The Lofty Life

Denver's lower downtown neighborhood -- LoDo to locals -- takes the mile-high city to a new level.

Cover Story

April 17, 2005|By Anne Chalfant | Anne Chalfant,KNIGHT RIDDER-TRIBUNE

It's Saturday, and we're sitting in a wooden booth at one of a dozen brew pubs burbling around Denver. A pleasant yeasty smell wafts from the microbrewery in back. My lunch partner wraps his hands around his deep-hued pint of special bitter, wearing that happy look guys get around beer.

The brew pub is in "LoDo" -- say "Low-doe" -- that's new lower downtown Denver, named in the Mr. Rogers-izing way cities name a newly rehabbed part of town.

LoDo deserves the friendly moniker, with Victorian street lamps and a village feeling created by a mile-long closed-off pedestrian mall lined with trees and flowerpots. Only prowling white buses are allowed on the mall. "Free Ride," both free and frequent, swoops to a stop at every corner, flinging doors wide to all comers.

I rode the Free Ride everywhere for three days, hopping off and walking only a few steps or a block in this restored historic district of 26 square blocks of brewpubs, restaurants, stores, museums, parks. There's no traffic, just buses, on the mall, although Denver's mounted police are allowed. The horses weren't doing their happy dance when I saw them. "They're afraid of the steam," the mounted officer said, pointing to the steaming manholes.

That's not to say it was cold during my January visit. Despite last week's blizzard, Denver is not often given to fits of snow or really cold temperatures, although that is common myth. The city is protected from most bursts of inclement weather by the Rocky Mountains to its west and boasts 300 sun days a year -- more than Miami.

Winter temperatures average 45 degrees, and golf courses don't close in winter. Denver, the mile-high city at 5,283 feet, is not in the mountains, as one might think, but rather on the high plains.

Ten years ago, the Rocky Mountains would be the reason you traveled to Colorado, for skiing or mountain sports, with Denver being little more than the gateway.

But now Denver has become a play date itself. For three days, I lived the LoDo lifestyle, with nothing low about it.

I ate dinner in one of the nation's top-rated new restaurants, Adega. I went to the theater in the nation's second-largest performing arts center. I gawked at the new wing of Denver's Modern Art Museum, the wing designed by Daniel Liebeskind, who won the bid for construction of the new World Trade Center space. And I considered taking up permanent residence in one of the comfy chairs at Tattered Cover, the nation's largest independent bookstore.

Village of imagination

Twenty years ago, when I lived in Colorado, this part of Denver was railroad yards and Victorian brick warehouses and a no man's land. But the residents of seven Colorado counties voted all kinds of taxes on themselves to create a Denver to suit their shopping and entertainment needs.

Three thousand residents moved into LoDo, with its many appealing Victorian warehouse conversions -- loft-style apartments custom-made for Pottery Barn trendies.

Combine this easy living with the city's 16th Street Mall and 650 miles of bicycle paths and parks -- and LoDo is like the village of the imagination. I found myself lingering at the windows of real estate offices, lusting after photos of the loftier lifestyle.

Of course, Denver's fame as a town for sports lovers is well-known, where baseball fans at Coors Field love to watch home runs fly to the moon -- traveling 9 percent farther in the city's 10 percent thinner air. The Denver Broncos are wildly popular, playing at Invesco Field at Mile High.

But enough about sports.

My friend from high school, Peggy Swanson, and I were eating lunch this day at the genteel Highland Gardens restaurant, charming with bright primroses on oak tables in a sunny Victorian house setting.

"I'm so glad you're not here to write a sports story about Denver," said Swanson, a Denver dentist who, like many a Coloradan, prefers acting out her own mountain sport. Lately it's rock climbing, which she gamely took up after coming home from work one day to find her husband had turned the living room into a rock climbing wall.

As we eat and yak, I'm fending off Peggy's invitation to try out their climbing gym, though I should since I'll be dining that night at Adega Restaurant and Wine Bar, whose chef was named one of the best in America by Food & Wine Magazine.

The variety of good restaurants in Denver is another big change. Today there are offerings for both the high-brow foodie crowd and the flannel-shirt set -- though, as with my friend Peggy, the two identities can be interchangeable.

Mountain merriment

I found myself switching identities often in Denver. The spare bed in my hotel room at the historic Brown Palace held strappy high-heeled shoes, hiking boots, ski jackets and slinky dresses, the schizophrenic trappings of the LoDo gal-about-town.

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