Joe Vostrejs creates ‘third place’ in Denver

Joe Vostrejs creates ‘third place’ in Denverby John Rebchook  March 2015

 

Years ago, someone gave the book, “The Great Good Place: Cafés, Cof-fee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hang-outs at the Heart of Community.” Today, there is little doubt that the title of that book by Ray Oldenburg would aptly describe how Vostrejs and his partners have renewed and reshaped the urban fabric of Denver. They did it with numerous highly successful neighbor-hood retail and restaurant developments scattered throughout the city.

“The book talked about with all of the big suburban planning and highways, we’ve kind of destroyed what he called the ‘third place,’” said Vostrejs, the 54-year-old chief operating officer and partner with Larimer Associates. He also is a partner of a separate group, City Street Investors. The first two places are where you work and where you live. “The third place is where you go to have this sense of community,”  Vostrejs said. “It used to be the barber-shop, where people would gather and talk about everything under the sun. It didn’t matter if you were a doctor or a dentist or a plumber or how much money you had.”

In total, Larimer Associates and City Street Investors own 35 properties, which are worth about $70 million. That does not include Lar-imer Square, which is owned by Jeff Hermanson through a family holding company. Hermanson is the CEO of Larimer Associates and is a partner with Vostrejs on many of the Denver holdings, which include such high-pro-file and popular restaurants and real estate venues as Rioja, Hangar 2 Lowry, TAG/Raw Bar, Ernie’s Bar & Pizza, LoHi Steakhouse, Kazoo Toy Store and Billy’s Inn, just to tick off a handful.  Almost all of them would be prime examples of a third place.

Another great example of a third place is the Sloan’s Bar & Grill in Edgewater, which was developed and is owned by City Street Investors. They opened it more than a decade ago at 5850 W. 25th Ave. “It’s kitty-corner from the police station and it is not on any major street. Its neigh-bors are single-family homes. At the back, there is parking for about eight cars.”  And, “It’s been a hit from Day One,” Vostrejs said, despite violating the three most important rules of retail: location, location, location. “If you walk in Sloan’s any Wednesday or Thursday night, there will be 100 peo-ple there,” Vostrejs said. “You wonder where they come from.”  The answer is that they come from the neighborhood. Most of the patrons walk to the establishment and know each other, he said. “When I walk in the front door, it takes me 20 minutes to get to my table, because everyone there knows me and has a story to tell,” he said.

Another great example is the building at West 32nd Avenue and Lowell Boulevard in the now uber-trendy West Highland neighborhood.  Larimer Associates bought the building, the former Speer Furniture store, almost 20 years ago. A Chipotle, the seventh in the Denver-based chain, anchors it.  “Steve Ells (the founder of the now giant and hugely successful chain) signed the lease, personally,” Vostrejs said. “I don’t think these days Steve Ells signs many leases or walks the site with guys like me, like he did at 32nd and Lowell. At that time, Steve was just an up-and-coming chef,” Vostrejs said.

Providing real estate opportunities and often needed start-up and operating capital to chefs is a key component of Larimer Associates today. Larimer Associates has teamed up with such well-known Denver chefs as Jen-nifer Jasinski, Sean Kelly and Troy Guard. “We have the real estate and management exper-tise, while a lot of these really excellent chefs are often underfunded,” noted Vostrejs. “It’s mutually beneficial for us to provide them the plat-form, so they can concentrate on what they do best – prepare great meals,” he said.

Yet, even successful developments aren’t without critics.  “This is a true story,” Vostrejs said. “When we first put Speer Furniture under contract at 32nd and Lowell, I got a phone call from a woman who wanted to meet with me,” he recalled. He met with two Hispanic women whose families had lived in West Highland for years. The women scolded Vostrejs, saying he was gentrifying the neighborhood and they neither wanted nor needed “fancy restaurants and stores that would cater to rich, white people.”   He was told people who lived there liked the neighbor-hood as it is and developments would drive out people of color from the area. Vostrejs was at a loss for words.  “I told them, look, I just buy old buildings and fix them up,” he said.

Fast-forward about 15 years, after a plan surfaced to build three, five-story luxury apartment buildings up the street from 32nd and Lowell. Two more women came to Vostrejs to join their protest against the apartment community. He couldn’t help but notice they were both blonde, white women, reflecting the change predicted by the Hispanic women. “Everything had come full circle,” Vostrejs said. The neighbors protesting the apartments had similar fears to the other women. “They told me the neighbor-hood is just fine the way it is and nothing has to change,” Vostrejs said. They were unhappy that he did not join their opposition. “People have to understand that neighborhoods are living, breathing and evolving things,” Vostrejs said. And from a business perspective, it is hard to make an argument that the new apartments would be bad for Chipotle and the other tenants in his building. “It doesn’t exactly break my heart that I would have another 150 or so customers who can walk to my building,” Vostrejs said.

Yet he understands that many people neither like change nor think all change is for the better.  “I’m sure if those five-story apartments are built, 20 years from now people will be protesting some new proposal, saying they like things the way they are and there is no reason to change it,” Vostrejs said.

One thing Vostrejs is not is a seller. “Selling our properties would be like selling our children,” Vostrejs said. “We put so much effort and sweat and blood into each of our properties that we couldn’t imagine parting with them,” he said. “It would be different if we were merchant builders, who build something, lease it up and sell it,” he said. “But that is not who we are.”  Indeed, as a third-generation Denverite, Vostrejs cares deeply about the city and its neighborhoods. “When we buy a building, our goal is always to make the neighborhood better,” he said.

Vostrejs grew up in Park Hill, about two miles from where he lives in Lowry, with his wife, Mary, a pediatrician. “My wife and I met in high school,” at the Central Catholic High School at 18th and Logan streets. Now, it is RedPeak Proper-ties’ One City Block apartment community. “Mary and I were over there at the D Bar restaurant having dinner the other night, and we were joking this is where we used to play hooky and smoke cigarettes when we were in high school,” he said. They have two grown children. Alexandra, 26, is a graduate student in landscape architecture at the University of Colorado Denver. Drew, 23, is studying computer science at CU Boulder, he said. In his free time, Vostrejs is an avid road cyclist and mountain biker. He and Mary also like to fly-fish whenever they get the opportunity. After graduating from Regis, culminating 16 years of Catholic schooling, Vostrejs entered the restaurant business.

“As I got a little older, Mary really wanted to start a family and the restaurant business is not really conducive to family life,” Vostrejs said. He was in his mid-20s in the mid-1980s, when the savings and loan crisis and the collapse in energy prices crushed real estate in Colorado and other states whose economies had been built on rising energy prices. Vostrejs joined a Denver attor-ney who was doing workouts for distressed properties. “The value of the original loans on the properties were probably in excess of $900 million,” he said. Vostrejs handled the property management for a wide variety of asset classes, including retail, apartment, industrial and office. “I really received a crash course on working out all kind of real estate,” he said.

Then, Trammell Crow Co. recruited him to for its property management division. “That’s where I met , who is now one of my partners at Larimer Associates,” he said. While at Trammell Crow, he was in charge of Tamarac Square along Hampden Ave-nue, east of Interstate 25. At Tamarac, Vostrejs got to know Jeff Hermanson, who owned a restaurant there. “Jeff owned a number of restaurants like Cadillac Ranch and Champion Brewery in Lar-imer Square. So when the Hahn Co., which then owned Larimer Square, wanted to sell it, Jeff was a logical buyer,” Vostrejs said. After Hermanson bought Lar-imer Square, he asked Vostrejs to come on board to run it on a day-to-day basis as the general manager. “It was a tough decision because Trammell Crow was just a great company and a great place to work,” Vostrejs said.  “But as a Denver native, I realized what an opportunity it was to work on a special asset like Larimer Square. And it would allow me to work down-town, which is near and dear to my heart. That was 19 years ago, and the rest is history, as they say.”