University Hills shopping center looks to engage residents with new events

Residents, shop owners are hoping the area will become a place to meet community

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A six-decade-old shopping center on Colorado Boulevard is expanding its summer programming in the hopes of becoming a new community gathering place in University Hills.

The University Hills Plaza is a large open-area shopping center with 22 tenants at 2500 S. Colorado Blvd. Robin Singer-Starbuck, who does marketing with the plaza, grew up in the area and wanted to see the shopping center take more of a role in community involvement. Two years ago, she approached owners with the idea, proposing a farmers’ market and summer events at University Hills Plaza.

“I wanted to give people a reason to shop in their neighborhood,” Singer-Starbuck said. “I believed then, and I believe now, that the shopping center needs a personality.”

Last year, the University Hills Plaza launched a new farmers’ market in the summer. Singer-Starbuck said the event had 35 vendors that were mixed between retail and food. On its first day about 800 people attended. The remaining farmers’ market days in 2018 averaged 400 people, she said.

In addition to the market, the plaza hosted several one-time events, such as summer concerts and an event with the Castle Rock Car Show. The events allow the plaza to partner with its tenants, who have a merchants’ association. Sallie Kashiwa, the owner of Timbuk Toys, held a Hot Wheels Derby to go along with the car show, for example.

Kashiwa said she is excited to expand on the derby from last year. She added that she can see the plaza events growing once the word gets out about them.

“It always takes a while to get this kind of thing really going,” she said. “This year we’ve got a much better sense of what our opportunities are.”

The farmers’ market is expanding. Singer-Starbuck said there are now 50 vendors for the 2019 season, which primarily focus on food. She added that University Hills Plaza partnered with organizations like Denver Urban Gardens and Big Green, both nonprofits with a focus on gardening education. The organizations will bring community gardens in from six local schools. The schools will keep 100 percent of the proceeds from goods sold at the farmers market, Singer-Starbuck said.

Other organizations, such at the YMCA and library across the street from the plaza, will also host booths at the market.

“It’s so many layers of engagement and participation,” Singer-Starbuck said. “It’s a way to tie us all together.”

Emily Walker, the president of the University Hills Neighborhood Association, said events are not only a great way to bring community together, but also help support small local businesses. Her aunt and uncle helped to start the farmers’ market in Cherry Creek 35 years ago. Her mom still runs a concession booth at the market as well.

“Having that kind of neighborhood marketplace, I think, is a really important component of a community,” Walker said.

She added that community events help people to recognize their neighbors and give them an opportunity to meet. Walker will be following in her mother’s footsteps and will be running a concession booth at the University Hills Plaza market this year.

“This is the community that I believe in, and that I was raised in and that I’m raising my children in,” Walker said. “I think that becoming more familiar, even if you don’t talk to each other, but you see these friendly faces … I think that creates safer communities.”

Another component of the community events, Singer-Starbuck said, is promoting safety. The shopping center worked with Councilmember Kendra Black’s office to survey residents of the University Hills neighborhood, asking what they wanted more of in the community. Of 1,300 responses, Singer-Starbuck said the top suggestions were for a farmers’ market, local eateries and pedestrian safety. Since they plaza has tackled the farmers’ market, Singer-Starbuck said their next step is to look into safety.

The shopping center once again worked with Black’s office, this time to apply for a grant with Walk Denver and Vision Zero, a city program aimed at reducing pedestrian deaths and injuries in Denver. Walk Denver is an advocacy group focused on making Denver more pedestrian friendly.

The grant allowed the plaza to put together a pop-up traffic-calming event for June 1. The event will focus on the intersection of Colorado Boulevard and East Yale Way. Walker said this area can be particularly dangerous for pedestrians to cross.

She added that having safer pedestrian crossings helps to better connect those residents to other areas of the neighborhood.

“That helps achieve a lot of things If we can do that,” Walker said. “It can connect our communities. It of course makes it safer, and it promotes businesses.”

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