Martha Trillo signed a lease before the pandemic to move her ice cream shop, Heaven Creamery, to the 2900 block of Larimer Street because it got more traffic than her previous spot a block away.
Then the pandemic hit and the city, hoping to help restaurants struggling with social distancing, closed the street in front of her place.
Three years later, it’s still closed — much to Trillo’s chagrin.
She said blocking off the one-block stretch in RiNo may help the bars on the street, but it doesn’t help Heaven.
“If you’re going to come and buy ice cream, you do and leave or stay and eat it and leave,” she said. “But you don’t see them get another scoop of ice cream. When you go to a bar and get a beer, you get a second, third, fourth.”
Of the handful of stretches of road that Denver closed to vehicles during the pandemic, three remain. In addition to the RiNo block, there’s Larimer Square and Glenarm Place between 15th and 17th streets near Denver Pavilions Mall downtown.
The temporary street closure permits for the three are set to expire at the end of the year, but Denver is considering making the closures permanent, and the blocks will continue to be closed into the new year as long as there’s a pending application for permanence in.
The closure of Larimer in RiNo appears to be sparking the most controversy.
Heaven Creamery’s Trillo said she doesn’t need the street for seating; she’s got plenty inside and a patio out back.
“We understand that for other businesses it’s a good thing but we don’t have the exposure that we felt we had before,” she said.
Plus, she said, the block in front of her business hasn’t been physically transformed.
“If this was an amazing and beautiful concept, super attractive for everyone in the city … I probably would be with it,” Trillo said. “But it’s not like that. There’s nothing special to come and see other than going bar to bar.
“But we’re not fighting too hard because at the same time, you don’t want to be fighting your neighbors.”
The potentially permanent street closure is being spearheaded by the RiNo Business Improvement District, with help from the RiNo Arts District.
Across the street from Heaven Creamery, Kraig Weaver owns The Block Distilling Co. at 2990 Larimer St. He said the closure was “instrumental” for him and other businesses. The distillery has a shipping container on the street that holds a handful of tables.
Without the closure, “We would be another street instead of having something unique that shows a collaborative effort between small businesses, land owners, the city as a whole and the neighborhood — that’s what makes it cool,” Weaver said.
He said he thinks keeping the block closed and investing money to spruce it up would not only be good for the neighborhood, but also help push Denver to become a more walkable and bikeable city. He said pro-closure business owners on the block recently created a nonprofit to fund improvements assuming the application is approved.
Other businesses on the block, such as Odell Brewing and Ratio Beerworks, previously told The Denver Post they also support keeping the block closed. Weaver acknowledged that not everybody is going to support it, but said he thinks closure benefits the entire community.
“Is this for the greater good? Is this overwhelmingly positive with a few small pain points for you personally, or for the community as a whole? What I’ve heard feels more like a personal issue,” he said.
Nancy Kuhn, spokesperson for Denver’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, said if approved, the RiNo BID will be able to renew the street closure permit annually for up to five years. After that, Denver will determine whether or not to permanently close the block.
One block away from the closure, at 3090 Larimer St., is Jerrod Rosen’s business Rye Society. He opened the Jewish deli in 2017, and said the pandemic made business “disappear,” but he now thinks the nearby closure is having a negative effect.
“We are on a block where the main street is Larimer, and people driving through can’t get to us,” Rosen said.
Rosen grew up in Boulder and said he would support something like the Pearl Street Mall, where a few blocks are closed to vehicular traffic, not just one.
“I love those guys down there,” Rosen said, referring to businesses on the closed block. “I have nothing against them and understand why they would want it closed but it seems like it’s to the benefit of a few businesses and not the whole community.”
Tai Beldock, who owns Erico Motorsports at 2855 Walnut St. as well as nearby real estate, said she doesn’t understand why business owners throughout the neighborhood are funding a project that doesn’t help the majority of RiNo.
“We’re paying thousands of dollars for a design that really only benefits three businesses,” Beldock said.
According to Sarah Cawrse, director of urban strategy and design for the RiNo Art District, the RiNo BID has $55,000 in the 2024 budget for Larimer street design, although it’s not yet known if those funds will be needed. Cawrse said the BID also funded “materials and effort needed to collect community feedback” this year.
While the block has roughly 13 businesses on it, only four were using the street for seating last week. Beldock has been advocating against the street closure for a while, and went to Denver City Council in November to ask councilors to vote against the RiNo BID budget, to no avail.
She also thinks the street closure is creating traffic issues in the neighborhood, which will only get worse when two large properties for sale nearby (the corner of 29th and Blake, and 29th and Walnut) get redeveloped.
“When those lots sell, they will go up five stories, become approximately 600 units, bring 1,200 additional people, a whole bunch of cars, and main arteries are blocked because of the street closure,” Beldock said.
Beldock, who’s been in the neighborhood since 1999, said ultimately the block closure doesn’t plan for the future.
“We’re not thinking of the big picture,” she said. “In the end, I get the sense the district is going to move forward, and it’s unfortunate.”
Tom Sprung owns a corner of 30th and Larimer opposite the closure, which houses a few tenants such as Oz Architecture and Arc Document Solutions, as well as his business Sprung Construction. He echoed Beldock’s concerns.
“There’s only three ways in and out – Blake, Walnut and Larimer,” he said. “We’re all about keeping the street active but we want to keep the traffic flowing.”
He said supply trucks for the restaurants on the closed off-block already clog the surrounding streets. And while he’s all for making the neighborhood more pedestrian- and bike- friendly, “you still need people driving for businesses to thrive,” he said.
Beldock and Sprung said they would be happy with some sort of compromise, like closing the block on weekends or leaving one lane open.
“It’s hurting our businesses, on either side, it’s hurting us terribly,” Sprung said.