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Downtown Denver Undergoes Cultural Transformation

By Julie Scheff

THE DENVER SKYLINE HAS exploded, and we’re not talking fireworks. The excitement is from an enormous downtown transformation, adding cultural buildings, hotels, dozens of local-chef restaurants, breweries, distilleries and event spaces to the Mile High City’s central sector.

Up for a baseball game, sunset brewery walk or evening at the theater? If so, downtown Denver delivers beyond expectations with the newest additions to its already attractive 300-plus days of sunshine and walkability factor. Whether dining at boutique restaurants in Larimer Square or watching a live artist show at a gallery in River North, Denver’s flourishing downtown districts will keep conference attendees asking to return.

Three pedestrian bridges connect visitors to the city’s popular food and beverage scene, Lower Highlands Neighborhood (LoHi), and redevelopment of historic Union Station in Lower Downtown (LoDo). “Denver’s LoDo is a protected historic district that is easy and unique for conventioneers to discover,” says Dana Crawford, often referred to as “The Mother of LoDo” for her incredible downtown revitalization efforts for nearly five decades. “Once they have visited, they tend to return over and over again to sample the neighborhood’s vibrant collection of excellent restaurants and night spots. Most of my outings begin or end in The Oxford Hotel’s famous Cruise Room, which has been hosting celebrations since 1933.”

She adds, “The return of Denver Union Station this summer will showcase an amazing revitalized space where visitors can experience many of Colorado’s best local restaurants and retailers, plus the independent Crawford Hotel.”

Downtown is incredibly convenient for meeting and event attendees without cars. Almost every hotel is located within walking distance or easy access to public transportation and Denver’s city center. This includes easy commutes to Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Colorado Convention Center, Denver Art Museum, Coors Field, Pepsi Center, Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Elitch Gardens, Colorado State Capitol, Civic Center Park and hundreds of restaurants, shops and other attractions.

Downtown has added two new art museums, Clyfford Still Museum and American Museum of Western Art, and the architecturally distinct Frederic C. Hamilton Building to the Denver Art Museum. The city also opened a new history museum, History Colorado Center, in recent years and is bringing incredible national exhibitions and Broadway shows to the heart of the city seasonally.

But that’s just the tip of the progress underway. “There are eight skyscrapers under construction that will add 8,000 new housing units, a million square feet of office space and new retail and restaurants all to the downtown core,” says Rich Grant, longtime communications director for VISIT DENVER. The city can’t stop surprising even repeat visitors with creative, new offerings. “Colorado opened more than one new brewpub a week in 2013-that’s a total of 56 new ones-and I have seen more than 20 on the drawing blocks for just Denver.”

Hotel Hallelujah

At bat for downtown are Denver’s hotels, and they are loading the bases. Starting with major renovations, The Curtis Hotel updated all of its 336 guest rooms, expanded the lobby and converted space into two one-bedroom suites with KISS and Spice Girls décor to match the hotel’s eccentric and unique personality and themed floors. The Grand Hyatt Denver just remodeled its more than 500-room hotel on Welton and revamped the lobby and meeting and event spaces. The Marriott City Center just finished a renovation of the lobby and next up is the lower lobby, restaurants and additional banquet spaces.

In terms of new players on the field, The Renaissance Denver Downtown occupies the 1915-era Colorado National Bank, which has been transformed into 230 guest rooms, nine suites, an original concept eatery and 6,000 square feet of meeting space. Event planners should take note of the building’s original bank vaults that have been reimagined as three boardrooms.

“We now have 8,500 hotel rooms downtown and 44,000 metrowide, with a 500-room Westin, 240-room Renaissance, 120-room Crawford Hotel, 165-room Art Hotel and 150-room Aloft all opening in the next two years,” notes Grant. “There was also a Homewood Suites/Hampton Inn that opened in April 2013, and coming up in 2015, the Hyatt Place/Hyatt House will open up a 346-room hotel.”

Union Station Reborn

The home run for this summer is certainly the new development by Continuum Partners in the Union Station neighborhood. It’s a nearly $100 million, mixeduse project that will include a hotel, office building, retail, restaurants and public parking. Located at 16th Street and Wewatta, directly across from the new Union Station commuter train platform, this destination will now connect downtown Denver to the airport.

One of the most recent announcements is a new 200- room, 12-story boutique hotel that is slated to break ground in June and be completed in 2015. The property will be operated by Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants and feature 8,300 square feet of meeting space, main floor and rooftop patios, and two locally based, chef-driven restaurants on premises.

Connected by Pedestrian Bridges

There are three pedestrian bridges connecting downtown Denver to LoHi. The first bridge with the huge white mast is the Millennium Bridge. The second bridge is over the South Platte River- aptly named Platte River Bridge-and the third traverses over the interstate and is called Highland Bridge.

Just blocks behind Union Station’s new transportation hub are bridges that connect lower downtown to LoHi, one of the hippest and most sought-after destinations for gatherings. When Colorado Meetings + Events last profiled Denver as a destination, we noted LoHi as the “it” neighborhood, and years later it’s still one of the hottest tickets in town. Groups adore getting schooled on the proper way to order a British pint at authentic Churchill’s Pub, checking out local boutiques, visiting the breweries and dining at restaurants like Old Major, which specializes in heritage meats.

“The fact that a plethora of microbreweries and various chef-owned, non-chain restaurants with locally sourced ingredients is extremely popular with convention attendees lends itself so well to the LoHi Neighborhood,” explains Heather Sullivan, DMCP, president of Convention Designs LLC. She notes that her office receives many out-of-townrequests for Colorado experiences that can’t be replicated elsewhere.

“We really think Ste. Ellie-beneath Colt & Gray, located on Platte, two blocks from the Pedestrian Bridge-is a great new space; contemporary, sexy and hand-mixed specialty cocktails. Linger and Ale House are also two popular booking spots. Prost Brewing is also located in LoHi along the interstate with great views of downtown,” Sullivan says. “In general, we have had many clients request walking microbrew tours as well as local brewmasters who will come to them on-site [e.g., exhibit floor] to not just serve the beer, but speak in depth to the process as well.”