Perfecting Pleasantville

In many ways, Cherry Creek North represents the best of Denver. So why are the neighborhood's leaders so consumed with making it even better?

January 2008

In June 2006, when the Tattered Cover bookstore vacated its Fillmore Plaza location—where Pura Vida now sits—it became the latest chapter in the hand-wringing national narrative: the hopeless plight of independent booksellers. The store reopened on Colfax Avenue, and some local observers now say that the transition's drama was overblown. "Everybody laments the loss of the Tattered Cover, but maybe Pura Vida and the other stores will generate even more traffic and vitality and serve more people," says Jonathan Saiber, a principal at Cherry Creek's Saiber Saiber architectural firm. "Quite a bit of the Tattered Cover uproar was emotional and romanticized."

Part of that may have been nostalgia for the neighborhood's modest early history. In the 1930s, this area—which would eventually transform Denver from a skiers-only oasis into a swanky international shopping bazaar—was populated in part by gypsies camping along Cherry Creek. Such a group would face a forceful shooing today but coexisted then with a school, a blacksmith, several roadhouses, a grocer, and a candy store. In the 1940s and '50s, the Cherry Creek shopping district expanded while I-25 popped up nearby, and by the early 1960s Cherry Creek North was marketing its specialty stores as a "destination" shopping enclave.

In the mid-1980s, developers introduced plans to build a mall across First Avenue, at the former site of the city dump. In response, the local government formed the Cherry Creek Steering Committee, a group of residents and merchants charged with assembling a long-term neighborhood plan. Once the mall went up, some of these same people established the Cherry Creek North Business Improvement District (CCNBID). Comprised of local architects and property and business owners, its goal was to complement and compete with the mall "in a positive sense." It was a pivotal moment; an antagonistic relationship with the mall's owners could have been disastrous for Cherry Creek's small business owners. But "[the proximity] turned out to be the best of both worlds," says Julie Bender, the BID's current president and CEO. "The [local] blueprint was driven by entrepreneurs putting a plan together so it doesn't just look like any other place."

Part of that plan was to intentionally cloister the neighborhood. Zoning regulations dictate height requirements for new construction in the area, so taller, blockier buildings such as Sears, Janus Capital Group, and the JW Marriott hotel act as a fortress, protecting Cherry Creek North from the masses streaming along the First Avenue moat, which handles about 61,000 cars per day. The farther you get from First Avenue, the shorter the buildings, which is why shoppers can stand a block from constantly teeming auto traffic yet still feel like they're in a pristine village.