Feature

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

Click here to view additional photos of Cherry Creek.

David Steel won't say whose house we're in. Standing on the roof deck of 7,000 square feet of unfinished glass-and-steel luxury, he'll only allow that "a familiar name, someone you see often in the society pages," is considering buying it. Perched above the corner of Second Avenue and Fillmore Plaza, the anonymous socialite's would-be nth home sits like a castle turret guarding the entrance to NorthCreek, a gated community plopped right into the heart of 80206, Denver's toniest zip code. Looking northwest from the deck on this sparkling October day, treetops roll with autumnal brilliance toward the downtown skyscrapers silhouetted against the snow-dusted Front Range. Steel—president of Western Development Group, NorthCreek's builder—nods toward the jutting skyline. "People buying here don't even want to go downtown anymore," he says. And why would they? "We probably have the best demographics of any neighborhood [in town]," he says. "People go through years of trying to get what we have."

What Cherry Creek North has is a veritable Disneyland for anyone with abundant disposable income. After the 9/11 attacks, President Bush encouraged people to demonstrate their resiliency and boost the economy by aggressively resuming that great American pastime: shopping. By that measure, this neighborhood surely is one of the most patriotic pockets in the country. Within its 16 square blocks reside (as of press time) 22 art galleries, 47 restaurants, and more than 50 salons and spas, including one devoted primarily to whitening one's teeth. There are jewelers, home furnishers, yoga and Pilates studios, sporting goods stores, confectioners, dry cleaners and tailors, and countless boutiques selling designer clothing and footwear (for you, your child—or your dog). More budget- or brand-conscious shoppers can slum it by crossing First Avenue to the Cherry Creek Shopping Center, which in October became one of only six malls in the United States with a Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy's, and Neiman Marcus under one roof. Dotting the increasingly sleek neighborhood landscape are intermittent reminders of the area's motley past, such as Java Creek Cafe, a quaint, ancient shack of a coffeeshop, and the Cherry Cricket, the kitschy, wood-paneled pub whose regular-folk clientele seems to exist only within the restaurant's walls.

The newest additions to this cosseted landscape are NorthCreek, a retail and residential complex, and Pura Vida Fitness and Spa, a private gym that is scheduled to open in February. (The attached Nectar spa will be open to the public.) The two projects are the biggest new endeavors in Cherry Creek North since the Clayton Lane shopping center opened in 2004, and the biggest ones on the foreseeable horizon. However, their completion will not end the evolution of this nearly flawless micro-community; if anything, the projects epitomize the relentless nature of retail and of humans—certain ones, at least—who believe the only way to ensure the enduring perfection of anything is to constantly change it. As a result, the one neighborhood in Denver least in need of a makeover is getting one anyway.

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.

The Cherry Creek North Design Advisory Board (DAB), essentially a council of elders alongside the BID, reviews exterior changes to neighborhood properties. Saiber, the DAB's chairman, says the board reserves the real scrutiny for applications that might truly alter the neighborhood feel, so Starbucks is free to replace a ripped awning, but a new roof might be another story. The DAB's enormous influence is largely due to the lofty profiles of its members. This includes Saiber, whose firm has been in Cherry Creek North for 20 years, and longtime clothier Lawrence Covell, one of the DAB's original members, a leader of the BID, and for decades an advocate for maintaining the area's cozy integrity. "We have no enforcement authority," Saiber says, "but we tend to be respected."

NorthCreek and Pura Vida surely will alter the area's vibe, albeit in a way that seems to appeal to the locals. Pura Vida's aim, says managing partner J Madden, is to "target the communion of mind and body" for its privileged clients (up to 1,000 people, the membership cap at press time) by offering comprehensive workout facilities, classes, myriad therapeutic and regenerative treatments, and, management hopes, lectures from doctors in fields such as acupuncture and bio-identical hormones—anti-aging techniques, to the uninitiated. A multimedia tour on the Pura Vida website features interiors that mimic the feel of an Ian Schrager hotel, and the site displays snapshots of exercisers, some toned and young, some quite old. Pura Vida will allow no one under 18 and has no daycare options. "We figure people with kids will know how to handle that," Madden says.

It's a far cry from the former no-frills tenant. "The neighborhood got the wind knocked out of it a bit when Tattered Cover left," Madden says. "But hopefully we'll be the heartbeat that's returning." Madden looks a little like Hugh Hefner, only—fittingly enough for a veteran health club executive—younger and more cut, and he speaks with the self-assuredness you'd expect from someone who substitutes a lone initial for his first name. "We are using the dart in the bull's-eye marketing strategy because of our location," he says. "Everyone in the metro area who's familiar with this zip code knows who lives here, who shops and socializes here. There's a gap in the high-end health club market geographically, but we're right in that hole in the donut."

Across Fillmore Plaza, NorthCreek residents will have an exclusive, Gramercy Park-style locked courtyard, along with numerous decks and terraces from which they can look down on their Cherry Creek neighbors. Originally 44 units, the complex now has 29 after some buyers doubled up. There is no model unit; residents can build out their interiors however they'd like, and they have one year from their purchase date to complete construction. Many residents are empty-nesters or mountain homeowners who want a pied-à-terre when they're in town. "A lot of them are from Aspen, and we call this our 'ski-in, ski-out' location," Steel says.

The tallest part of the complex, along Detroit Street, features condos starting at $1 million, many already occupied. The building along Second Avenue has eight units starting at $2.6 million. The final phase, which will be completed by the end of 2008, is a row of "brownstones," townhouses with decks looking out over Fillmore Plaza, giving owners luxury box seating for the promenade's numerous attractions. Parts of the underground garage will be public-access, but only NorthCreek residents will enjoy valet parking.

Local zoning rules also dictate that any new residential buildings have retail on the ground floor, emblematic of Cherry Creek North's fervent desire to promote its businesses. NorthCreek, however, won't have any restaurants or bars. "With the money they're spending, they don't want that kind of nighttime activity underneath their windows," Steel says. Saiber adds that more NorthCreek-type renovations may be on the way, condos roosting atop storefronts. "The whole intention of this rule is to create vibrance," he says. "We want a consistent elevation of the retail experience."

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].