As 3 King closes, could coronavirus cripple Denver’s South Broadway?
The social media tributes posted in honor of 3 Kings Tavern over the last week have often included photos of musicians in various states of ecstasy, eyes squeezed shut, their screams disappearing into the club’s damp, heavily abused ceiling.
But news that the beloved music venue at 60 S. Broadway was abruptly closing also prompted memories of South Broadway in general — and talk of how coronavirus has only accelerated problems with affordability along one of Denver’s most established cultural corridors.
“As the neighborhood has become nicer and a destination for tourists, rent has been going through the roof,” said Martin Killorin, who founded 3 Kings in 2006 with partners Jim Norris and Jeff Campbell. “Only people with deep pockets who can afford massive rent can go in there, and that’s not going to be mom-and-pops.”
Two major residential projects boasting 340 units have already changed the familiar face of South Broadway, along with bike lanes that have squeezed parking. Finding a spot along the walkable stretch of commerce and culture — which sits roughly between Sixth and Alameda avenues — is harder than it used to be. Meanwhile, national chains such as Voodoo Doughnut have replaced longtime by-the-slice shops like Famous Pizza.
“Coronavirus is accelerating a lot of things that were happening anyway,” said Bree Davies, a writer, fair-housing advocate, and PBS host who has lately worked in city planning. “3 Kings was probably doomed because of those condos. … That’s the cycle of a city: Nothing can stay forever.”
“There’s also a lot of strain on these micro-businesses, and South Broadway is really a collection of smaller-than-small-businesses,” said Anthony Gengaro, president of Metro Denver Local Development Corp., a nonprofit that manages the city’s special districts.
Out of the 224 businesses operating in the area, 79% are local, said Gengaro, who also serves as treasurer for the Broadway Baker Merchant’s Association. Among those, only 31 properties are vacant and available for lease. To Gengaro, that signals that South Broadway has reached a mature point in a process that has been going on for decades.
Unfortunately, that also means “Cherry Creek prices,” as he put it, and the loss of several businesses that have decamped to nearby Santa Fe Drive and its cheaper rents.
“You’re going to see that happen to many more businesses that were already stressed and strained,” he predicted.
Despite losing money in recent years, 3 Kings’ Killorin and his employees (12 at the club’s height; seven when they closed) were able to keep the club running with near-daily shows and programming. But 3 Kings’ $9,600 monthly rent, coupled with a lack of customers over the past two months, finally took down a venue that had once been a reliable stopover for nationally touring punk, metal and country acts.
It was in good company on South Broadway, a street that marks the east-west dividing line in Denver. Formerly a working-class Chicano neighborhood and extension of west Denver, the central Baker area has seen various transformations over the decades as it was adopted by different subcultures, which in turn added value and appeal.
But only metro-area natives — that rare and sentimental breed of Denverite — remember a South Broadway before vegan sundaes, THC edibles and $15 cocktails were seemingly everywhere.
“South Broadway was always this hub of real Denver, of creativity, of local art, of independent commerce and retail,” said Ricardo Baca, a Denver native and owner of the Grasslands cannabis PR firm.
As a former Denver Post reporter and editor who co-founded The Underground Music Showcase (The UMS) with then-reporter John Moore, Baca has watched as South Broadway’s vintage shops, dives, bookstores and gay bars were replaced with DIY boutiques and upscale restaurants. It was a boon to his UMS, which at its height spanned four days and nearly two dozen venues with a South by Southwest-style music fest featuring hundreds of acts.
But when looking for a new building for Grasslands last year, Baca quickly realized he couldn’t afford anything along South Broadway. Instead, he spent $1.2 million on a 5,000-square-foot structure at 100 N. Santa Fe Drive — just a few blocks away, but still technically in Baker.
“I’m very concerned about the future of South Broadway,” he said, after being reminded that neither The UMS (now owned by the event company Two Parts) nor the High Plains Comedy Festival seem to be returning to South Broadway this year. “But certainly, the arrival of businesses like the Punch Bowl Social was a telling sign that the days of our little indie haven were numbered.”
The Punch Bowl, a massive, arcade-oriented bar/restaurant, was a controversial addition to South Broadway in 2013, and one that was criticized for attracting sports bros to an otherwise proudly weird, DIY area. But the rate of change has only accelerated since then, with a craft distillery taking over a former adult movie theater and several other small businesses shuttering in favor of new restaurants and bars.
“Where was The Compound’s eulogy?” Davies said. “That was one of the only working-person gay bars in the city. They were open at 7 a.m. so Denver Health workers could go there after their shifts. My husband grew up in Baker and used to get his hair cut at places like Joe’s Hair Affair and Heaven Sent Me, and those were the first places he ever saw real-life drag queens.”
The type of people flocking to South Broadway these days betrays its direction, said Jermaine Smith, who lived and worked in the area for 15 years at the Hi-Dive, the Skylark, 3 Kings and Badger’s Pub.
“It’s stopped being the go-to fun place for locals,” said Smith, who also played bass in the defunct, beloved Machine Gun Blues. “We’ve only got a few hardcore locals down there now, and everyone else is new. It’s tough to watch after being down there for so long.”
Yes, the last decade has seen rapid growth of small business ownership, residential ownership and population density on South Broadway, said MMBA board member Gengaro. But that, in itself, is not a bad thing.
“Over the last seven years, there’s been a real need for a new definition of what the area is,” he said. “New businesses like Postino and Canopy Bar are thriving because that’s where the demand is. Do we have to block them out to preserve some kind of identity? I don’t think so. That identity is intrinsic in the ethos of the people who live here, and the businesses reflect what they want.”
3 Kings co-founder Norris, who divested from the club and took over the nearby coffee/book shop Mutiny Information Cafe in 2013, said protecting South Broadway’s identity is one of his priorities.
“Of course it’s getting gentrified. That’s going to happen one way or another,” he said. “Losing your edge isn’t always bad. But it is something I worry about every day. The bottom is dropping out and everybody needs to readjust and figure out what’s really important. Of course, now I’m thinking, ‘Are axe-throwing bars really necessary?’ “
For many small-business owners, development is always welcome along South Broadway. They need customers, and the area’s higher-income residents and sleek new storefronts tend to encourage those.
Luchia Brown, president of the Baker Historic Neighborhood Association, has lived in Baker for more than 20 years and has seen several waves of economic renewal on South Broadway.
“We’re not a bunch of NIMBYists,” she told The Denver Post in November, referring to an anti-development mindset that stands for “not in my backyard.”
South Broadway will always offer an alternative to the cheekily named, upstart neighborhoods that now attract the disposable income of transplants in their 20s and 30s, from LoHi to RiNo, said many business owners. Unlike the antique-heavy mile just south of it, or equally established districts such as Lower Downtown and South Pearl, South Broadway still feels like counterculture and commerce smashed together.
While nearby club the Hi-Dive was one of the first to import Brooklyn-hipster aesthetics to Denver in 2003, 3 Kings always felt more like Las Vegas, with a surly, coiffed showmanship that spanned formerly niche genres such as metal as well as stand-up comedy and burlesque.
Some of its spiritual brethren, like Gary Lee’s Motor Club, didn’t make it long enough to be felled by coronavirus restrictions. Others, such as rockabilly stalwart The Skylark Lounge, were up for sale long before coronavirus ever hit the U.S. (The asking price for 6,900 square feet at 140 S. Broadway: $2.5 million.)
The future of South Broadway will most certainly include shoppers, music fans and partiers who have never been to the area. The Hi-Dive, one of Denver’s most beloved rock clubs, is being dutifully remodeled, according to co-owner Curtis Wallach.
And certainly, no one interviewed for this story envisioned Baker returning to the gritty, crime-ridden days of the late 20th century, when the Inca Boyz street gang controlled the rundown area and random violence was common.
But when these new customers arrive, and how many show up, is another matter.
“Once you lose businesses like 3 Kings, who can afford to take their place?” Baca said.
And furthermore, Davies wondered, what’s becoming of the artists and creative people who built South Broadway’s reputation?
“Our city is really sold to the rest of the world as this great music and arts city. Like, ‘Look at all this amazing (stuff) we have here!’ ” said Davies, who has chronicled Denver’s changing landscape for Westword. “But there’s never an arts or music scene unless people have space to facilitate it, and 3 Kings was one of those spaces. It’s sad, because there’s no capital in the culture you bring or the ‘safe spaces’ you provide if you can’t pay rent.”
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter, In The Know, to get entertainment news sent straight to your inbox.