Blight fights: Lakewood’s biggest headaches

Why blight designation debates have become routine

Bob Wooley
bwooley@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 9/17/21

Tempers flared once again as Lakewood City Council met Aug 16. The reasons were many, but as is often the case nowadays a fight over a blight designation was part of the mix. It raises hackles …

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Blight fights: Lakewood’s biggest headaches

Why blight designation debates have become routine

Posted

Tempers flared once again as Lakewood City Council met Aug 16.

The reasons were many, but as is often the case nowadays a fight over a blight designation was part of the mix.

It raises hackles virtually every time they discuss it. The city has been fighting it — and fighting over it — in various ways for quite some time. Anyone who’s driven down parts of West Colfax Avenue, certain stretches of Sheridan Boulevard, or areas of the Two Creeks neighborhood, to name just a few locations, might think they know why it’s been such a pressing issue.

But that’s where the subject takes an interesting turn. Because the fight over blight is more than meets the eye. 

A blight designation is not always about getting rid of blighted properties so that those properties can become cleaner, safer, more welcoming additions to the city’s neighborhoods and commercial districts. 

It often goes much deeper than that — into the realms of gentrification, growth, and high-density residential construction that many residents are opposed to, as evidenced by the 1% growth cap known as the Strategic Growth Initiative that passed in 2019.

The Initiative also requires city council approval for residential projects of over 40 units.

The 1% growth cap is a logical place to begin this crash course in blight. Because often, if appropriately zoned, blight designations are sought with a particular outcome in mind — high density residential. In such cases, new units built don’t count against the city’s growth cap. This creates a conundrum. Voters expressed their wish to slow growth and development in the city. But are new apartments, condos or townhomes worse for crime, property values, etc. than a truly blighted city block?

Council member, Mike Bieda, Ward 3, thinks new construction built on properties given a blight designation should count against the city’s cap. He said language in the growth cap specifies it should be done that way.

What’s in a name

Who applies for a blight designation, and who pays for it, are also issues of concern. The council was discussing whether or not to keep the current process used to consider a blight designation at the Aug. 16 meeting.

Blight studies are often paid for by developers looking to find land for a project they’d like to build. For the sum of several thousand dollars, a company will do a blight study that is then presented to council. This rubs some council members the wrong way.

Because nearly without exception, the property being examined is found to be blighted in the study — whether it’s actually blighted or not. Council member Charlie Able expressed exasperation with the process.

“We have had true blight brought to us through this process. A couple of properties — max,” he said. “I think what a lot of folks think is blight is affordable housing that needs a paint job.”

In a recent council meeting, a property near West 14th Avenue, under consideration for a blight designation — and recommended by city staff to receive one — was found not to be blighted by every member of council —including councilors representing the ward the property was located in. Council members, in that particular case, thought the property merely needed a good cleaning up and mowing.

Relieved property owner? Not really. In this case, and others, property owners actually want their property to be considered blighted. They make a case to council for their property to be given the blight designation, because they can then cash in by selling to a developer. 

The current process could actually encourage property owners who want to sell, but are prohibited by the growth cap, to let properties fall into disrepair, thus making a blight designation a greater possibility.

Council member, Ramey Johnson, Ward 1, questioned when trash and other elements of blight appeared on the West 14th Avenue property, suggesting they may be purposeful. Councilor Anita Springsteen, Ward 3, called blight studies presented to council discriminatory shams leading to gentrification.

But Councilor, David Skilling, Ward 4, hit back against Springsteen’s characterization of the studies, ripping into the assertion that developers paying for blight studies was a problem and that blight designations leading to high-density construction went against the intent of voters who approved the growth cap. Bieda then countered that he thought developers should continue to pay for the studies, but the City should pick the firm that performs the studies.

Mayor, Adam Paul, wrapped up the topic with questions about how to handle the topic of blight moving forward.

“Should we look at when and how these things (blight studies) come to us? The ‘how’ means, is there a better way to deal with a developer, or a land owner hiring their own (consultant)? Also, do we look at what Mr. Bieda said, when they come before us, do we deal with the 40 (residential units) cap or not? And should whatever (blight construction) is approved go against the 1% cap going forward?” he said.

All questions that remain to be answered about the future of Lakewood.

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