Linden Street businesses have eyes on more lively future after dark of COVID-19, construction
First came the COVID-19 pandemic with its mandatory closures and capacity limits that devastated retailers and restaurants.
Then came smoke and ash from the two worst wildfires in state history that kept people indoors when they typically would have been out and about.
Now retailers on a one-block stretch of Old Town Fort Collins' usually picturesque Linden Street are taking another hit — but hoping that today's pain will be tomorrow's gain.
The city of Fort Collins has begun work on a $3.5 million renovation of Linden that will eventually turn the corridor between Walnut and Jefferson streets into a "convertible" street that can be closed to vehicle traffic for festivals and other events.
Although the city has delayed most of the construction until "better economic times," it is going ahead with improvements at each corner, work that will intermittently close sidewalks and restrict vehicle traffic.
Today, that all means the stretch of Linden is a hodgepodge of makeshift outdoor dining spots nestled among some parking spots, a whole host of orange cones, construction equipment and torn-up pavement at the Walnut Street corner. A couple storefronts remain empty, casualties of the pandemic.
It's all been a little much for businesses like Nature's Own, a science and nature store that's been at the corner of Linden and Walnut streets for years.
"It was really challenging when the sidewalks were closed on our side of Walnut" and customers had to access the store through the rear alley, said store manager Aaron Schneider. "It was a challenge for people to find us."
Nature's Own has fought the renovations from the first day the city came up with the idea six years ago, Schneider said. "I didn't want to lose parking out front. It's already hard for me to even get fulfillment (delivery trucks) to the store."
Like many businesses, Nature's Own was shut down for 100 days in the early days of the pandemic. As business started to rebound, along came the Cameron Peak Fire. And just before Christmas, the store shut down again when an employee tested positive for COVID-19.
Now, business is a little slower due to construction. But at least the work is being done in the winter when business is slower anyway, he said.
"January, February, March stings, but it stings a whole lot less than July. The city is being considerate about timing, and that goes a long way in my book," Schneider said. "It shows they're listening and (have) seen the struggles some of these retail/restaurants have had. We probably couldn't endure the loss of a whole summer."
Schneider already lost much of the street parking on Linden when restaurants were allowed to create outdoor dining in the street in front of their stores — a move born out of necessity to help mitigate an economic crisis.
Schneider doesn't have a problem with that. "Restaurants needed that," he said. "It's something we're all having to absorb to help our neighbors."
Schneider gives the city high marks, especially project manager Kyle Lambrecht, for keeping businesses in the loop.
"He has a very tough job ... he is making the best of a tough situation. We're fortunate to have him listening to us," he said.
Despite the construction, interest has been high in vacant storefronts on Linden Street, said Aki Palmer, commercial Realtor with Cushman Wakefield.
"People are excited about the possibility of an extension of Old Town Square, especially during festivals, and the amount of foot traffic it will bring to the area," said Palmer, leasing broker for 223 Linden St.
The vacant restaurant space is almost ready to be leased by a tenant that falls into the restaurant category, he said.
The construction hasn't slowed interest in the property. "A lot of that stems from the growth farther north up to the River District and into the brewery neighborhood and connectivity to that and projects like The Exchange," Palmer said.
"Obviously, having restrictions on occupancy has been a challenge," he said, "but the city has done a wonderful job of being flexible on the outdoor seating component, which I hope is here to stay."
Five years ago, Linden Street was more of a late-night hang-out bar area, he said. "It's definitely growing up, and I consider it a part of Old Town, an extension of Old Town Square."
Stress and strain
Due to the strain most retailers have felt through the pandemic, fires and blizzard, the city has delayed most of the Linden Street work until "economic conditions improve."
The city in January postponed the bulk of the project, but improvements are underway on new pavers and updated corners at Linden and Walnut and on updated pedestrian corners and updated pedestrian push buttons at Linden and Jefferson.
On Monday, the intersection of Walnut and Linden closed to traffic for five weeks for reconstruction. Access to businesses on Linden Street, Walnut Street and Old Firehouse Alley will remain open.
After the Walnut intersection work is complete in April, work will move to the Jefferson-Linden intersection, which will then close for a few weeks through early May.
When the rest of the project commences is still up in the air. It all depends on when businesses, consumers and the economy bounce back from the pandemic, said SeonAh Kendall, the city's economic recovery manager.
When construction does begin again, the project could look slightly different. "Shopping and eating and dining habits have changed due to the pandemic," Kendall said. There are "big conversations" around outdoor dining and what can be continued after the pandemic. Plans "could be tweaked."
Linden Street was among the first streets in Fort Collins to create outdoor dining spaces in the street when the city first allowed it. "Linden Street was the ideal one to open up for outdoor dining," Kendall said.
Now that much of Linden Street's parking has been usurped for dining and drinking spaces for the myriad restaurants and bars along the corridor, there could be a desire to make it permanent.
The $3.5 million renovation plan, as it stands, includes the addition of outdoor patio spaces on the existing sidewalk but not into the street, permanently displacing parking spaces.
Any potential changes would come only after conversations with businesses on Linden Street and broader conversations about what worked well during the pandemic, Kendall said.
"We're still working through what extended dining options look like," she said. Some of it is out of the city's hands, especially along College Avenue. which doubles as U.S. Highway 287 and is under the state's control.
And Colorado's legislature could permanently loosen the "alcohol-to-go" measures it put in place to help struggling restaurateurs and bars through the COVID-19 crisis, she said. "If this is something that is pursued, we will have to look at it through the city's land use code and not just (Linden Street), but what does it look like throughout the city."
Amid struggle, there's opportunity
When the pandemic hit and stores went dark, many downtown business owners found themselves with little to no revenue with which to pay their bills, including rent.
Some landlords discounted or deferred rents; some saw an opportunity to invest more in Old Town.
Michael Guerriero and partners Bobby Khan and Kelly Khan — under the business name KGB Holdings LLC — purchased the old Antlers Hotel building at 222 Linden St. in February for $4 million.The property houses Pour Brothers Community Tavern, Velvet Files, Hydrate IV bar, 19 apartments on the upper floors and a rooftop deck.
"During the pandemic, the former owner, as did all of us who own downtown property, had to give our commercial tenants a rent break," Guerriero said.
When the building brings in less revenue, the value of the property also drops, he said.
It's the same strategy they employed when they purchased the buildings that house the Crown Pub and Starry Night during the 2008-09 recession.
"That ended up being a smart thing to do," he said. "We saw a similar opportunity with the Antlers Hotel and figured if we could get it at a discounted price, it would pay off in the future."
They plan to reinvest about $200,000 in the property, adding private bathrooms to the units and renovating the deck that sits above the alley.
"We see a lot of potential in Linden Street and it becoming an extension of Old Town Square," he said. "Foot traffic is only going to increase as years go by."
A current resident plays his saxophone on the deck most weekend nights, drawing a small crowd, Guerriero said. "If he had a nicer deck to play on, we figure it could become a miniature-crowd gathering spot."
The partners intend to hold on to the building until they're ready to retire in 12 to 14 years. By then, they anticipate a 40% return on investment.
"It's a risk buying this property during COVID with the diminished commercial rents," Guerriero said. "But we are banking on a strong resurgence soon. We purchased the Crown Pub in 2009 during the recession and are hoping COVID provides a similar opportunity to get a good deal."
Starting a business during a pandemic
Construction isn't scaring Antonio Race away from Linden Street.
The owner of Pulcinella Ristorante is reopening Ciao Vino Wine Bar, a Fort Collins favorite that closed in 2004.
He's excited about what Linden Street will be when the renovation work is done. If there's any disappointment, it's that Linden Street won't be permanently closed to vehicular traffic.
On that point, he and Schneider differ starkly.
"I would love the city to extend Old Town Square all the way to Linden Street and for Linden to become part of Old Town Square and take the street out completely," Race said.
"It's not worth it to keep the street open for a few parking spaces," especially when nearby parking garages offer ample space.
"Why not make Linden Street for bars, restaurants, entertainment and music. The city should consider that before moving forward with the project."
Race said he picked Linden Street precisely because it's "becoming the street where you go for a glass of wine, live music, a cocktail. That's why it deserves to be closed to cars and become part of Old Town Square."
Race, who just returned to Fort Collins, missed the early conversations and open houses the city held to get businesses' input on the renovations, but he's clearly excited to be back.
"Linden Street doesn't have anything like Ciao Vino," he said. "It will be a beautiful addition to Linden Street."
Ciao Vino is expected to open at 255 Linden St., in late April or early May.
Brendan Charles opened Hydrate IV Bar in the old Antlers Hotel in September, six months into the pandemic. "Things got off to a very solid start ... the fires were the big thing that hit us right when we started to catch momentum. The blanket of smoke definitely was the start of what became a long winter for us."
As the business started to rebound from the fires, COVID-19 restrictions tightened again. "Right as we started to get momentum, forces outside our control took over," making for a tough December and January, Charles said.
He credits Hydrate's membership base and customers who kept showing up in February, allowing the business to get back on track. Still, he made the decision to close the store on Thursdays in addition to Tuesdays during the winter. Charles expects to open six days a week again in late April.
"We had a fantastic first week in March, then the snow hit. Dealing with 2 feet of snow doesn't help any businesses, and it his us hard," he said. "We’re looking forward to the construction being completed, and we have some high hopes for what that extended sidewalk will do for our foot traffic and flow of our businesses," he said.
But between now and then, Charles is concerned about the next phase of construction. "My biggest concern is if they decide to do it in the middle of summer and it impedes our ability to get exposure from foot traffic."
Despite the stress of opening during a pandemic, Hydrate IV has benefited from a lower rent and expects to get other discounts due to construction.
And, he said, the pandemic brought health and wellness to the top of people's minds. "We knew what we were getting into starting during the pandemic," Charles said.
Pat Ferrier is a senior reporter covering business, health care and growth issues in Northern Colorado. Contact her at email@example.com.