Littleton's urban-renewal authority voted in favor of its first two project areas on Aug. 19, sending them on to the planning board and ultimately to city council, which has the final say.
“I see a lot of improvements this authority might be able to assist with,” said Jim Collins, a former Littleton mayor and member of Littleton Invests for Tomorrow (LIFT), the city's urban-renewal authority.
The two areas are, generally speaking, the west side of the Santa Fe Drive corridor from Prince Street to just south of Mineral Avenue, and the Columbine Square area along Belleview Avenue.
At least one property owner is thrilled. Carl Chang is a representative of CMCB Enterprises in California, which owns the Columbine Square shopping center that once housed a Safeway and the Bluz Bar and Grill but now sits virtually empty. Chang believes the popularity of such neighborhood retail centers is waning.
“Changes such as these lead us to consider other viable uses, concluding in the proposed 340-unit residential community we submitted to the city in 2013,” he wrote in a letter to LIFT. “We are confident that the redevelopment of the property within the Columbine Square Study Area will yield tremendous community benefits for the entire city.”
Columbine Square will likely be the first project to benefit from the urban-renewal authority, assuming council approves the plan areas. Once that happens, CMBC can submit its plan to LIFT, along with reasons why it can't proceed without financial assistance from the authority. If the LIFTboard accepts the application, CMBC would still have to ask city council to approve a rezone from retail to residential.
If successful on that front, the authority and CMBC would enter into an agreement that whatever new taxes are generated from the property, above and beyond what was coming in before the urban-renewal project, gets divided between the authority and the property owner for 25 years. CMBC's share would have to be spent on public improvements like roads, drainage, sewer and sidewalks — major expenditures that often impede development.
Two seek opt-out
Not everyone is as enthused as Chang.
The owners of Littleton Equine Medical Center and the Evergreen Motel, both in the Santa Fe plan, asked to be removed from the plan areas. The LIFT board granted the request for the horse clinic, situated on a rolling estate that boasts a Southern-style mansion built in 1913.
The board did not address the motel, which is just north of the McDonald's at Santa Fe and Church Street. Even the owners admit it is less than pristine, but they say they've applied for historic-preservation funds from the city to restore it to its 1954 heyday, when it was the first motel to cater to the Centennial Racetrack crowd.
“It's mine, and it's not for sale,” said James Donnelly, who has owned the motel for 35 years and worries the city could take it from him using the power of eminent domain.
It's an issue that is dividing many in the community. City council has the ultimate say about when eminent domain can be used, and some members have said it would never happen. Council passed a resolution to ban its use on Aug. 19, but a citizens group is still gathering petitions in an attempt to place any such decisions in the hands of voters.
“Our whole downtown was revitalized, and we didn't have urban renewal,” said critic Jeannie Erickson. “To me, it seems like developers are coming into Littleton and running over everything.”
Some oppose `B' word
Others have a problem with the term “blight” being applied to practically all of the city's commercial properties.
“Whenever urban renewal is announced, the value for everybody's property in the area has been sterilized,” said Dan Arizumi, who said he was representing Gary Sutton.
Sutton owns the little farm tucked away just south of Denver Seminary on Santa Fe Drive, and Arizumi said Sutton is afraid it's being targeted. He called on the LIFT board to show a specific plan for the area.
Consultant Ann Ricker has said repeatedly that LIFT can't devise a specific plan for the area; a developer or property owner has to present one. The appointed urban-renewal authority approves financing tools, she explains, not land use; that still falls under the purview of the elected members of city council.
“No urban-renewal plan is going to be so specific as to even imply that it's telling property owners what to do,” she said. “It can't do that, and it doesn't do that. … It's a financial tool, not a regulatory tool.”
The Columbine Square plan passed unanimously, but Dennis Reynolds voted against the Santa Fe plan. He wanted to remove the Ensor property, which is everything south of Mineral. At 111 acres, it's the largest piece of property left to develop in the city.
“I still think development should pay its own way,” said Reynolds.
“That's just a redistribution of wealth, and I don't support that either.”
The planning board was scheduled to address the projects on Aug. 25.