Tri-State Denver Buddhist Temple would stay on the prime downtown block bounded by Larimer, Lawrence, 19th, 20th
The sign marking Sakura Square, the last vestige of a once-thriving Japanese neighborhood in downtown Denver on Sept. 8, 2016.
Sakura Square, the last vestige of a once-thriving Japanese-American neighborhood in Denver, is looking for a developer to help re-imagine the prime downtown block for future generations.
The Tri-State Denver Buddhist Temple would stay put — although potentially in a new building — as would new and returning Japanese cultural uses that could include restaurants, Japanese-influenced gardens, martial arts studios and a museum.
Japanese grocer Pacific Mercantile, which has been owned and operated by the same family for more than 70 years, would likely stick around, too.
But the rest of the aging 2.45-acre block, bounded by Larimer, Lawrence, 19th and 20th streets, could be completely remade with office, lodging, retail, residential and parking.
“When members of the temple first purchased the block 45 years ago, this area of Denver was literally Skid Row. It was bars and brothels,” Sakura Square CEO Gary Yamashita said. “We’ve had such good fortune that it’s probably some of the hottest real estate in Denver, right next to LoDo, right next to the ballpark, right next to the redevelopment in Arapahoe Square.”
The block’s owners, Sakura Square LLC and Tri-State/Denver Buddhist Temple, issued a request for qualifications this week from developers interested in a potential redevelopment effort. The deadline for submissions is Oct. 19, at which point the owners intend to narrow the field and ask perhaps three developers to submit more detailed proposals.
“The owners seek a redevelopment outcome that reflects their sensitivity to sustainable and superior modern Japanese-influenced design and architecture. Quality over quantity is a focus,” the request said. “When complete, the block should be a simple but iconic expression of Japanese community and culture and have a gracious presence in relationship to the street, neighborhood and community.”
Mary Wood reads a book in Sakura Square, September 08, 2016. Wood has lived in an apartment in Sakura Square for the past three years.
“A Japanese grocery store is an important component of the future of Sakura Square,” Yamashita said. “Personally, we hope it is Pacific Mercantile.”
Jolie Noguchi, who runs the store with her brothers, Kyle and Keith Nagai, said they have the same goal: to stay at Sakura Square. The fourth generation of the family, including her 24-year-old daughter, have already expressed interest in continuing the family business.
“I know that the Sakura Square Foundation, they’re going to do what they’re going to do,” Noguchi said. “But I’m just hoping we’re a part of that.”
“My brothers and I talked about it when they thought about selling the block,” she said. “It would just take too much energy and money to move somewhere else. Everyone knows Pacific here on this block.”
A few years ago, Sakura Square and the temple weighed the possibility of selling the block and relocating the temple but ultimately dismissed the idea after getting feedback from the community and temple members, Yamashita said.
“It really didn’t come to down to a matter of dollars and cents. It was too valuable to us, not in monetary terms but in terms of what this block represented to our community,” he said. “That’s what we want to capture in this redevelopment — bringing back the cultural and community components to the block.”
That block is all that’s left of a much larger Japanese-American neighborhood that traces its roots back to about 1900, after Japanese were brought to Colorado to work on sugar-beet farms.
In 1969, much of that neighborhood disappeared when the Denver Urban Renewal Authority demolished 30 blocks of decaying downtown. The Denver Buddhist Temple, though, was offered the opportunity to buy the block at 19th Street for $188,000 and named it Sakura Square, after the Japanese word for “cherry blossom.”
“2016 is the 100th anniversary of the Denver Buddhist Temple. It hasn’t been at Sakura Square for all 100 years, but this is its 100th year,” Yamashita said. “We’re now looking at re-positioning ourselves for the next 100 years — Sakura Square and the temple. It’s looking into the future.”