Denver's top ten underutilized neighborhood business districts: The next hot 'hoods!

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I got into a conversation at a party this weekend about which neighborhood business district in Denver might emerge as the next cool place. Or, as real estate agents like to say, an "up-and-coming location." People who self-identify as urbanites spend a lot of time talking about this sort of thing. Which spots are getting a new coffee shop? What chain of old buildings would be perfect for a restaurant/bar? When the hell are we going to get a Trader Joe's?

Denver may be a city of neighborhoods, but it's even more a collection of commercial districts filled with eateries, coffee shops and entertainment venues like Highland Square, South Pearl, LoDo, Cherry Creek North, Old South Gaylord, Tennyson and the Bluebird District. But the list could soon get bigger.

Most of these places above, originally built around Denver's old street-car network, didn't even have fancy names until about ten years ago. Yet they've become embedded into the way people perceive the city and physically move about it. To crib a line from French theorists and Richard Florida, they're part of what I like to call Denver's "psychogeography." With that in mind, here are my top ten underutilized Denver business districts with the greatest potential for future coolness:

#10 Area: Lower Colfax Neighborhood: Sun Valley Lower Colfax is the area beneath the Colfax viaduct just west of the Platte River. Most of the structures in this once-vibrant Jewish neighborhood were long ago bulldozed for football stadium parking, leaving a few vacant buildings and bars that only see action on game days. But it's also the planned location for the first stop in the next FasTracks expansion, and the ugly Public Works building is being vacated by the end of the year. Plus, these multi-colored buildings are pretty.

#9 Area: Morrison Road Neighborhood: Westwood

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If Federal is the expressway of Denver's Latino community, then Morrison Road is its main street -- or could be anyway. New affordable housing loft projects and recent streetscaping by the city have laid good bones for Latino-focused businesses to come in and replace some of the random warehouses and junk yards. Hey, how about a

Pizza Patron?

#8 Area: 45th and Logan Neighborhood: Globeville

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I've always thought this strip of buildings on West 45th Avenue is interesting, like an outer-boroughs tract from 1920s New York. This might be because the highways, river and railroad tracks cut Globeville off from the rest of the city, almost keeping the working-class neighborhood hermetically sealed against trends that have stripped character away from other places. Anyway, I'm bullish on Globeville, even if no one else is.

# 7 Area: 8th and Santa Fe, Neighborhood: Baker

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As host to the city's largest collection of art galleries and studio spaces, the Santa Fe Arts District is already at the precipice of coolness. But the problem here isn't coolness -- it's functionality. Other than for First Friday art showings, there's really no reason to go to Santa Fe Boulevard. There's no clothing stores, groceries, dry cleaners, bakeries, super good restaurants (other than El Taco De Mexico, which is amazing) or decent bars that you don't have to have to speak Spanish and have a prison neck tattoo to patronize. The fact that Santa Fe Boulevard is a really busy one-way street definitely hampers things, too. One-way streets: great for driving fast, horrendous for small businesses.

#6 Area: 28th and Fairfax, Neighborhood: North Park Hill

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I don't know why this strip of businesses in the mostly-African American neighborhood of North Park Hill hasn't taken off. After all, a very similar stretch along Kearney Street in South Park Hill has done great. Fairfax does have the Park Hill Bike Depot, which is a neat community bike-share program, and Joseph's Southern Food, my favorite hangover cure (aside from El Taco De Mexico, that is). But, otherwise, the majority of stores are vacant or underutilized. So what's up, people?

#5 Area: 14th and Krameria, Neighborhood: Montclair

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Anchored by a Safeway and a few cool, old school hang-outs like the Kramaria Café and the Mozart Lounge, this commercial area just off East Colfax and Monaco is ripe for development. The city should encourage the construction of some denser, mixed-used projects that would fill in all those massive parking lots and help brand this place as a destination. Call it... Montclair Square? HiKram? I dunno. I'm just a newspaper writer, not one of those super-duper marketing geniuses.

#4 Area: 25th and Ames, Neighborhood: Edgewater

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Technically, Edgewater is its own little municipality right on Denver's border just west of Sheridan Boulevard. But the mini-burb has become a proxy for people looking for an urbanish vibe but who couldn't keep up with the rapid appreciation of homes in the Highland or Sloan's Lake neighborhoods. A large part of Edgewater's allure is the "main street" of shops along West 25th Avenue, which already has great restaurants like U.S. Thai, the Edgewater Inn and Sloan's Bar and Grill (my favorite alternative to My Brother's Bar). Still, the strip isn't as vibrant and diverse and it could be. It's probably only a matter of time, though. But, please, I beg you, no more pet boutiques.

#3 Area: 27th and Welton, Neighborhood: Five Points

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Can we all stop pretending that Five Points is the heart of black Denver? Yes, I know that's what it says on all the bronze plaques and in the Colorado history textbooks under "civil rights struggle." But the noble past of Five Points as a hub for African American culture and business ownership in the city just doesn't match up with today's reality.

Despite Denver politicians having poured millions of public funds toward this length of storefronts, bars and theaters in the vain hope of stimulating another black renaissance, census figures show that the black middle class has moved eastward into newer and bigger homes in Park Hill, Montbello and Green Valley Ranch. They've been replaced in Five Points by poor Latinos and, more recently, an influx of young, white hipsters and well-to-do yuppies. The most booming commercial activity along Welton Street has come from the hippy concert venue Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom and the construction of $500,000 lofts. And with the recent death of longtime Five Points real estate mogul Charles Cousins, can we really expect the cupcake shops and wine stores to stay away forever?

#2 Area: 25th and Eliot Neighborhood: Jefferson Park

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Jefferson Park is one of those 'hoods identified by local real estate hawks as The Next Big Thing. I'm still on the fence. But one thing is for sure: This commercial district at the intersection of Eliot Street and West 25th Avenue is an untouched jewel -- cool old buildings, close to downtown, easily accessible by Federal and Speer, surrounded by residents looking for somewhere to walk. It even has the old Granada Theater, just waiting for some ambitious improv comedy troupe to take a little risk. And yet the majority of spaces are vacant or occupied by business so obscure I wonder if they even know what they sell. Just wait. When this little area pops, it will pop big.

#1 Area: 41st and Tejon, Neighborhood: Sunnyside

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Haven't you heard? Sunnyside is the new Lower Highland! Perfect for young families who don't mind a little drug dealing and the rare drive-by-shooting. And judging from the energetic turn-out at the Sunnyside Music Festival last month (before it started to rain ice, anyway), there are a lot of young families who find it a perfectly fine trade-off to living in some bland housing cluster in, ughh, suburbia. So why do the storefronts at Tejon Street and West 41st Avenue look as though they haven't changed lease since the '80s oil bust? If you build it, they will come. Really!

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