How to Revitalize an Aging Shopping Plaza? Get Neighborly

University Hills Plaza today.EXPAND
University Hills Plaza today.
Sara Fleming
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You could easily fly past University Hills Plaza on South Colorado Boulevard without giving it a second glance. There’s not much to distinguish the plaza from surrounding strip malls — if anything, it looks a little shabbier and worse for wear. An orange sign announces its existence in a faux-glamorous font that might have seemed enticing in an earlier era.

Indeed, when University Hills Plaza opened in 1955 in the 2500 block of South Colorado Boulevard, it was a thoroughly modern amenity for a city that was rapidly sprawling to the south.

University Hills opened in 1955.
University Hills opened in 1955.

Now the plaza’s marketing manager, Robin Singer-Starbuck, aims to change its image from a “large, contemporary strip mall complex” (as Google Maps calls it, perhaps referring to its now-twenty-year-old remodel) and rebrand it as a “historic destination for shopping and dining” (as it’s slugged on the spot's new website). Her plan to revitalize the shopping center focuses on engaging the community, and this summer the plaza’s expansive parking lot will occasionally be transformed into a pedestrian festival, thanks to a lineup of events that includes a weekly farmers' market, a concert series and grilling demonstrations.

Since it opened over sixty years ago, University Hills Plaza has consistently been home to a number of locally owned businesses. These businesses continue to offer great services to the community, Singer-Starbuck says, but they're facing the challenges of increased rent and competition from nearby chain stores. “A lot of the businesses are relaxed in what they want to do to try to survive,” Singer-Starbuck notes. By getting the community together, she hopes to motivate owners to develop more sustainable business strategies.

Small business has always been big here.EXPAND
Small business has always been big here.

Some small-business owners in the plaza are already on board. Justin Roman Maes bought ABC Custom Framing, a longtime staple, in 2014, and says that promoting the shop as a local business and displaying prints by local artists has helped make business better than ever.

Maes is excited for this summer's event lineup. “These are really good things for [small-business owners] to get reminded of,” he says. “We also have an interest in reaching out and trying to engage. We can’t compete on the advertising scale of these big-box stores, so we have to remind people that [businesses] like us are still here.”

That effort may be just what the nearby community is looking for. In September 2016, Denver City Councilwoman Kendra Black, who represents District 4, surveyed 1,500 residents of southeast Denver and found that they want the area to cultivate more of a local, neighborhood feel. “Residents love our corner of Denver, but want it to be more walkable, with local restaurants, retail and gathering places for people to meet and linger,” Black concluded in her assessment of that survey.

Singer-Starbuck, who grew up in University Hills, says that the area has always felt “plenty neighborly” to her, but lacked organization. “There’s a ton of synergistic behavior,” she explains. “I’m trying to galvanize it all in one spot.” As a freelance marketer, she took the initiative and pitched her idea to the plaza's property manager, Dunton Commercial, and its ownership group, which still includes family members of the original owners. Since then, she's been dedicating herself to the project, even though she only works on it part-time.

According to Singer-Starbuck, the first installment of the grilling series was a success, with more than 200 meals served. A Saturday farmers’ market with more than forty local vendors — some of them from University Hills —will debut on June 30. And the first performance in the concert lineup, the Margarita Brothers (a Jimmy Buffett cover band), will sound off on July 12. Find the full calendar at uhplaza.com.

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