The customers eating soul food at the Welton Street Cafe are changing as developers add new buildings and new faces to Denver’s historic Five Points neighborhood.
Those stopping into 2736 Welton St. for fried chicken and collard greens tend to be younger and, frankly, whiter, than the people who typically filled the Southern and Caribbean food restaurant’s booths and tables during the last 15 years.
“Just four years ago, I was asked who I thought was going to keep us in business. I said ‘black folks all day long.’ But now it’s like, ‘Hold on, I have some white folks who are my regulars,'” Fathima Dickerson said.
Dickerson runs Welton Street Cafe with her mom Mona Dickerson — or Ms. Mona as she’s known in Five Points. The Dickersons say the same forces pushing customers into their doors will probably eventually push the Welton Street Cafe out of its location near the heart of Five Points.
“We’re here now, that’s all I can say,” Fathima Dickerson said. “The blessing about having this place is we can go anywhere. We don’t have to be on Welton Street.”
In recent years, renewed revitalization efforts to improve Welton from Broadway to Downing Street have brought new apartments, businesses and residents to the area. That development also brought rising property values and rents as well as questions about the future of one of Denver’s oldest and most culturally significant areas.
Because of racist political policies and business practices, African-Americans in Denver were forced to live in Five Points and the nearby Whittier neighborhood for decades. The concentration of black residents turned the area into a culturally significant spot filled with family-run businesses, jazz joints and entertainment venues.
People from the neighborhood are working to preserve Welton Street’s past while also addressing the reality that the end of legal segregation allowed African-Americans to move out of the area and started a steady decline for Five Points and the Welton Street Corridor.
The latest attempt to improve the corridor comes from the Five Point Business Improvement District. The district or BID was approved by the Denver City Council on May 31 and plans to ask 42 property owners along the corridor to tax themselves to improve and promote the area.
“Basically, the BID is to get all the business owners up and down Welton to have a unified message,” said Paul Books, head of the BID board and president of Palisade Partners.
Commercial property owners along the corridor will vote in November on whether to accept the new tax. If they do, the BID is estimated to get $157,00 in 2017.
The money could help fund cleaning up graffiti, picking up trash and marketing the area. Down the line, the district could pay for security guards, similar to the ones recently added to 16th Street Mall, Books said.
“You just don’t want people hanging outside of your business shooting dice and that kind of thing,” Books said. “The security is about telling people, ‘Keep moving, keep moving. This is a place of business.'”
Books plans to open the five-story, 82-room Wheatley apartment building in mid-September at the southern corner of Welton and 25th streets. He recently announced plans for an even larger project a block away.
The Lydian is expected to be eight stories and 129 units at 2560 Welton St. Construction is expected to wrap up during fall 2017.
Together the two buildings will add 40 new affordable housing units to Welton Street, Books said.
Down the street, Century Development’s four-story Welton Park Apartments are expected to open this fall and introduce 195 affordable units to 2300 Welton St. A three-story building in the complex will add another 28 units at 515 Park Avenue West.
“There’s $300 million in development happening right now in the area. We have cranes up and down — up and down — Welton Street so it’s completely different than it was four years ago,” said Tracy Winchester, executive director of the Five Points Business District.
“Because we’re so close to downtown it was a natural phenomenon for us to be the next place that people want to move to,” Winchester said.
The city has strongly encouraged all the development. Collectively, the Wheatley, the Lydian and the Welton Park Apartments received $6.3 million in taxpayer money from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority.
DURA uses TIF — or tax-increment financing — to collect tax money from property owners along the Welton Street Corridor that would normally go to the county of Denver. The money is used to create incentives for developers to build on Welton Street. A “high priority” is placed on projects that offer affordable housing.
The building boom is pushing property values up along Welton Street, which is good for those who own because it boosts their overall wealth. But higher property values mean more taxes to pay and sometimes more rent to collect from residents and businesses owners like the Dickersons.
“When you charge a higher rent, you’re not going to get that really small mom-and-pop kind of business. It’s going to be a much more robust, aggressive business that’s been around for awhile,” Winchester said.
Besides trying to find businesses another spot in the neighborhood, there’s not really a fix for “the age-old dilemma” of rising rents and gentrification, she said.
Dr. Renee Cousins King says she supports mom-and-pop companies by being fair and not gouging them on rent.
“Five Points thrived on small businesses, and the country thrived on small businesses,” Cousins King said. “I’m happy I can maintain my properties and lease to small businesses.”
She inherited about a dozen properties in Five Points including the Rosenberg’s Bagels building and Denver’s former black movie house, The Roxy Theatre. Her grandfather and father, both named Charles Cousins, were influential real estate buyers and community figures in Denver.
“I feel a certain obligation to honor my family history, but I also feel I have to do things my way,” Cousins King said. “I don’t belive in just living in the past. I belive in using lessons that we’ve learned through history and not keeping the things that aren’t worthwhile.”
“Time will tell if Five Points will be able to attract new businesses, new residents and owners and if it’s able to stay unique and have a unique feel that’s truly its own,” Cousins King said.