Developers' plans for Littleton's Aspen Grove collide with community concern

Some fear redevelopment could disrupt lifestyle, while others champion the project

Littleton residents packed the city council chamber for a marathon night of public comment during an Oct. 5 council meeting. The topic at hand: contention over the proposed redevelopment of Aspen Grove, a shopping center in south Littleton that has for years seen declining revenue. 
For about two hours, councilmembers heard from dozens of community members who voiced opposition to the project, raising concerns that such new development would inhibit their mountain views, strain Littleton's population and swell traffic. 
“This is a loosely named plan that ignored many of us and impacts too many of us,” said Eric Beitler, who urged the council to ultimately reject the proposal from the Gerrity Group, which acquired the shopping center in 2016 and is proposing the changes. 

A plan for revival 

Even before COVID-19 restrictions battered the shopping center by closing its doors, Aspen Grove had seen declining commercial activity.
Gerrity is seeking to dramatically overhaul the 33-acre area by rezoning the site for mixed development in a bid to jump-start Aspen Grove's economy. 
The proposal calls for up to 2,000 mixed family units, the possibility of new anchor points such as grocery stores and hotels and the creation of greener plazas to provide a main street-like feel for shoppers and residents. 
Though it would cut down on the roughly 268,000 square feet of retail space to make room for housing, the plan would ensure at least 125,000 square feet remain available for commercial use. It would also raise building heights up to 85 feet. 
Kevin Gerrity, managing director of the Gerrity Group, and Colby Young, vice president of assessment management, made their case during the council meeting for why such sweeping changes were the only way forward for the center's future. 
“We want to return Aspen Grove back to the vital property it once was when it was built 20 years ago,” Gerrity said. 
The proposal comes at a crucial time for the city's budget, as officials sound the alarm on Littleton's capital projects fund, which is set to hit $0 by 2025. To combat this, councilmembers are asking voters to approve a 0.75% sales tax increase in the upcoming mail-in election, which would bring in a projected $9 million annually. 
Mayor Pro Tem Scott Melin said while he is open to mixed development for affordable housing and multi-unit dwellings, he is concerned about cutting down on commercial space at a time when more sales tax revenue is more important than ever. 
“What I do not have an open mind about is taking existing commercial and transferring it to residential,” he said. “What happens to our sales tax revenues if the applicant only builds the minimum proposed 125,000 square feet of proposed commercial? I'd say we can assume that sales tax revenues are less than half of what they are now.”
The developers, however, believe that residents living in the area will generate more sales tax revenue than if it remains simply commercial, and, coupled with a  makeover, the center will become a highly attractive shopping destination. 

Population, environmental fears  

Gerrity's ambitions clashed with a chorus of concerned residents following the developers' pitch during the council meeting. Many community members said they feared what high-density housing would mean for traffic, the environment and Littleton's character. 
“With this plan we are selling our community to apartment renters,” Beitler said. “It fails to maintain the integrity of existing neighborhoods and communities.”
Paul Bingham, a Littleton resident who is also running for an open council seat in District 3 in the mail-in election, said he is worried the proposal risks becoming the next Littleton Village.
That area is a mixed development area that promised residents a walkable shopping and dining community but has been plagued by a growing sinkhole and vacant land. Besides a Starbucks, a dentist's office and a Culver's fast-food restaurant, the area remains largely unused. 
“We need to study this a little bit before we say 'go ahead,'” said Bingham, who recommended that council table their decision. 
Lynn Christensen, who lives in Littleton Village, said she wished a study had been conducted to assess the redeveloped center's impact on nearby environmental spaces such as South Platte Park, the Mary Carter Greenway and Carson Nature Center.
She also said she is skeptical of the economic growth that would be generated by the area if it were to be populated mostly by renters who she believes will not have the disposable income to spend on the higher-priced retail and dining options that currently occupy Aspen Grove. 
“Council, please do not sell us down the river but instead help preserve the South Platte River corridor and small-town charm with a plan that actually meets the needs of Littleton,” she said. “We deserve better.” 
With more housing also comes more traffic, residents warned. 
City staff who have been working with the developer assured residents that because residential and retail traffic occurs at different times of the day, the effects of up to 2,000 more residences would most likely not be felt in the area, at least not dramatically. 
“Come on, that's a joke, that's a joke,” said Rob Lee, who said traffic would almost certainly increase and called the redevelopment an “overreach.” 
Some residents who live near Aspen Grove said they have been left out of the discussion around the site's future. 
“Many, many, many of us never got any mailings, never got any notices, never got anything,” said Michelle Mason, who lives in a condo that faces a portion of the center that developers have proposed to build up to 85 feet. “We're right next to where this is happening and got completely left out.” 
Mason, and other nearby residents, said increasing building heights would bar their view of the Rocky Mountains, though Gerrity assured that it would not, based off its models. 

Supporters speak up 

While many in attendance were opposed to the plans, business leaders and advocates for affordable housing said it was needed. 
Tim Vandal, who owns the boutique store A Paris Street Market in Aspen Grove, said if the plan does not go forward, the center will continue to struggle. 
“I think you've seen that in the numbers,” Vandal said. “We all know retail has changed, buying habits have changed. The redevelopment for the market may be a challenge, but I'm confident we can get through that … we could go anywhere we wanted to in this region. We choose Littleton because we're invested.” 
Pat Dunahay, co-president of the Littleton Business Chamber, said the risks are “too high” to let Aspen Grove stay as it is. 
“We have (outlets) there that we can't risk losing,” Dunahay said. “I put a lot of faith and a lot of trust that (Gerrity) is on the pulse of cutting-edge stuff.”
Ann Roux, who lives in Littleton and is a member of the League of Women Voters for Arapahoe and Douglas counties, said any plan for redevelopment must include affordable housing, something she is supportive of. 
“We believe that it's the responsibility of a community to ensure that those who work in the community can also live in the community,” she said. 
Destiny Bossert, a local and state government affairs manager for the Colorado Apartment Association, said as job tenures decrease among younger people, renting is in higher demand. 
“Mixed-use development produces an opportunity to help sustain and grow businesses,” she said. “It is in the city's best interest to ensure availability of all housing types at all different price points." 
Council will take up further discussion and consideration of the plan during a special meeting on Nov. 9.


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