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

Back down on Second Avenue, Steel describes the NorthCreek project while greeting numerous lunchtime passersby by name. A half-block down Second Avenue, construction workers line up at the "gourmet" hot dog stand, where the blonde attendant doesn't fish wieners out of stale, cloudy steam cart water but grills them up on a propane-fueled Royal range. A half-block the other way, a handful of people dressed casually enough to suggest that they won't be working today lounge about the Starbucks patio. There is no sign of the shaggy, baggy, fresh-off-the-slopes wardrobe so ubiquitous everywhere else in Denver; anyone who might normally wear such duds instead sports the proletarian uniform of whatever restaurant or boutique where they toil.

On the walk down Second, an elderly woman, dressed in her Sunday best even though it's Thursday, grimaces against the stiff breeze. Farther down the street, a middle-aged couple, handsomely matching in forest green sweaters and golden brown slacks, strides arm in arm and hip to hip, as slyly amorous as a Cialis commercial. Entering Java Creek Cafe, I meet the BID's Bender and Lisa Tyler, the bubbly, short-haired owner of Gallerie Rouge, which sells vintage posters, and Cherry Creek Framing. Like her fellow "little guys"—local independent merchants— she's eagerly anticipating the arrival of Pura Vida and the NorthCreek stores. (Steel estimates that about a dozen retailers will occupy the complex; in November, the tres haute French boutique Hermes announced that it would be one of them.) Tyler uses derivations of "exciting" at least a half-dozen times to describe the business boom. "[It's] totally changed the feel of the whole neighborhood," says Tyler, who also is the BID's chairperson. "We're no longer just a destination shopping district because the [JW Marriott] brought in tourists. In a shopping area, it's always great to have new things happening."

In theory, the nearby mall obviates a mass invasion of chain stores, providing a buffer for independent retailers. The BID and DAB will help keep Cherry Creek North from being overrun by brand-name franchises, though a few—Crate & Barrel, Smith & Hawken, and the rampaging, viral Starbucks—already have crept in. It's a subtle trend that stalwarts such as Lawrence Covell, who's been in the neighborhood for almost 30 years, are monitoring. "I like that it's hard for developers to build big properties," he says. "If national chains come into this area, it loses a lot of its attractiveness."

The Tattered Cover's owner, Joyce Meskis, might take a similarly dim view of chain store incursions. But aside from her pre-move lease issues, she had noticed a dwindling customer flow, particularly from the southern suburbs. "Between the T-Rex [freeway construction] project and the congestion around Cherry Creek North, we found that many of our customers weren't coming there anymore, at least not for books," she says. They weren't coming for certain foods, either. Mel Master, owner of Mel's Restaurant, says traffic and parking concerns, along with lease problems, finally drove him from the neighborhood after 14 years. The pay station meters, the relative dearth of individual parking spots, and rigid out-of-area restrictions in surrounding residential streets cause constant re-examination and angst among neighborhood and city officials. (NorthCreek will add some garage parking spaces to the mix, but Pura Vida's spots are for members only.) "Toward the end of our time there, we found that people were reluctant to come into Cherry Creek simply because of the new parking meters," Master says.

Saiber says eliminating cars altogether from the area won't happen. "Students of retail realize that in our society, vehicular access is tantamount to commercial success," he says. He and his colleagues have discussed a system of circulating electronic buses arriving every few minutes, much like on the 16th Street Mall. Saiber says the buses might even offer a genuinely luxurious service in which people could hand off bulky purchases to the drivers for delivery to their parking garage while they continue shopping.

In Cherry Creek North, anything seems possible. Master, who now has a Mel's Restaurant in Greenwood Village and a Mel's Bistro—the renamed Montecito—at Sixth and Corona, remembers his time there fondly. He acknowledges some disillusionment over his departure—he was briefly in a dispute with the NorthCreek developers over his rental contract—but says now that "it was just business." Still, he wonders why the neighborhood overseers are so relentlessly foisting such lofty changes onto such an earthbound town. "They see Cherry Creek as a Colorado version of Beverly Hills," he says. "They've lost its neighborhood feel and replaced it with glitz, and I don't know to what extent Denverites will embrace it." Certainly, many won't. And, perhaps, that's precisely the point.

Luc Hatlestad is a senior editor at 5280. E-mail him at [email protected].