Head to West Highland, a Denver nabe that’s gone from bad to fab.

When Jerilyn Berardi opened her vintage clothing shop, Babareeba, in Denver’s West Highland neighborhood ten years ago, she put out a notebook for customers to add their names to the store’s mailing list. As the names stretched down the page, Berardi was surprised to find many people coming in to shop from nearby towns like Boulder, Arvada and Highlands Ranch.

While locals are still her best customers, West Highland’s retail strip along 32nd Avenue and Lowell Street on Denver’s northwest side has become a destination for suburbanites who want an alternative to the mall, Berardi said. "This area attracts people who seek out unique items and unique city neighborhoods," she added. "They’re usually just trying to get away from the generic nature of Foley’s or the Gap." Business has been good for Berardi, who is moving to a new location a few doors down on 32nd so she can double her space with a new 1,100-square-foot shop.

While West Highlands may seem like an urban utopia now, it hasn’t always been that way, merchants said. "Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have wanted to walk down this street," said Jennifer Laemmel, co-owner of women’s boutique Frolik. Meade Street Station, a popular lunch spot, used to be a tough biker bar. And gangs were a problem, said Greg Bortz, owner of Denver Bread Company, located at Irving Street and 32nd Avenue. In fact, he had second thoughts right after he opened the bakery eight years ago because there was a fatal gang shooting at the car wash across from his bakery.

Doug Wheeler, senior planner for the city of Denver, said West Highland has gone through a dramatic transformation since he first moved there 15 years ago. Back then, gangs were a problem. "You used to see a lot of tagging," he said. "As soon as it was painted over, you’d see it again." Because of the crime, neighbors kept to themselves. "Now, you see more people out pushing their kids in the stroller and walking their dogs out in the neighborhood," he said. Also, the business district along 32nd Avenue was struggling in those days. "Ten years ago, the choices were pretty limited, so you didn’t go there much," Wheeler said. "Now there are lots of places people really enjoy."So what caused West Highland to turn around? It started with an influx of homeowners who liked the city location — near downtown offices and major highways like I-25 — and the desirable old-fashioned housing stock. Ten years ago people with a little knowledge of home repair could buy a cute Victorian house for $100,000 and restore it. "That area has been a little less expensive and has offered a place for people to get their foot in the housing market and be close to downtown at the same time," said Carla McConnell, an urban design architect with the Denver planning office. "It’s an older Denver neighborhood with mature trees and good architectural elements."

Today, visitors like to spend the day on 32nd Ave., browsing the boutiques, stopping for lunch at award-winning restaurants like Julia Blackbird, which has New Mexican cuisine, or Bang, which offers more contemporary fare inside a whimsically decorated old home. At the end of the day, shoppers can treat themselves to a massage or pedicure at Indulgences Day Spa. The street is packed with a mix of other businesses, including a Latino book store, a thriving coffeehouse, gourmet wine and cheese shops, a yoga studio and a gelato place. The surrounding neighborhood sets the tone for the area, with old-fashioned light fixtures, charming Victorian homes and large yards shaded by 100-year-old trees.

Restaurants were the first to rediscover the business strip along 32nd and Lowell, said Denver Bread Company’s Bortz. Since eateries can serve liquor, their profit margins are higher, Bortz said. Many of the restaurants along 32nd have received awards in the alternative weekly paper Westword’s "Best of Denver" section. The restaurants generated plenty of foot traffic, which led to more retail shops.

For example, Cindy Ollig, who owns the Perfect Petal florist shop on 32nd, decided to open a second store across the street last fall. The new shop, called Posh, carries a mix of gift items, home accessories and clothing. Ollig offers pajamas and loungewear by Baby Doll and Bella Notte, handbags by DAS, and Martin and Burnett as well as several jewelry lines by local artists. "We have a romantic, playful, girly kind of feeling," Ollig said. She knew there was a market for more retail on 32nd because the gift items in her other shop were selling well. Ollig purposely stays open late on weeknights and on weekends to catch people who stroll by while waiting for a table at a nearby cafe. "The restaurants draw a lot of people to our stores," she said.Within a few weeks of Posh’s debut, Frolik opened down the street. Laemmel and gal pal Jennifer Bonenberger bought a turn-of-the century house along 32nd Street, added some track lights and metal racks and opened Frolik last fall. The store carries hip, funky lines including Tessuto, Blue Dot, Shu Shu and Cosabella. Like Ollig, Bonenberger and Laemmel wanted to open on 32nd because they live nearby. "We felt this was something the neighborhood needed and we wanted to make it happen," Laemmel said.

Another local shop, Garnet Gecko, appeals to women looking for ethnic, bohemian styles, such as batik-print dresses by Bali-based Lucky Family, long black skirts by Vivyd and Young at Heart and colorful imported vests with patchwork and embroidery. The owner, Sharon Garnet, also carries a wide selection of sterling silver, Southwest-style jewelry, along with arts and craft items imported from Asia. Throughout the area, other eclectic second-hand clothing shops can be found, and more retail space is planned for the Highland Gardens Village development on the former Elitch’s amusement park site.

Both Ollig and the Frolik owners serve as board members for the West Highland Merchants Association. They said the organization’s cohesive membership has helped businesses thrive in the area. "We’re fortunate to have such a good level of comraderie," Ollig said. The group sponsors an annual summer street fair and a music festival to draw bigger crowds to the area.

For Ollig, who moved from Boulder, it feels like a self-contained village. Ollig said her neighbors in West Highland are friendlier, creating more of a community feeling than other places she has lived. The area has a mixture of wealthy professionals, middle-class blue-collar workers and young creative types with kids. Berardi likes the diversity. "It’s not a real vanilla neighborhood," she said. "It’s a crazy, artsy, eclectic mix and everyone appreciates it that way."

The housing market reflects that positive feeling, said Carol Ann Sinclair, a broker with Nostalgic Homes realty. According to her figures, average home prices in West Highland have increased from $179,859 in 2000 to $207,899 in 2002. The trend is likely to continue as other new developments draw more people to the neighborhood. Condos are being built at the old Elitch Gardens amusement park site and a pedestrian bridge will link West Highland to trendy downtown loft areas across the Platte River. The median household income for the area is $44,470, compared with $39,500 for the entire city of Denver.Retail real estate also has been increasing in the neighborhood, causing rents to go higher, merchants said. It’s harder to find retail space these days, they add. Bonenberger and Laemmel said they had to buy their store because landlords along 32nd were being so selective they would not consider young entrepreneurs who were just starting out without a proven track record. By contrast, in the early days, Bortz remembers many empty storefronts along 32nd Avenue. The Common Grounds coffeehouse was one of the first pioneers to open. As a popular meeting place, it drew more traffic to the street, leading the way for Heidi’s Deli and others, he added.

Today, instead of worrying about filling storefronts, local retailers worry about getting too big and losing the area’s character. So far, major national chains have stayed away, although a new Chipotle on the corner of Lowell and 32nd may be a harbinger of more to come. Merchants said they want the street to grow, but if Gap or Starbucks does come knocking, they’ll band together to fight it. "I think people are attracted to the neighborhood because of the diversity and the boutique feel," Ollig said. "It’s more intimate and charming because they feel they’re getting something they can’t find at a chain store."

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