The vacant rooms of several dilapidated motels sitting on Denver’s historic Colfax Avenue won’t gather dust for much longer, as real estate developers and city officials hope to breathe new life into the neglected properties as apartments, affordable housing and more.
The question facing those projects is this: Can they revamp the rundown properties while also providing much-needed housing that serves the surrounding neighborhoods?
Colfax Avenue is an example of the duality of a modern-day American city. The 154-year-old street is dotted with both shuttered businesses – Pete’s Greek Town Cafe, Little Beast Street Food and Paradise Cleaners among them – and hot spots, including restaurants and bars. As cars zoom east and west, the sidewalks are filled with people: students, shoppers, encampments of people experiencing homelessness and more.
Colfax is the longest commercial street in the nation, as it runs through Aurora, Denver, Lakewood and Golden for nearly 27 miles and extends further to hit small towns to the east. As part of U.S. 40, Colfax, along with the rest of the country, saw a boost in automobile traffic in the 1950s, necessitating its motels and restaurants. However, Interstate 70 directed traffic away from the area and thus some of the business that drove its development.
Still, Colfax has retained much of its character: its mid-century neon signs, graffiti art, music venues and clusters of motels. The Colfax Avenue Museum’s website lists over 350 former and current motels.
Several of those motels sit abandoned in various states of decay — for now.
Motels “take on new lives”
The La Vista Motel at 5500 E. Colfax Ave. in Denver is gated off, with its doors and windows boarded up. The eye-catching red property, which earned 2.4 out of 5 stars on Google Review for allegations of rats, roaches and disrepair, claims a sad history. Last year, a man was fatally shot at the motel.
New owner Nathan Beal said the motel’s checkered past is “part of the story of it.”
In June, his company La Vista Denver LLC purchased it for about $1.8 million, according to public records. His first foray into motel conversion, Beal aims to turn the building constructed in 1956 into an apartment complex made up of mostly studio units.
“Our plan is to restore the motel close to what it looked like in the early 1960s,” he said. “I’d hate for Colfax to lose some of its charm from that era that clearly defined it as a motor vacation thoroughfare.”
He’s in the initial stages of creating concepts with his architect. “When people go to it, they’ll clearly know it’s not a scary place anymore,” Beal said.
Lauren McCain, a nearby resident of over two decades, called the La Vista Motel “an institution,” but hopes the property improves from its current iteration. She said neighbors worry about criminal activity, adding that the motel is a hot bed for police dispatches.
McCain said it used to be popular among sex workers, then turned into a spot for drug transactions. She’d like to see either housing or a playground built in the space.
Constructed in 1933, the Ahwahnee Motel at 8500 E. Colfax Ave. also sits empty – but not for long, according to property developer Alison Shunneson. The former motel received 3.2 out of 5 stars on Google Review. It, too, was the site of a fatal shooting last March.
Shunneson purchased the property for almost $2.8 million this March, according to public records. She plans to turn it into an apartment complex, and hopes to welcome renters next fall.
Shunneson recently transformed the former Branding Iron Motel – also known as the Brandin’ Iron Motor Lodge – at 8600 E. Colfax Ave. into the Brandin’ Iron Apartments. In 2019, she acquired the property built in 1951 for about $2.3 million, public records show. It opened for tenants during the COVID-19 pandemic in the latter half of 2020.
“I’m always looking for something that I can fix up,” said Shunneson, who first began buying multi-family buildings in the Denver area in 2014. She learned about adaptive reuse, which is the renovation and reuse of pre-existing structures for new purposes, and was drawn to both its environmental benefits and the ability to keep “people of all socioeconomic backgrounds in the city of Denver.”
After settling on the Branding Iron Motel, she met with the city planning team and found that “this really fell in line with what they wanted to be done.” Shunneson bought the property in “not good” condition, encountering threadbare carpets, bed bugs, cockroaches and broken fixtures.
Now, the description for the Brandin’ Iron Apartments on apartments.com calls it “a safe, clean and fun environment to live in,” with 32 studios, three one-bedrooms and one two-bedroom in contemporary industrial farmhouse-style. The monthly rents range from $850 to $1350, according to the website of Shunneson’s company, Runt Bro Management.
The East Colfax Neighborhood Association, which prioritizes sign preservation along the street, pointed to the Brandin’ Iron Apartments as “a great example” of the practice, as it refinished the old motel sign.
“We as a board would love to see as many of the old signs preserved as the motels take on new lives,” wrote president Danielle Shepard in an email. She said the association would like to see “some basic updates” in the neighborhood with the addition of a library, grocery store or recreation center.
Other motel sites have been razed completely to make way for new buildings, as in the case of the former Ramada by Wyndham Denver Downtown hotel at 1150 E. Colfax Ave. Built in 1962, demolition of the hotel kicked off in March, with plans to construct a mixed-use development project in its place, 9News reported.
Denver City Council President Jamie Torres worries that leveling these old motels to build new apartments will lead to gentrification in the area, as “it is categorically going to be more expensive.”
While the new residences will address the broader housing crisis, the move also “turns more people on the street who can’t afford a regular apartment,” instead of offering that population “a more accessible option,” Torres said. “I don’t know if that actually helps our affordable housing crisis.”
In the case of real estate developers opting for renovation over demolition, she said, it’s still “certainly not serving the folks who have been there who need housing.”
She said many of the active motels are operating as lucrative businesses because they’re “last-resort options” for week-to-week guests who are barred from typical apartment living because of deposits, background checks and other hurdles.
“For a long time, they have been a very important source of housing for very vulnerable populations of people in our community,” whether as formal motels or temporary shelters for people experiencing homelessness, said Hilarie Portell, executive director of the Colfax Mayfair Business Improvement District. “Some of them could be retained for that purpose with renovations and supportive services on site.”
If a portion of motels are dedicated to that cause, then she’s open to others being redeveloped into retro, market-rate apartments. “We don’t have enough housing in our city; we know that now.”
Blake Kraus, an employee of a Colfax Avenue business, said, in place of abandoned motels, he wants to see affordable housing or spaces to serve people experiencing homelessness.
“Why should it sit vacant when people need housing here in Denver?” he asked. “When we have the real estate and opportunity to do something about it, we should do something about it.”
Public-private partnerships and policy interventions would be crucial in accomplishing this goal, Kraus added.
A vision for Colfax’s future
Aurora doesn’t have any abandoned hotels or motels along Colfax, said deputy director of communications Ryan Luby. But the city was the home of the now-infamous Manor House Motel at 12700 E. Colfax Ave., in which former owner Gerald Foos spied on guests having sex for decades.
East Colfax had a long history of prostitution, made possible in part by many of the motels that now sit abandoned, but it’s not nearly as prevalent today as in the past.
Certain sections of the thoroughfare have maintained a reputation of being high-crime neighborhoods. Recent crimes have made it difficult for the area to shed that perception.
Ma Kaing, an East Colfax community leader and restaurateur, was killed in July when a stray bullet from a gunfight hit her. In late June, a knife attack occurred on a bus driving down on East Colfax between Ogden and Downing streets, leaving the victim with several stab wounds. A 47-year-old man was found dead from a gunshot wound at the Radiant Inn at 10950 E. Colfax Ave. in March.
This year, East Colfax ranks 29th in violent crimes per 1,000 residents out of Denver’s 78 neighborhoods, while West Colfax occupies the 42nd spot. Both East and West Colfax are among the Mile High City’s neighborhoods with the least access to opportunity and most vulnerability to involuntary displacement, according to Blueprint Denver, a citywide land use and transportation plan.
Officials have a vision for the street’s future – beginning with the East Colfax Corridor Bus Rapid Transit project. The major infrastructure project is scheduled to provide bus service to the public starting in 2028.
The project team is reconvening a community task force, which represents Denver and Aurora businesses, neighborhoods and others, and getting feedback from the public.
The community wants to make Colfax “a more pedestrian-friendly and walkable place,” said Curt Upton, Denver city planning manager. “A lot of people told us that Colfax felt like something that divides their neighborhood and a place they didn’t want to spend time,” because of noise, speeding traffic and crime.
Thus far, the Mile High City has accumulated $55 million for the BRT project through the Elevate Denver Bond Program, along with $20 million in voter-approved funds for pedestrian improvements on Colfax.
“What I see is many more people walking along the sidewalks along Colfax, many more people going to Colfax as a destination,” Upton said, picturing “more of a lively place that feels safer.”
He mentioned the idea of creating an international district in East Colfax that expands and uplifts the neighborhood’s social diversity.
The former Aristocrat Motor Hotel at 4855 W. Colfax Ave. is a “good example of preserving the vintage architecture of Colfax while also addressing a top priority in neighborhood plans — the shortage of affordable housing,” Upton said. It’s now the Volunteers of America Family Motel, which works with the Denver Department of Human Services to provide shelter to families, veterans and respite care guests.
Upton also highlighted the opportunity to use “creative repurposing” on abandoned motels. One instance is the former 7 Star Motel at 8400 E. Colfax Ave., which was transformed into Night Window, the city’s first affordable artist housing development.
He said plans are in the works for the former All Inn Motel at 3015 E. Colfax Ave., which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Upton said the property owner’s goal “is to preserve the building,” add businesses to the ground floor and construct another portion of motel on the parking lot.
The city’s plan encompasses the avenue’s motels, ultimately dictating a balance between redevelopment and preservation, Upton said.
“There’s a strong opinion by the community to not lose the history entirely of Colfax.”
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