Larimer Square Sets the Table: A New Template

Published in the Colorado Real Estate Journal – Retail Properties Quarterly

Written by Jackson Coon, Associate Advisor – Pinnacle Real Estate Advisors

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I decided we were in the mood for a date night at one of our favorite restaurants, Rioja, in Larimer – Square. We had not been to that part of town in quite a while, and we were excited to have someone serve us a nice meal to recapture a feeling of normalcy. As we pulled up to the parking lot, the first thing we saw was the fall-themed banner that stretched across the top of the historic buildings proclaiming, “There’s No Place Like Larimer.” We already believed this to be true as Larimer Square is one of our favorite places to visit, but as we walked closer, we realized this was not the same place we had enjoyed on countless different occasions.

Larimer Square was a new and improved communal setting ready to take COVID-19 head on and perhaps provide a blueprint for the future of retail.

With our newfound knowledge of a revamped Larimer, we decided to explore all the changes the square had to offer. As we crossed 14th Street, we were pleasantly surprised to find the square was completely blocked off to all motorized transportation. The immediate vibe we felt from walking through the historic site was something we had not felt in a long time – not since we had visited my brother in Barcelona, Spain, several years ago.

Subconsciously, it is something we wanted to see continue. The list of additions was seemingly endless, there were live local musicians performing, pop-up street vendors, seasonal decorations, murals painted across the street – all contributing to the unique ambiance.

After our stroll around the block, we headed to the restaurant for the experience we were craving.

While we ate, my wife and I noticed that up and down the block there were tables that extended down to the street, all filled with smiling patrons laughing, joking and enjoying their meals like they always had. The improvements made in Larimer Square have created a safe haven for our city to get back out into the new normal and experience some of the things that were lost over the last eight months.

After that night, I reached out to the team who manages Larimer Square to learn more about all the developments and get their take on the future. I was particularly interested in how the changes have affected the local businesses. What I gathered from my conversations and observed over dinner was that this expansion has been a major positive to food and beverage operators. It has allowed them to seat a closer-to-capacity crowd every night with the extended outdoor patios while ensuring customers feel safe and comfortable. The boutique retailers have found new life after months of uncertainty with the benefits of increased foot traffic that they rely on (for now at least).

It has truly created an epicenter for consumers to feel safe and get back out with friends, family and the Denver community. Perhaps the most encouraging and heart-warming aspect about all these positives that have surfaced is that the businesses, musicians, vendors and artists are, by and large, local. This project has elevated the importance of the communal feel while simultaneously providing a template for how real estate can be transformed and developed in the future as we come out of COVID-19.

I have been reading a lot lately about how other municipalities across our state have adjusted and are learning/innovating with new ideas to keep businesses alive and thriving as we move toward winter.

The obvious places to look at are the ski towns. These towns rely on the ski season to generate enough revenue to survive the off-seasons.

Towns like Breckenridge and Telluride are implementing two similar but unique ways of providing an outdoor seating experience. Breckenridge is allowing business to set up winterized Yurts while Telluride is refurbishing 20 gondolas that have access to all the dining options at the base of the mountain village. These small, one-table areas can quickly be sanitized between seatings to provide a safe dining experience that a larger dining room cannot. These ideas are essential to fighting our current circumstances and, in my opinion, they provide great insight into what we can expect in the near future, as far as enhancing the retail experience, and maybe even some ideas that will stick around. It is clear to me that this new wave of ideas is not only important for supporting struggling businesses at this time but also is the right strategy to provide a stable future for these same businesses long-term.

Since our evening out, I have pondered the possibilities for this pedestrian-focused layout being permanent not only at Larimer Square, but for other developments around our city/state both old and new. Larimer Square always has been a gathering place for our community, but the new feel should be the template for the future post-COVID-19. Retailers, developers and landlords need to bring people back into the world with a breath of fresh air. I see a future where this concept is successfully developed across all product types in our city to benefit our vital local businesses and continue to grow our community beyond the current pandemic. As we reflect over the past eight months, it is important to find positives, and for me, I see opportunities for improvement and I’m encouraged by the ingenuity I see.