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On the morning of May 1, 2021, David Prebble’s phone rang. His wife, sounding shaky and panicked, begged him to get to their Larimer Square storefront.
During the night, a fire had broken out in the building and burned a neighboring business’ interior before firefighters were able to douse the flames at 3:36 a.m. But now, Veronica told her husband, the inside of Victoriana Antique and Fine Jewelry, the couple’s boutique specializing in 19th- and 20th-century estate and designer jewelry, smelled heavily of smoke.
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The couple’s insurance company would eventually value the smoke damage in the shop at $60,000, but upon reaching the store that day, Prebble’s first instinct wasn’t to call his insurer; he wanted to get ahold of his property manager to find out why he hadn’t been alerted about the fire. By 10:30 a.m., no one from Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL)—the multinational corporation that now manages Larimer Square—had contacted him. When Prebble finally reached someone, the property manager said JLL was aware of the fire and had been trying to contact all affected Larimer Square tenants, including the owner of Victoriana.
“I said, ‘I’m the fucking tenant!’ ” Prebble says.
He was incredulous—especially after verifying that Larimer Square’s security office had his emergency contact information on file. On top of that, there was only one other tenant who operated a business adjacent to where the blaze had broken out. How difficult could it have been for anyone at JLL to reach him?
The more Prebble thought about it, though, the more he realized he shouldn’t have expected a high level of client care: In nearly five months, no one from JLL, nor the North Carolina–based investment firm Asana Partners, which had purchased Larimer Square for $92.5 million in December 2020 and hired JLL to be its property manager, had stepped into his shop to introduce themselves. He might not have noticed the inattention, Prebble says, had Larimer Square’s previous landlords and property managers not been so personable and communicative during the roughly two decades he and Veronica had operated Victoriana along the block.
Prebble says he’d had an inkling that the absentee style of management did not bode well for shops like his. The fire bolstered that belief. Grumbling among tenants that Asana Partners had been avoiding discussions about renewing leases or, in other cases, asking for rents that were as much as double what tenants had been paying didn’t inspire confidence, either. But not even Prebble imagined that, in the coming year, things would get so bad between him and the new owners that he’d decide to leave Denver’s storied shopping district—and that he wouldn’t be the only one to do so.
Larimer Square was Denver’s first commercial block and even housed the first City Hall before a flood washed the building away in 1864. Over the past century, the stretch of Larimer Street between 14th and 15th streets has gone through as many booms and busts as greater Denver has—including a period in the mid-1950s when Larimer Street developed a reputation for seedy flophouses, giving the Denver Urban Renewal Authority justification to target the block for demolition. In a forward-thinking business move that’s been cemented into modern Denver lore, developer Dana Crawford and her husband, John, pulled together a group of investors to create Larimer Square Associates in 1963 and, by buying all the buildings on the block, ultimately saved them from the wrecking ball.
Crawford’s vision transformed the block. Inspired by preservation projects in St. Louis’ Gaslight Square and San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square, in the spring of 1965 she began hiring local brick- and stonemasons, woodworkers, and other craftsmen to renovate the insides of 23 brick structures constructed between 1875 and 1900. Crawford then populated the buildings with a variety of tenants—restaurants, retail shops, galleries, and boutiques, plus offices on the upper floors. Larimer Square’s revival helped bolster a national preservation movement, and within two decades, the area emerged as one of the defining attractions of the Mile High City—and remained so even after Crawford’s investment group sold it for $14.5 million to San Diego–based developer Hahn Company in 1986. Today, it’s difficult to imagine downtown without the iconic anchor, a stately shopping and dining district illuminated by overhead strings of twinkling Edison bulbs.
But the romantic atmosphere and chic window displays belie a threatening reality: Larimer’s buildings have grown tired and creaky. The rear half of the 143-year-old Sussex Building, at 1426 to 1430 Larimer Street, is slowly sinking. The mortar in many of the structures’ brick facades is crumbling. And, up and down the block, the architectural relics are outfitted with outdated electrical wiring and inefficient heating and cooling infrastructure. The whole block is in need of significant repairs—up to $60 million worth, according to a previous manager of the square.
Realizing this need, in 2018 then Larimer Square owner and Colorado resident Jeff Hermanson (who acquired the property from Hahn in 1993) and a company he brought on to help manage it, Urban Villages, announced a proposal to tackle those renovations while also attaching additions to the backs of some of the buildings—essentially lopping off their rear ends and erecting glassy, high-rise apartments and office spaces that would loom over the street. Raising capital for the additions would have paid for the repairs, but because Larimer Square is a designated historical district, Hermanson first needed design approval from the city.
The proposal fizzled. Preservationists and nonprofits, including Historic Denver, an organization Crawford co-founded in 1970, successfully argued against Hermanson’s plan, saying it went too far in changing the historical character of the area. Then, when the pandemic hit in March 2020, all renovation plans were placed on hold as Hermanson reduced rents and worked to keep tenants—particularly the locally owned businesses he’d brought to the square—solvent in the face of stay-at-home orders and decreased foot traffic.
Many Larimer Square shopkeepers had speculated that Hermanson (who declined to be interviewed for this story) would eventually sell the square to Urban Villages. But in a surprise move, it was Asana Partners, a real estate investment firm based in Charlotte, North Carolina, that announced in December 2020 it had bought the block from Hermanson. The purchase represented a dramatic shift in ownership from a local proprietor to an out-of-state interest. Still, some saw a potential upside: Larimer Square’s acquisition by a moneyed company offered hope that the old buildings would get the expensive engineering and infrastructure repairs they needed.
“We are honored to be the next steward of this iconic portfolio,” an Asana executive said in a statement at the time. “We plan to invest the necessary capital to both restore and preserve the historic nature of these buildings within their existing footprint and improve the spaces to meet the expectations of today’s retail and creative office tenants.”
That initial proclamation sounded promising to longtime tenants, but the reality of Asana’s stewardship over the past 27 months has been marked with tension. The primary issues, according to numerous current and former tenants, have been Asana’s poor communication around its future plans as well as its seeming indifference to the legacies of homegrown stores and restaurants that helped turn the street into a celebration of Denver entrepreneurship.
Asana Partners and JLL both declined to be interviewed for this article. Asana instead provided 5280 with the following written statement: “Since acquisition, we’ve been working through the design and approval process to restore and preserve Larimer Square for the long-term, and we have worked diligently with community stakeholders to finalize our restoration plan. We have invested several million dollars in historic preservation efforts to date, and the next stage of renovations include structural, mechanical, and electrical upgrades that require the temporary dislocation of existing tenants. We continue to work on relocation options with impacted tenants to facilitate these important upgrades and in a number of cases, successfully came to terms with local tenants to maintain their presence in Larimer Square. We understand there are many factors that go into long-term business decisions for all parties. Our primary goal remains to preserve and enhance Larimer Square’s unique vibrancy long into the future.”
While 2021 presented warning signs about Asana’s management style, it was an unnerving discovery in February 2022 that turned tension into panic. “There was a brochure that came out for [commercial leasing] brokers with all these plans for the square,” Prebble says. “It caused a big stir.” The online brochure, which listed Asana Partners and JLL as contacts, included a map showing retail spaces that were available for lease—including spaces that were already occupied by tenants who had no intention of leaving the square. “Our name was not on there,” Prebble says of the map, “and they had my space going from 850 [square feet] to 4,200 or 4,500 square feet.”
The reconfigured and enlarged retail footprints drawn on the map revealed some of Asana’s plans for renovating the buildings; just as revealing, however, was a merchandising plan that suggested that national clothing store Heyday, LA-based fast-casual restaurant Sweetgreen, and chain beauty parlor DryBar might move into the spaces on the block, rather than local, independent businesses. Concerned, some tenants began calling JLL and Asana to ask why their places of business were listed as available for rent and replaced with generic names like “Unit F.” Those tenants say neither JLL nor Asana responded directly to their questions and concerns. Weeks later, the documents were no longer available online.
Although Larimer Square developed a reputation for prioritizing locally owned boutiques and restaurants under Hermanson, it hasn’t always been that way. When Crawford managed the square, she filled some storefronts with homegrown businesses—including ones she started herself, like the Market—but she also brought in national tenants, including Williams-Sonoma, Ann Taylor, Laura Ashley, and Talbots. Although not everyone is happy that Asana’s marketing plan suggests things may be swinging back in the direction of chains, Kourtny Garrett, the president and CEO of nonprofit business organization Downtown Denver Partnership (DDP), says having more national outlets isn’t a bad thing. “A mix [of local businesses] with nationals is important,” Garrett says. “Nationals provide a stable anchor from an economic perspective.”
Economic stability has, of course, been in short supply lately. Whether or not Denverites think they want chains on Larimer, Garrett says they draw foot traffic—something that’s particularly important because downtown is still seeing only about half of the daytime traffic it did before the pandemic. That’s despite recent efforts to make its dining and shopping districts more appealing to pedestrians, including the city’s closure of Larimer Square to vehicles.
Since that blockade, which started in summer 2020, DDP has measured higher restaurant revenues and foot traffic on Larimer Square compared with other areas of downtown. The success of the effort has led to discussions between DDP and the city to preserve the closure indefinitely, a move that would mean erecting semipermanent barricades to replace the bright orange signs that currently adorn the block’s entrances.
As for issues between the square’s tenants and Asana? “We’ve definitely heard the narrative,” Garrett says, “but I haven’t spoken with Asana.”
Mary Eckels tried to speak with JLL, many times. A metal artist who’d owned Gustermans Silversmiths—which opened on Larimer in 1965 and was the last original tenant of Crawford’s Larimer Square—since 1978, Eckels surprised even herself when she decided at the beginning of 2022 not to renew her lease. She says she made the decision because of the lack of communication from JLL when she reached out after receiving invoices—in addition to her typical rent statements—with line items she’d never seen before and didn’t understand. “The descriptions were very vague,” Eckels says. “They were things like ‘other income.’ ”
Throughout 2021, Eckels says she asked Asana or JLL to explain the extraneous charges, but it was always a challenge to get a human being on the phone. When she finally succeeded in obtaining paperwork that supposedly explained the bills, “the ledger they sent me copies of was unclear and convoluted,” she says.
By the time Eckels had racked up more than $3,000 in bills she says no one could properly explain, she’d had enough. “I gave them my notice that I was going to vacate at the end of my lease, and they did come back to me with an offer to stay in my spot,” Eckels says. “The rate would’ve been the same for one year, and then it would’ve increased by about 30 percent. And I thought, I don’t get along with these guys well enough to want to put myself into that position. With Asana, there’s no affinity between the landlord and the tenant. And that was something that had been really important in Larimer Square.”
At Victoriana, Prebble was having problems with his landlord that went beyond poor communication and unexplained charges. A month after the brochure debacle, he received a letter from JLL asking him to move to a new location on the block so Asana could renovate and expand his current unit. Prebble says he might have been fine with relocating had his landlord granted him a comparable storefront. Instead, the retail space to which Asana asked him to move featured a narrow, bottlenecked entryway that funneled into a small room. “From a jeweler’s standpoint,” he says, “that’s a great place to get held up, with limited visibility from the street.”
When Prebble pointed this out to Asana—and the company failed to present him with better options for relocation—he, too, made the decision to leave the square by September 3, 2022. After Gustermans Silversmiths, Victoriana Fine and Antique Jewelry was the oldest store on the block, having been established by Crawford herself in 1977. But the direction Larimer was heading wasn’t something Prebble wanted to be a part of.
He wasn’t alone: An exodus was underway. By mid-2022, fine jewelry store John Atencio left Larimer Square after having spent 39 years on the block. According to its namesake owner, “with so many tenants leaving, we were a little skittish about our security.” And like Victoriana, Atencio says he was asked to move his store to a different space to accommodate construction, which he wasn’t interested in doing. “We hated leaving because we’ve been there so long,” Atencio says. But the jeweler, which has five other locations in Colorado, says he hasn’t ruled out returning to Larimer Square when renovations are completed.
A return to Larimer Square does not look like it’s in Bistro Vendôme’s future, however. In September, the operators of the French restaurant, which had served customers its traditional bistro fare since 2003, announced the restaurant would relocate to Park Hill after a final brunch service on January 1. “We could have moved into the [former] TAG space or something like that,” says Beth Gruitch, co-proprietor of Crafted Concepts, which owns Bistro Vendôme and Rioja, another popular restaurant on the square. “But relocating there would’ve been temporary. It would’ve been a two-year deal, and we just didn’t find the benefit in that.”
Gruitch says that she and James Beard Award–winning chef Jennifer Jasinski, who co-owns Crafted Concepts with Gruitch, had been looking to open a restaurant in a residential location like Park Hill. Even so, it was difficult to have to give up the charming courtyard space in Larimer Square.
They are, however, cautiously optimistic about Asana. “In the long run, the vision for what Asana has going on is amazing. I think it’s going to be incredible in about two years,” Gruitch says, though she admits details from Asana haven’t been forthcoming. “There are no town halls to say, ‘Here are the updates,’ or, ‘Here’s what’s going on,’ by any means,” she says. “I feel like we’re constantly requesting phone calls to stay informed.” At least in Gruitch’s case, the landlord sometimes answered them.
Asana Partners was founded in 2015, and in less than a decade, the private equity firm has acquired at least 7.7 million square feet of leasable space in 25 cities across the United States. In Denver, that includes more than just Larimer Square: Over the past two years, the company has also spent tens of millions to acquire the Hardware Block on Wazee Street in LoDo and numerous properties along Tennyson Street in the Berkeley neighborhood. The real estate investment firm’s highest-profile assets, however, reside outside the Centennial State.
In 2017, Asana Partners paid $108 million for some of the most prime real estate in Harvard Square, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The triangle-shaped plaza, framed by old brick buildings filled with boutiques, restaurants, and bookstores, has been the economic epicenter for Harvard University students and locals alike since before the United States was a country. Just like the unfolding situation in Larimer Square, though, Asana’s relationships with some of Harvard Square’s existing tenants have reportedly been less than cordial.
In May 2020, Harvard University’s college paper, the Harvard Crimson, published a lengthy article detailing how Asana’s acquisition of key real estate assets in Harvard Square had already changed the nature of the shopping district. The newspaper noted that five locally owned businesses—including Crema Cafe, a beloved coffeeshop—had already left Asana’s buildings, with some tenants complaining that the firm had tried to increase their rents well beyond what they could pay. The Crimson also observed that every new tenant Asana actually leased spaces to between 2017 and May 2020 had been a national or international retail chain, including Patagonia and Ray-Ban. One displaced storeowner told the Crimson he understood the business reality of the situation: “They’re going to lease to whoever pays the top dollar…and I respect that. That’s the way life is.” Other Harvard Square tenants were less gracious and claimed Asana was “aloof” and “out of touch.” Most everyone agreed that the character of Harvard Square was shifting fast.
The nature of Larimer Square continued to evolve as 2022 progressed, too. Papered-over storefronts proliferated along the block.Clothing stores Moda Man and Pendleton Woolen Mills both relocated their shops to other Denver locations, and locally owned ice cream shop Hidden Gems shut its doors. Some of those vacancies were (and still are) likely construction-related, but with at least 10 empty units facing Larimer Street in fall 2022, Prebble brought up the potential of so-called high-rent blight, a term used when a landlord will let a unit sit vacant until it finds a tenant willing to match the rent demands. Two more looming vacancies were added to the list in October, when local restaurateurs Frank and Jacqueline Bonanno announced that their underground speakeasy, Green Russell, and the adjoining Russell’s Smokehouse would be closing after New Year’s Eve because Asana needed the spaces for renovations.
The Bonannos say that having to close the 12-year-old businesses, both of which were profitable, was disappointing after pouring so much energy and time into making them work. But they were more concerned about the 67 employees who had cooked in the kitchen, waited tables, and tended bar for them—all of whom they say they offered to relocate to their other restaurants to save their jobs. While the Bonannos knew the closures were a distinct possibility—Asana had put them on a month-to-month lease after their previous lease ran out in May 2021—the couple says talks with Asana about staying on the block by opening different concepts have been exercises in futility.
Jacqueline says there were discussions with Asana about the possibility of opening a bar or restaurant in the old Crimson Room space at the corner of 14th Street. But after the couple pushed back on rent quotes they believed were too high, she says Asana promptly informed them it had found another operator for the space. (In January, the Denver Post reported that L.A.-based hospitality group Pouring With Heart will open a cocktail bar there.) The Bonannos also prepared an elaborate proposal to revive a historic bar on the second floor of one of Larimer Square’s buildings, but the plan went nowhere. Instead, a young Asana representative counterpitched the Bonannos about opening a restaurant in a totally different location—one that happened to be next door to four restaurants the Bonannos already own in Capitol Hill. “He didn’t even know the names of any of our four restaurants on that block,” Jacqueline says. “Personally, I’m kind of wounded to have a conversation with someone who’s half my age who’s so glib about displacing us [from Larimer Square].”
She likened the situation to the hedge fund that bought the Denver Post. “Is the Post better off now that a major conglomerate purchased it?” she asks rhetorically. “Larimer Square is special, and this is something really unique, and it defines our city.”
Both Green Russell and Russell’s Smokehouse shut their doors on January 1—the same day as Bistro Vendôme. At least for now, the Bonannos still have a presence on the square with their Italian restaurant, Osteria Marco, which has about five years left on its lease. “We would love to see Osteria be there for another 15 years,” says Frank, who is hoping for productive lease renewal negotiations.
Still, the Bonannos have been left to ponder Asana’s approach. Frank wonders if rents eventually will climb so high that it creates rapid restaurant turnover. Another possibility, he says, is that Asana fills its restaurant spaces with chain eateries that can operate on thin margins. “I’m sure Asana did not spend all of this money without having a vision of what they want to do,” he says. “It’s just a matter of whether they’re sharing it with us and who’s included in that vision.”
One place to look for answers is the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission. Because Larimer Square is a designated historical district—the city’s first, in fact—Asana must secure the commission’s approval for any construction or demolition plans that concern the exteriors of the buildings or that could alter their historical character. On August 16, architects hired by Asana unveiled a number of blueprints to widen the entryway of the Kettle Arcade building as well as to put rooftop additions on the Lincoln and Buerger buildings—the latter being part of a broader effort to open up office floor plans along the block and add alluring amenities to the buildings that might attract office tenants with more employees.
The commission conditionally approved all of the plans on August 16, but not before Crawford called into the public meeting and, much as she did when Hermanson presented his plans in 2018, voiced her concerns. The grand dame of Larimer was specifically disquieted by how some of the mocked-up architectural renderings appeared to show more bars and restaurants populating the block—a move the now 91-year-old preservationist icon opposes. Crawford explained that she doesn’t want Larimer Square to end up filled with so many bars that it turns into a facsimile of the area around Coors Field.
Even so, Crawford struck a sanguine tone a few months later. She says she’s giving Asana Partners the benefit of the doubt that it will honor Larimer Square’s “philosophical basis,” the desire that she and other investors originally had to preserve not just the architectural character of the block but also its history as a thriving commercial district that appeals to all Denverites, including families. And while she admitted that she “shed tears” when she heard about Victoriana closing and that she’s “sick about Gustermans, too,” she now says her comments at the August 16 meeting were premature. “I think that maybe the stuff that went to the city group was pushed a little before its time,” she says. “I had to give myself a lecture because I was getting really upset. I had to say, ‘Things change, Dana. They can’t just stay the same.’ ”
Since the last time Eckels stepped out of Gustermans Silversmiths’ old storefront last spring, she hasn’t gone back to Larimer Square. She says she can’t bring herself to do it—not with how much it’s changing. “I do miss those days when Larimer was a little more innocent,” she says. She misses the days of the Denver Chalk Art Festival and holidays when the street was full of folks enjoying the lively atmosphere. She misses the times when store owners would visit each other’s businesses as friends. “They’re messing with what makes it special,” she says of Asana. “What they should do is be faithful custodians and fix it up and make it really glorious and put in some really brilliant entrepreneurs.”
Yet Eckels knows all too well that some of those brilliant entrepreneurs—and potential future ones—are already gone or planning to leave. One of them had worked for Victoriana. Prebble says he had planned to sell his business to his store manager, Zach Burk, who was employed at the jewelry store for 12 years. After Victoriana had a going-out-of-business sale in August, Prebble says Burk seemed resigned to maybe opening an antique jewelry business in another state. “That’s part of the real hurt with this whole thing,” Prebble says of his protégé. “It affects him more than it did me.”
Now both Victoriana and Gustermans Silversmiths have changed their business models, their storefronts swapped for web pages that encourage customers to set up private appointments. This is not what Prebble nor Eckels ever envisioned for 2023. “I feel like I’ve been done wrong,” Prebble says.
His greater concern, however, is for Larimer Square. “It’s not going to disappear—and it’s going to be restored,” he says. But if the square gets taken over by more national and international chains? “I just don’t think there’ll be anything unique about it,” he says. Until Asana is willing to share more of its plans, Prebble—like everyone else—is going to have to wait and see.