Amid rising violence, bars and businesses in Denver’s LoDo neighborhood weigh new options to stop late-night crime

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Angela Neri, the owner of Pony Up on 18th and Blake in Denver’s LoDo neighborhood, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022.

The bar at Blake Street Tavern, a block from Denver’s Coors Field, was about a quarter full at 5 p.m. on a recent Wednesday afternoon.

The scene was mellow and relaxed, but it’s a much different atmosphere when last call rolls around on a weekend, according to general manager Rhiannon Arriaga Mackenzie.

“It would be a little bit more lively, a lot more drunk,” Arriaga-Mackenzie said. “It gets a little hard [because] drunk people don’t wanna negotiate with you. And, you know, it's against the law to keep anyone after 2 a.m. in the building with the drinks, so we have to get 'em out.”

Anybody that’s ever been at a bar as the night draws to a close is familiar with the scramble to get one last drink – and the aimless crowds that tend to form on the sidewalks when bars let out. It’s not a new phenomenon, but Denver’s downtown business owners say the crowds are getting unruly – and it’s becoming a problem.

Nightlife in Denver’s LoDo neighborhood came roaring back when pandemic restrictions eased last summer. That’s good for the bottom line of bars and restaurants in the area. But a spate of high-profile incidents involving guns is complicating the comeback. Last month, police shot six bystanders in the process of apprehending a suspect with a gun.

“It seems like every weekend, virtually, there's some type of shooting or something down there and the perception is just awful,” said Chris Fuselier, who owns Blake Street Tavern. “You talk to people that don't live downtown and they're like, ‘I'm not going downtown.’”  

The energy of the late-night crowd in LoDo has lately become more audacious, said Angela Neri, who owns Pony Up, a bar on 18th and Blake streets. It’s hard to pinpoint, she said, but it’s kind of like a pressure valve was released when everything opened back up after people were cooped up at home because of pandemic restrictions. Since fully reopening last summer, Neri said she has  installed somebody at the door to check IDs and make sure the crowd doesn’t get too big – or too drunk. 

“It’s not like there’s a pat down or anything like that. It’s not like a nightclub … just ensuring that it’s a safe environment for all the guests inside,” she said.

Blake Street’s Fuselier says a big part of the problem is dumping everybody out onto the streets at the same time.

“Most of the bars are doing their last call … between 1 and 1:30. You’ve got all these people coming out at once and it’s just a recipe for disaster,” he said.

Last call, and all the bars letting out at the same time, is a problem that some business owners — as well as city and state leadership — are trying to solve. But a straightforward solution isn’t easy to find consensus on, and neither are the opinions about what should be done.

Fuselier said he favors changing closing time from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. The theory is that people would trickle out at different times if bars were open later – and might even use the extra time to sober up, he said.

He’s not alone in his thinking. But Colorado’s state legislature has struck down multiple attempts to change the laws around closing time. Just this past March, a bill that would have allowed bars to extend their hours failed after it didn’t get much support.

“Obviously the big concern is — are you continuing to allow people to drink an additional two hours and then releasing them all at the same time? And does that create even more additional problems than we see now?” said Adam Burg, vice president of government affairs for the Denver Chamber of Commerce.

Burg said there’s been talk of staggering closing times so that everybody isn’t doing last call all at once. But the details of those discussions are vague. The Denver Chamber of Commerce doesn’t have an official position yet, Burg said, but some of its members think it’s worth exploring.

“That’s something I think licensing at the city of Denver would have to look at in coordination with business owners .… Certainly we wouldn’t want to have a scenario where certain businesses are prioritized and maybe are staying open a couple hours later [and] they’re able to generate more business and create … an unfriendly business environment towards other establishments,” Burg said.

Neri at Pony Up hasn’t been involved in these discussions, but she’s got strong opinions on staggering closing times for LoDo bars.

“That’s not safe at all … I’m not sure why they would even think that’s a good idea or a good plan,” she said.

Given the number of music and sport venues in the area, the people are already there, she said. Funneling everybody into a limited number of late-night options will make the situation worse, while at the same time cutting into revenues for bars, she added. 

In recent weeks, the city started barring food trucks from operating in certain parts of LoDo during late night hours to prevent crowds from forming. The move is controversial, because it potentially hurts the small business owners who operate the food trucks.

“I understand the heartache and the problems that’s caused them and it probably impacted their business, but that is secondary to the potential for violence and people getting hurt,” said Armando Saldate, the director of the city’s department of public safety. 

“[Our focus is on] getting people out so they can get to their cars and go home or go to where they need to go next.” 

Saldate said the city, working with the police department, has stepped up enforcement actions in the area. He pointed to the closure of Beta in January, a nightclub that police allege was a hub for narcotics and other illegal activities. 

Other steps police and city officials are taking to stem the late-night crime in the area include increasing mobile lighting to stop people from congregating in dark spots, and increasing use of a command post vehicle set up at 20th and Larimer streets. 

Saldate said ultimately everybody is on the same page and wants to see a vibrant busy nightlife in the area – but these days, he added, that comes with increased precautions. 

“I love to see a packed downtown … and all the places busy and packed and people enjoying our downtown. That’s what we all strive for. But ultimately, we also gotta make sure that there’s not safety concerns.”