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As the Colorado Rockies wrap up celebrating their 30th anniversary, The Colorado Sun is taking an in-depth look at the team’s losing history and if there is hope for a turnaround. This four-part series breaks down the struggles and possible transformation.

>> Check out the full series

Long before Coors Field was built, the legendary El Chapultepec was a neighborhood beacon that drew jazz aficionados to Denver’s skid row.

As a high school kid in the early 1980s, jazz bassist Andrew Hudson snuck out of his house to hang out in front of the club at 20th and Market streets, hoping that Freddy Rodriguez, who played sax at the ‘Pec, would let him sit in with the band.

“It was the only building with a business license within three miles. There were only ramshackle buildings — not even sidewalks, just dirt,” Hudson said. “El Chapultepec was just this oasis in the urban desert where the smoke was as thick as you can imagine. It was cops mixing with crooks and businessmen and bums. Everybody was welcome there — and some of the finest jazz you could imagine.”

Around the same time Hudson was angling for gigs at El Chapultepec, geologist-turned-businessman John Hickenlooper was scouting a location for the state’s first brewpub. A former Pony Express building at 24th and Blake streets fit the bill, but it was in a rough part of town across from the Blake Street Homeless shelter. Hickenlooper, now a U.S. senator, abandoned the idea when he couldn’t get investors to step up to the plate.

In the summer of 1987, he found an abandoned building at 18th and Wynkoop streets where rent was cheaper — $1 per square foot per year for the 30,000-square-foot space. Today, the average lease rate for the micro market that encompasses the Wynkoop Brewing Company started by Hickenlooper is $51.50 per square foot annually, according to real estate firm CBRE.

Around 1990, it looked like Denver had a shot at getting a baseball team — the city just needed to build a ballpark. Hickenlooper favored a site to the south of where Ball Arena stands today.

Jazz saxophonist Freddy Rodriguez Sr. performs at El Chapultepec in Denver in 2011, with Andrew Hudson, center, playing bass guitar in the background. (Ernie Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I was really convinced that Lower Downtown could be a residential community and a baseball stadium would jeopardize it,” he said. “Luckily, nobody listened to me.”

Perhaps lucky for Denver as well as Hickenlooper, the city’s future mayor. When Coors Field opened in April 1995, the Wynkoop Brewery’s sales skyrocketed 50% and remained there into December — long after the Colorado Rockies played their last game of the season.

“It was a shot in the arm for every business there,” Hickenlooper said. “Everyone was ready and there was lots of competition — one bar or restaurant per block for five blocks to the south. Coors Field became the greatest marketing program anyone could ever imagine.

“Baseball was so new and exciting, and Denver was fighting against its image as a cow town.”

Coors Field sparked development in the immediate neighborhood as well as those surrounding it, just as projects sprung up after Baltimore built Oriole Park at Camden Yards — the ballpark it was modeled after. Cities like St. Louis also succeeded in revitalizing their downtowns with new ballparks that spurred development of sports-themed hangouts like Ballpark Village that draws people to the city as much as four hours before game time. 

Revival had started, but Coors field lit a fire

With the Mile High City’s skyline as a backdrop, the opening of Coors Field in Denver, shown in this 1995 aerial photo. (Mark Reis, AP Photo file)

While some credit Coors Field with spurring redevelopment in LoDo, others remember it differently.

“There was renovation going on, and people were slowly converting LoDo into a mixed-use area,” said Bill Mosher, who headed the Downtown Denver Partnership when the ballpark was developed. “Coors Field had an impact north of 18th. LoDo was pretty active up to the Wynkoop and Ice House buildings. It was stable and doing it on its own.”

Restaurants and bars started popping up north of 18th Street between Blake and Wazee streets. Multifamily projects rose along Blake, and in the past two decades, thousands of apartments, restaurants and bars have sprung up in the previously industrial River North neighborhood.

(Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Still, surface parking lots surrounded Coors Field, making the area less inviting for baseball fans — until the Rockies’ lease for the ballpark was up. At that time, the team’s ownership group negotiated a ground lease for the West Lot across from the $200 million ballpark at 20th and Wazee streets, paving the way for the development of McGregor Square.

Rockies co-owner and CEO Dick Monfort hoped another organization would step up to develop the property, but no one did, so he took it on himself. The land beneath McGregor Square, named for former team president Keli McGregor, who died while on a business trip for the team, is owned by the taxpayer-funded Denver Metropolitan Major League Baseball Stadium District. Under terms of a 99-year lease, the Rockies pay the district $2.5 million annually.

Squaring off the neighborhood

Today, McGregor Square offers 12 restaurants and bars, five retail outlets and the 182-room Rally Hotel as well as 103 condos and 200,000 square feet of office space — all circling a 17,000-square-foot plaza with a stadium-sized LED screen. 

“It’s happening in all sports. Anywhere there’s an arena, people are building a village around it,” Monfort said. “You want to have a little bit of control over the crowd before and after. You might as well benefit from the 90 games and five concerts you do.”

The project has been a home run. The Condos at McGregor Square sold for an average of $1,089 per square foot when they were being marketed for presale. Now, they are being resold for as much as $1,588 per square foot.

“It’s the exclusivity — you can’t reproduce this building,” said Kentwood City Properties broker Matt McNeill, who along with Kevin Garrett and Dee Chirafisi marketed the residential portion of the project.

Colorado Rockies co-owner Dick Monfort in the courtyard at McGregor Square in downtown Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The plaza is a gathering spot for residents and visitors who can be found watching a baseball game on the big screen when the Rockies are playing. Sports fans also have gathered in the plaza for watch parties when the Avalanche and Nuggets won their championships. And it’s not just used for spectator sports — during the winter months, the plaza is converted into an ice rink.

The one strike against McGregor Square has been the COVID-19 pandemic that forced businesses to abandon their offices as people worked from home to slow the spread of the deadly virus. Many of those workers have not returned to the office, which has had a big impact on the restaurants and retail businesses in the complex. Carmine’s on McGregor Square, for example, found that offering lunch didn’t make sense because too few people work in offices in the neighborhood.

“Even though we’re fully occupied with tenants in the office building, they’re not 100% in the office,” Monfort said. “What we expected to be 1,500 to 2,000 employees is a percentage of that.”

Just as in the 1980s when Denver’s homelessness issue threw up roadblocks for Hickenlooper’s brewery project, McGregor Square’s neighbors to the east are largely homeless encampments. Although it’s a black eye on an otherwise sterling project, the developer has taken measures to ensure visitors and residents are comfortable there.

Hundreds of cameras monitor the complex, and roaming security guards move people who don’t belong there along.

 “This is private property, so there’s not a homeless problem,” McNeill said.

Getting back the swag

While McGregor Square filled a big hole in the area around Coors Field, plenty of development opportunities are still available in the neighborhood.

A parking lot to the north of Coors Field could be the next major undertaking. The deal likely would be structured in much the same way as McGregor Square, but it’s too soon to tell who might be interested in developing a large-scale project.

“We have no plans,” said Monfort, who has two sons who work in the Rockies’ front office. “It won’t be me. It may be Monforts, but it won’t be this Monfort.”

The El Chapultepec building near Coors Field was sold last fall to Kenneth Monfort. The club was for years the only active business in the neighborhood where the ballpark grew up. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Another generation of the Monfort family also is working in the area. Kenneth Monfort, Dick Monfort’s nephew, is the developer behind Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row, which he sold for $24 million in 2022. He bought the El Chapultepec and Giggling Grizzly properties at 1962 Market St. and 1320 20th St. in November — the same day he broke ground on Riot House, a restaurant and bar under construction at 1920 Market St.

Kenneth Monfort said he focuses on the Ballpark neighborhood because it’s where he can have the most impact. But it doesn’t come without its challenges.

“There are a disproportionate amount of historic buildings, and organizations like to preserve them,” he said. “We’ve done a nice job of being thoughtful around that and preserving the facades, but it adds a layer of complexities and costs.”

Anywhere there’s an arena, people are building a village around it.

— Dick Monfort, Rockies co-owner and CEO

If he expands his scope beyond the Ballpark neighborhood to the 24-block area surrounding Coors Field, Monfort would encounter a new set of challenges — surface parking lots that have been passed down through generations and now have as many as 15 partners.

“That makes it difficult to get a deal done,” he said. “That’s been a barrier to entry for developers like us.”

Kenneth Monfort, owner and director of Monfort Companies, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

While Coors Field has been a catalyst for redevelopment in the surrounding area, it’s crucial to consider how it benefits downtown as a whole, said Wellington Webb, who was Denver’s mayor at the time the ballpark was built. 

While some cities, like Chicago and New York, have their sports teams scattered throughout the metro area, Denver is fortunate — and smart — to have the Broncos, Avalanche, Nuggets and Rockies all in the city’s center and accessible by public transportation. 

“We need our sports teams downtown to provide that core for the city,” Webb said. “Coors Field was the last important piece put into the downtown development.”

Webb, who is concerned that the Broncos’ new ownership may relocate the football team out of the city, said the pandemic dealt a blow to downtown when remote work took people out of the city center and the homeless population exploded, it’s important to improve safety to get activity to return. 

“We need to make sure our city is safe in every neighborhood — especially downtown,” he said. “Let’s get the swag back.”

Margaret Jackson is a Denver-based freelance writer with expertise in the real estate and cannabis industries.