The background of the Denver skyline sits above Greenwerkz grow houses on the 800 block of Wyandot Street on December 30, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. One of the fears of the legalization of marijuana was that pot businesses would find places to call home in low income, mostly minority neighborhoods, which according to some is exactly what happened. (Brent Lewis, The Denver Post)

Unbalanced pot landscape in Denver raises concerns

Recreational marijuana businesses have proliferated so rapidly in some of Denver’s poorer neighborhoods during the past two years that city officials are exploring ways to disperse future growth more evenly.

The pot boom in neighborhoods such as Elyria Swansea, Globeville and Northeast Park Hill in north Denver, and Overland to the south, wasn’t exactly unexpected, but it still has residents and community groups concerned.

Marijuana business owners say they’ve moved into the parts of town that city regulations restrict them to be. They say they work hard at being responsible neighbors in ways that include local hiring and community outreach.

“Between navigating the zoning laws … and finding amendable landlords willing to lease their properties to federally illegal businesses, the list of workable locations for marijuana dispensaries shrinks considerably,” John Lord, owner and CEO of LivWell, said.

Unbalanced Denver marijuana landscape raises regulation concerns
Community organizer Candi CdeBaca stands outside a Denver warehouse that is used for marijuana cultivation on Dec. 22, 2015. (Brent Lewis, The Denver Post)

The Denver Post used a city database of more than 600 marijuana business licenses to examine where industry growth has occurred and which neighborhoods faced the biggest transformations.

Facilities that grow recreational pot have concentrated along the I-70 corridor to the north and the Santa Fe Drive and I-25 corridors to the south, in neighborhoods where residential and light industrial areas mix.

Other marijuana-related businesses — medical dispensaries, retail outlets and marijuana-infused-product factories — have pocketed along thoroughfares such as Colfax Avenue, Federal Boulevard and Broadway, the analysis shows, and the neighborhoods that surround them.

“Many low-income neighborhoods are next to industrial sites. That’s just the lay of the land,” said Charlie Brown, a former Denver city councilman who led committees that studied and recommended rules on where the businesses could go. “To change the rules today is tricky.”

Neighborhood residents and business leaders say they’ve been concerned since the beginning that Colorado’s new marijuana industry would settle into their backyards and that communities of color and lower incomes would see a disproportionate share of those businesses.

“You would think we’ve borne our fair share already,” said Candi CdeBaca, a member of the Cross Community Coalition in Globeville and longtime resident there. Her home — in the family since her great-grandfather — faces a large marijuana grow operation.

“We’ve been around, and it happens over and over,” she said. “People who bet their life two years ago that this would happen would have won the bet.”

Odors from the pot grows and fears of rising crime and youth marijuana usage top the neighborhood concerns. There have been persistent complaints about unlocked trash bins — by law they are supposed to be padlocked when not in use — and vagrants picking through them for marijuana remnants.

City crime data show marijuana-related crimes from 2012 through November 2015 occurred most in Elyria Swansea, followed by Overland and Five Points. Globeville ranked fourth. Crimes appear to have increased only marginally after Jan. 1, 2014, when sales of recreational marijuana began statewide.

Residents say the potential benefits from a growing industry in the community, such as job opportunities, are less evident to them. They see marijuana as just the latest in a string of undesirable industries settling in their midst.

“The areas are the trash can of the Denver community, and that’s been the view for years,” said Vernon Hill, a Globeville resident and businessman who works with Globeville Civic Partners. “There are more junkyards and more salvage lots than other areas, but we have houses intertwined, too. It’s our home.”

Business owners say they try to be good neighbors.

“We’re passionate about doing what we can as a tiny little business doing our part in education and awareness … and hopefully helping the neighborhood,” said Meg Sanders, CEO of Mindful, which has a dispensary along East Colfax Avenue near Monaco Parkway.

Sanders said the company has hosted job fairs to attract employees from the neighborhoods where she operates and even passed out vegetables grown in the company garden.

“‘This is free?’ they’d ask. And we’d say, ‘Here, have it,’ ” Sanders said. “It was really cool to sit there and meet the community.”

Unbalanced Denver marijuana landscape raises regulation concerns
A greenhouse sits near 8th Avenue and Wyandot Street on December 22, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. (Brent Lewis, The Denver Post)

But the concentration of marijuana businesses in certain areas has given city officials pause in allowing new businesses to be licensed. In November, the City Council placed a four-month moratorium on new licenses until officials can have a closer look at where shops are today, including taking walking tours of neighborhoods. There is talk of extending the moratorium for at least two years, perhaps up to four.

“We agree that there are enough marijuana businesses in Denver,” said Ashley Kilroy, executive director of Denver’s Office of Marijuana Policy. “Seeing the neighborhoods up close reinforces that feeling of saturation and also makes it apparent that there is still room for additional growth and expansion of the industry in an area that is already inundated.”

With about one marijuana business for every 91 residents, the Elyria Swansea, Globeville and west Northeast Park Hill neighborhoods are tops among the areas the pot industry calls home, the data show. Swansea has 78 licensed businesses, Globeville 24 and the western half of Northeast Park Hill 54, city records show.

Denver’s count of marijuana businesses is lower than The Post’s because the city does not separately count different licenses at the same address. It’s possible for the same owners to hold different licenses in the same building, such as one for a retail outlet and one for a medical dispensary, each with its own entrance spread over a block. The Post counted each distinctive licensee to better show the concentration of actual businesses.

“We have to stop this undue concentration, especially in communities that haven’t seen a grocery store or a business that supports the community health in years,” said District 3 Denver Councilman Paul Lopez, a forewarner that marijuana businesses would end up precisely where they are today.

Unbalanced Denver marijuana landscape raises regulation concerns
Starbuds Dispensary operates at East 47th Avenue and Brighton Boulevard in the Elyria Swansea neighborhood. (Brent Lewis, The Denver Post)

The highest concentration of marijuana shops compared to population in a single federal census tract — an area consisting of about 1,500 households — falls along the city’s southern bit on either side of the Santa Fe Drive corridor that mostly covers the Overland neighborhood, with one marijuana license for every 47 people who live there. The reason is partly from the many medical dispensaries that dot the western side of Broadway’s “Green Mile.”

“I knew we had a lot, but the number of them is truly a surprise,” said Councilman Jolon Clark, whose District 7 encompasses the area. “We are seeing more data available now for us to study the issue better. It’s become a very large industry, and the data can help us see if it’s become what we wanted or not.”

The U.S. Census Bureau says the tract in Clark’s district is about 70 percent minority, mostly Latino. The tracts that make up the Globeville and Swansea neighborhoods are even more so, with the latter nearly 90 percent minority.

City leaders tussled in 2013 over the idea that some parts of town would likely hold the greater number of marijuana businesses, despite a litany of prohibitions designed to avoid clustering. For instance, dispensaries cannot be within 1,000 feet of each other or any school or a day care center.

“We saw there could be an opportunity for grow and MIPs (marijuana-infused products) to take advantage of this industrial zoning we have,” said Councilman Albus Brooks, whose District 9 encompasses both northern communities. ” We had no idea that it would be almost a monopoly on the real estate as it is now.”

So while Denver’s inner residential neighborhoods are largely devoid of the 633 marijuana businesses throughout the city — more than half of them grow houses — the lowest-income areas, typically a mixed bag of industrial and residential buildings, have seen the most.

“It creates an incredible concentration, which has an effect on quality of life, and that’s a major concern,” Brooks said. “We can’t let one industry run roughshod over that quality of life.”

The color of a neighborhood’s residents doesn’t figure into a formula for success, said Brian Ruden, a co-owner of Starbuds.

“My best Starbuds locations are in white, affluent neighborhoods — namely the DU location and the Louisville location,” he said. “Shops are located wherever the zoning and setbacks allow. That has everything to do with it, not targeting minorities.”

Starbuds also has a retail location along Brighton Boulevard in the Elyria Swansea neighborhood, city license records show.

That location is about a block away from Drew Dutcher, vice president of United Community Action Network — closer than the grocery store he has to travel to nearly 2 miles away.

“People here usually shop for groceries at the 7-Eleven,” Dutcher said. “Something’s out of balance.”

Globeville and Swansea have elaborate master plans developed by city officials and area residents over many months — redevelopment of the National Western Stockyards, I-70, Brighton Boulevard among the projects — but they require zoning changes for them to work. Residents say they are worried that property owners with lucrative marijuana businesses will be reluctant to make such changes.

“The problem is the property owners who need to rezone,” said Nola Miguel, director of Globeville, Elyria Swansea LiveWell, a community resource group. “If it wasn’t for the marijuana, many would do it, and we’d see mixed-use residential and retail like other parts of the city. But it’s tons of money, and there’s no desire to change that zoning because of it.”

David Migoya: 303-954-1506, or @davidmigoya

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