Commercializing Charm: Old South Pearl Street Evolves

South Denver's beloved strip of retail and restaurants owes its existence to Denver's streetcar era, but it's changing with the times.
New development is coming to Old South Pearl Street in Platt Park.

Patrick Finney of brokerage firm FINN Real Estate plans to demolish two century-old retail buildings to make room for a $6 million coworking and office complex, observing that the market was "underserved" in the area in a BusinessDen story. The development is supplanting the soon-to-close Gaia Bistro and the now-shuttered Greentree Cyclery on the 1500 block of South Pearl.

Just up the street, Que Beuno Suerto!, an eclectic Mexican eatery is expected to open in late 2016 in the space that previously housed Session Kitchen at 1518 S. Pearl St.

Amidst the change, many residents and business owners seek to preserve the charm and history of the nine-block Old South Pearl Street stretch.

"It's an eccentric mixture of Denver culture, some families, business professionals, hipsters and hippies all drawn to this funky neighborhood for its unique, small business and laidback vibe," says Elena Davis, owner of Peace of Mind Massage at 1249 S. Pearl St.

Extending from Buchtel Boulevard to Evans Avenue, the area has "both single- and multi-family residences . . . mixed right in with the businesses, so it feels a lot like a small-town Main Street," says Mark Gill, branch manager and loan officer with Mortgage West on South Pearl, and president of the South Pearl Street Association for 10 years and counting. He describes the mix of development as "healthy and eclectic," with retail, restaurants, coffee shops, and miscellaneous businesses, ranging from health and wellness practices to auto repair shops.

The corridor is also home to music festivals, a seasonal Sunday farmers market and other seasonal events.

But the commercial strip was by no means a destination from the get-go.

FINN Real Estate plans to demolish two century-old buildings to make room for a coworking complex.Unfolding history

Dating back to the streetcar era, Platt Park's Old South Pearl got its start more than a century ago. From the late 1800s through the mid-20th century, streetcar #8 traveled east from Broadway on First Avenue down Pennsylvania Street to Alameda Avenue, then snaking a block over to Pearl. As a result, commercial operations freckled the blocks. In the 1980s, Pearl Street Grill and The Vogue, a movie theater that has since been converted to lofts, were neighborhood anchors.

When brothers Yasu and Toshi Kizaki first opened Sushi Den in Dec. 1984, Platt Park was a "sleepy, quiet" neighborhood, explains Yasu Kizaki.

Prior to launching the now storied sushi destination, Yasu worked in London at a Japanese restaurant, when he received a letter from his father, requesting he assist Toshi with his endeavor. "I had never heard of Denver," Yasu recalls. "I heard about John Denver in the early 1970s. I think I had his album, 'Rocky Mountain High.' I had a feeling it was a beautiful place."

The original location only had 50 seats. Within roughly a year, word had gotten out and "people started coming more and more," Yasu says. "At the time, we didn't have a lot of competition," he adds, modestly.

The Kizakis have moved and expanded their operations multiple times – starting in the building where The Tavern Platt Park now lives and moving to the corner property at 1487 S. Pearl St., opening and moving Izakaya Den, opening and reopening OTOTO, and most recently developing a parking garage with street-level retail. Their efforts have ultimately been sustainable on Old South Pearl, successfully galvanizing the area's reputation as a retail and dining hub tucked into a historic residential neighborhood.

"I think the businesses and events on South Pearl Street really speak to the mindful and conscious people of Colorado who are interested in the outdoors, spirituality, local food, fitness, self care, fun and community," Davis says.

Her therapeutic massage center has been on Old South Pearl since 2009. "When I went to see the office, I fell in love with the neighborhood instantly," she says. She expanded to another office on the 1800 block and moved to the 1200 block in 2011. "I stayed on South Pearl Street because once I was there, I never wanted to leave."

Growth and changeKaos Pizzeria and Park Burger have used Pearl Street as a launching pad to expand through the city.

According to Davis, the street has grown leaps and bounds since she opened her doors, noting new developments and more restaurants.

"We have no national retail or restaurant chains; every shop is unique," Gill says.  However, concepts -- such as Kaos Pizzeria and Park Burger -- have used Pearl Street as a launching pad to gain popularity and expand through the city; while other local chains, such as The Tavern, have set their sights on the Pearl Street corridor.

"A few old establishments closed after many years, making room for the new," Davis says. "While some businesses have come and gone quickly, we've recently seen more businesses establish a great foundation and thrive. It's gone from a more low-key vibe, to a bit more upscale."

She adds that the neighborhood is supportive of small business owners and the close-knit community is largely reliant on positive word-of-mouth. "Clients, staff and business associates also serve as neighbors and friends," Davis says.

One such example she cited was Lea Marlene of Lea Marlene Actors Studio who opened at the start of August for classes at 1601 S. Pearl. Formerly known as Actasana in the Virginia Village neighborhood, the theater studio hosts classes for all ages, professional productions, standup comedy nights and more. Marlene says her last location in a strip mall "lacked community . . . it wasn't really a place you'd want to hang out."

The new location has been built to include office space for private instruction, a stage for classes and full productions and a theater with seating for 70.

"I find myself attracted to the old, charming streets I grew up with," says Marlene, a Denver native. "I could spend all day on South Pearl Street." She says the rent is, "rightfully so, a little more expensive" than her former space. However, she adds the "visibility, walkability and fellow businesses" make it worth the uptick. Plus, she points to the "growth potential" in the area.

Problems and solutions

Many business owners and residents acknowledge parking as a high-priority concern in the area.

In response, the Kizaki brothers funded and built a new parking garage, which opened earlier this summer, supplying 200 net-new spaces for restaurant guests, employees and local businesses.

According to Gill, the new parking structure also has about 80 linear feet of retail street frontage. Yasu says a grocery "might be nice," mentioning a potential Japanese bakery eyeing a ground-level retail space in the parking structure that is working through logistics and permitting.

Marlene expresses her hope for balance, as it relates to new builds in the area, mentioning the charm of Gaia Bistro. She says she fears that excessive construction could change the area for the worse. "It's cool because it still feels like a secret," she says.

"I think prosperous neighborhoods and business districts like ours can be challenged in some ways by their own success," Gill says. He says he hopes to maintain the healthy charm and accessibility of the area, but fears rising rents and real estate prices can put pressure on small, independent businesses, that "make South Pearl Street what it is."

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Read more articles by Gigi Sukin.

Gigi Sukin is a Denver-based writer-editor. She currently works as an editor at ColoradoBiz and previously worked as an editorial intern at 5280.
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