For some south metro residents, O'Toole's Garden Center was a 'lifeblood' for their community

Plans to close decades-old business in Littleton send shockwaves for patrons, partners

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There is much that patrons and community members love about O’Toole’s Garden Center in Littleton beyond just the rows of eye-popping, verdant vegetation.

There’s Pickles the cat, the store’s unofficial mascot, who can be seen lounging in plastic growing trays atop wooden, soil-dusted shelves. There’s the fact that it's a family-owned business with more than 30 years of stories and legacy. But maybe most importantly, it's a place where people gather, where you’re treated as a friend and where community thrives.

It’s why when store owner Adele O’Toole announced Tuesday that the business would be closing at the end of summer, shockwaves could be felt throughout the Littleton community and beyond.

“That will leave a hole,” said Rick Townsend, who helped found the Columbine Memorial in Clement Park following the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School. 

“I believe those are the places that become kind of the lifeblood of the community,” Townsend said. “O’Toole’s has really been invaluable to us … we always knew they were there to help us when something came up.”

A legacy of community 

Much of the store’s character is embodied by manager Chris Ibsen, who for years has helped spearhead various community involvement efforts. 

Townsend lost his daughter, Lauren, more than 20 years ago in the attack on Columbine High School that ended with 15 dead. 

“O’Toole’s has been very generous to us over the years,” Townsend said, recalling that Ibsen would donate flowers whenever the roses around the memorial were looking thin or when the annual remembrance ceremony was held, which called for columbine flowers. 

Todd McPherson, who helps run a longstanding food bank through the nonprofit Integrated Family Community Services (IFCS), said O’Toole’s and its manager Ibsen have been champions for the organization.  

“They’ve been just amazing, just greater than anyone could ever expect,” McPherson said. “We feel like we’re ingrained in the O’Toole family … our philosophy intertwines, so we’re overjoyed to partner with them.” 

McPherson said the store has “had their back day to day” and regularly helped with food drives, turning its space into a drop-off where community members can leave food to be taken to the nonprofit. Ibsen has led several fundraising initiatives for IFCS, such as the “buck a basket” campaign that gives IFCS a portion of sales made from gardening supplies as well as barbecues and other community events. 

And the store itself has served as a canopy under which IFCS can connect with local residents who share a common goal of getting fresher, healthier food to those who are struggling. 

McPherson said the nonprofit will talk with O’Toole patrons who may be looking to donate an excess of homegrown fruits and vegetables or reserve a row of their plot for growing food just for IFCS.

During the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, when hunger soared and IFCS fed 5,000 to 6,000 people per month, up from about 400 to 500 before COVID, McPherson said O’Toole’s stepped up even more. 

The staff’s commitment spoke volumes to McPherson, especially given that the store was facing economic hardship due to shutdowns and social distancing requirements. 

“They just weathered that and said ‘it doesn’t make a difference, you guys need us,’” McPherson said. “It’s less usual in this environment to have businesses like O’Toole’s that made people feel like family.”

Littleton resident Betty Harris, who founded and leads the Littleton Garden Gang, said Ibsen and O'Toole's were bastions of knowledge. Whenever Harris had a gardening question she couldn't answer, the next person to ask was Ibsen. 

"O’Toole’s was kind of like an anchor there for us,” she said. “It’s just been such a big part of our life.” 

The garden center was one of Harris' first introductions to gardening in Colorado after she moved from Virginia in 1993. It was at the store where she bought her first plant in the state, a Christmas cactus. 

For Ibsen, it was these relationships that made his work at O’Toole’s more than just a job.

“If you don’t have the community spirit, you don’t have a store, I don’t care how much stuff you have in the store," Ibsen said. “This place gave people a sense that they were part of the community, and I think that’s important to people."

The garden center is also where Ibsen, who has served as its first and only store manager, met his wife and credits it with helping him start his family. 

“O’Toole’s has impacted a lot of lives," he said, adding that the work he does for others is a reflection of the strength of those communities. "It’s not me, it’s everybody else around me."

Future plans uncertain 

The store has finally met the inevitable, said its owner, Adele O’Toole. The widow of founder Jim O’Toole, Adele said she knew for years the store would one day be in the eye of a developer. 

Located beside the now derelict Columbine Square shopping center at West Belleview Avenue and South Federal Boulevard, the O'Toole's property has been sold to North Carolina-based developer Lennar Multifamily Communities, O'Toole said. 

Though O’Toole said she had not been made aware of the developer’s plans until January, Lennar has sought to build a mixed-use development with 359 apartments and new commercial spaces in the area since at least August 2021, when it submitted a letter of intent to the city. 

According to Mike Sutherland, community development deputy director for the City of Littleton, the area, which also includes O'Toole's property, is currently zoned for commercial use. But under a new land-use code approved by city council in October, developers  are able to apply for zoning changes to certain commercial sites to allow for new housing, as is the case with the Columbine Square area.

Sutherland said the city has yet to receive a formal application for the plans, although it recently met with Lennar on Jan. 13 for a pre-application study. 

The current plans from Lennar do not include the O'Toole's property and Sutherland said he is not aware of how it will factor into the proposal. 

“It’s always concerning to see a good corporate citizen like O’Toole’s close their doors," Sutherland said. "But it does open up some possibilities for the future of both those sites.”

As of press time, Lennar senior development manager Pete Dikeou and development associate Peyton Oldenburg have not responded to requests for comment about the plans. 

O’Toole said if she had not sold, the vast majority of parking space for her customers, on land that the garden center does not own, would have been eaten up by the developer, leaving just 30 parking spaces owned by O'Toole's. That, she said, would have made business nonviable. 

“I did not go looking to sell," O'Toole said. “It was out of my hands.” 

The news led to dozens of comments on social media from patrons who called Littleton's O'Toole's their "go to nursery" and who asked "where would people go to get their garden materials?"

But O’Toole said she is hopeful the store will be able to reopen at some point in the future, though it may not be in Littleton. O’Toole’s two other stores, located in Westminster and Lakewood, will remain fully up and running, O’Toole said. 

It gives some hope to longtime community partners.

“It’s sad to know that there’s a chapter that ends,” McPherson said. “But there’s maybe a new chapter that opens up.”

For Ibsen, the sun will always rise. 

“This world that we’re in, there’s a lot of good, and a lot of dark," he said. "This is a place where everybody could come in and get a little bit of sunshine.”

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