Rossonian Hotel changes hands again as Five Points neighborhood changes up
The Rossonian Hotel is the bellwether of historic Five Points, reflecting the neighborhood through booming successes and a devastating migration from it.
Many developers have been enticed by the historically black neighborhood’s crowning jewel. Ink on the historic building’s deed is still fresh as ownership switched hands again last month.
People think redevelopment plans will work this time. But they said that about former attempts, too.
And as the Rossonian changes, it watches over a neighborhood that’s starting to perk up again as new businesses open, housing is built and talk of revitalization — or gentrification — makes its way down Welton Street.
Longtime Five Points developer Carl Bourgeois in August sold the hotel to Palisade Partners for $6 million, 650 percent higher than the $800,000 he gave the city for it in 2006. Denver had foreclosed on the hotel after an owner who borrowed $1.12 million from the city to renovate in 1993 failed to find tenants and could not make ends meet.
Palisade also bought two of three other parcels in the 2600 block of Welton for $1.7 million. It’s eyeing the last parcel.
How the project shapes up depends on whether the last lot is bought, Palisade development manager Tim Welland said. With the purchase, the block will become a mixed-use development. Without it, the developer is considering turning the Rossonian into a boutique hotel, a jazz club, or office and retail space.
Bourgeois, who did not return a phone call or emails requesting an interview, will be involved with the project, Welland said.
Palisade isn’t a newcomer to the neighborhood. It first started talking about the Rossonian in 2013. A year later, it built the Wheatley, an apartment-and-townhome complex fronting 25th Street at Welton. Palisade is currently building the Lydian, a mixed-used building in the 2500 block of Welton. The company also is working with Bourgeois’ Civil Technologies to build the Brownstones at King Stroud Court on Washington Street and East 24th Avenue.
Despite Palisade’s experience in the neighborhood, the Rossonian project will mark the first time the company will be renovating a historic building — let alone one that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But the company did its due diligence, bringing in a contractor, an architect and a structural engineer to look at the property prior to buying, Welland said.
The Rossonian is far from the only building going through a change. Several apartments, most market-rate, are going up on the southern end of the Welton corridor, while small businesses and restaurants are popping up along the street.
The neighborhood population has nearly doubled in size over the past 15 years, growing to 14,768 people in 2015 from 8,775 in 2000, according to data provided by the Denver Regional Council of Governments. It’s still not close to the nearly 32,000 people living in Five Points during the 1950s.
Five Points was a city in itself in its heyday, and from the 1920s through the 1950s, the Rossonian boomed right along with the neighborhood. At the time, black performers were not allowed to stay at the white hotels where they performed. The Rossonian put them up, and the musicians played in its lounge between their scheduled gigs. It became a mecca for jazz greats, hosting the likes of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington.
But with the passing of Colorado’s Fair Housing Act in 1959, which outlawed racial discrimination in home sales, the neighborhood lost its residents to the suburbs, sending it into a downward spiral that it has yet to fully escape.
“Nobody was going to move in after African-Americans,” Five Points Business District president Tracy Winchester said. “If it’s not African-Americans, who’s going to move in? It deteriorated.”
Despite all the false starts with the Rossonian — Denver Union Station redevelopment partner Sage Hospitality, Five Points Plaza developer Tom Yates and Denver’s first black city councilman, Elvin Caldwell, are among those who either owned or looked into reviving the building — Winchester said she thinks it’ll work this time.
The difference? Palisade. The company has already proven itself in the neighborhood and is walking in with eyes wide open, she said. And the company has a good relationship with Bourgeois. It helps that the developer was one of the few who kick-started the neighborhood in Winchester’s eyes.
Moving down Welton, Winchester pointed out new businesses — some as fresh as six weeks — sitting alongside legacy stores that have held their spots for 30-50 years. The shuttered buildings weren’t as downtrodden as they appeared, she said. Most are earmarked for renovation or development with plans already underway, she said.
People regularly knock on Winchester’s door, looking for property to buy along Welton, she said.There’s nothing left to grab, she tells them.
“This just didn’t come about organically. ‘Oh, it’ll come on its own,’” she said, recounting what others have said. “No, we had a plan.”
Part of the plan involved city grants, including the Welton Design/Development awards from the Office of Economic Development. The Rossonian and Palisade were awarded the most money — $150,000 and $100,000, respectively. Although the funds were earmarked, the Rossonian never went through with its project.
But that wasn’t Winchester’s concern.
“I can’t wait for the Rossonian. I can’t. I got to go and get other development along the way,” she said. She took over the business district’s reins in 2010. “Everybody wants to bring back the Rossonian because it’s reminiscent of the glory days.”
But a Rossonian island does no good, she said.
But what really spurred the change, she said, was a combo punch. Palisade developed the Wheatley and immediately had the Lydian on deck, catching the attention of other developers. Then, Rosenberg’s Bagels, another grant recipient, opened in 2014, bringing people from across the city into the neighborhood.
It also helped that millennials and baby boomers want to live in or near the urban core, Winchester said, noting that Five Points is on the edge of downtown, linked by the light rail.
Despite all the changes, Winchester said 50 to 60 percent of the commercial property along the Welton historic corridor — which stretches between 24th and 30th streets — is owned by black people, many of whom inherited it from their parents.
“There will always be an African-American presence because as long as they own the land, they can be assured of having their culture intact,” she said.
Franklin Stiger Afro Styling has been in Five Points since 1980. Franklin and Maedella Stiger have seen Five Points change. Maedella Stiger said the Rossonian is more than just a building, it’s something to fight for. It’s a reminder of what the neighborhood was.
“I call that the crown jewel of Five Points. Back in the days, way back in the ’20s and ’30s, this was the only area that blacks could move in,” she said. “It was family to everybody. Everybody took care of everybody. We didn’t need outsiders to take care of us.”
She described a Five Points with packed streets, reminiscent of the Las Vegas Strip. People spent all day hanging out at the heart of the neighborhood where Welton, Washington, 27th and 26th collide, giving the area its name. It was also the spot of a beloved pig-ear sandwich stand, which has disappeared.
There were businesses all over the place, ranging from barber shops and laundromats to nightclubs and a pool hall. There was no need to leave the neighborhood — everything was right there, she said. That meant the money also stayed in the area, Franklin Stiger said.
The new businesses coming in aren’t like the ones that used to make up the street, Maedella Stiger said, noting that Five Points never had a bagel shop before.
“The difference between now and then, you had music playing daily down the street,” she said. “Now, everything is quiet.”
She looked at the changes like a generation gap. Kids, understandably, don’t always want to follow their parent’s careers, she said.
Franklin Stiger noted that there are more white and wealthier people around. As more money comes into the neighborhood, some people can’t afford to live where they grew up, Maedella Stiger said.
“With the new generation coming in, I’m gonna be honest: I don’t think it’ll go back to what it used to be,” Maedella Stiger said.
Winchester acknowledged that people are worried about gentrification. For her, the goal is a neighborhood open to people of many income levels and generations.
To do that, the neighborhood is working to attract affordable housing. Some of the developments going up now or recently finished include a designated number of apartments affordable for low-income renters. Additionally, the city and Regional Transportation District are searching for developers to build affordable condos on a parking lot at 29th and Welton. The Denver Housing Authority also has subsidized housing in or near Five Points.
The city has pushed lots of dollars into Five Points over the years in an attempt to rebuild the neighborhood, but there’s a focus on not pushing out the existing residents, Office of Economic Development chief economist Jeff Romine said.
“It’s a careful balance,” he said. “There’s no formula for it, but you kind of have to work through it. We want to make sure the residents that made the neighborhood strong are able to stay.”
Five Points Business District last year became an official business improvement district, or BID. With that, Winchester is working to beautify the area, bringing in better lights, benches, landscaping, trash cans and more. She’s pushing for the extension of the Central light rail line beyond its terminus at 30th and Downing streets, potentially bringing in more foot traffic.
But part of the project is keeping the neighborhood’s history intact, she said. That means updating historical murals and adding in plaques that explain the area’s history. It also helps that many of the buildings along the Welton corridor are considered historic and can’t be torn down.
“Gentrification erases,” she said. “The loss of history, the loss of knowledge, that happens.”
And as the streets and businesses begin to fill again, the Rossonian stands, watching its neighborhood go through renovations as it waits for its own construction crews to knock on the door.