming through your doors.”

Several staples in Bonnie Brae are standing strong. The Saucy Noodle Ristorante, established in 1964 at 727 S. University Blvd., is still churning out traditional Italian dishes, although a sign on the front door indicates the joint is only open Wednesday through Sunday because of staffing.

Campus Lounge has withstood the test of time since 1976, even as ownership has changed hands.

Bonnie Brae Ice Cream at 799 S. University Blvd. opened in the 1980s.

Pink’s Denver, a boutique at 745 S. University Blvd., got a slightly later start in 2005. On her last day as manager Wednesday, Bergen Schmidt predicted that the neighborhood will grow into a more “urban” area.

Schmidt, who grew up in Observatory Park, has heard “mixed feelings” about the changes from community members.

“My parents, for instance – they’re kind of excited about it,” she said. “But, then, I know that a lot of people are like, ‘That’s such a bummer,’ because we know that it’s not going to be little Bonnie Brae anymore.”

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