A decision by Littleton City Council to redevelop the Aspen Grove shopping center for new housing could ultimately fall to the city’s voters after residents successfully petitioned to hold a referendum on the project.
The shopping center, located in south Littleton, was slated for major overhaul after council narrowly voted 4-3 in November to approve plans from its owner, the Gerrity Group, to rezone the site for mixed-use development, proposing up to 2,000 new housing units alongside existing commercial space.
Prior to council’s vote, the proposal sparked outcry from community members who packed the council chamber for a multi-hour marathon night of public comment during an Oct. 5 meeting. Many took to the podium to speak out against the rezoning, citing concerns over more traffic from new housing as well as increased building heights and possible environmental impacts to nearby open spaces.
Now residents have made their most forceful rebuke yet with a petition that will force council to either rescind the plans or put it to a city-wide vote. Petitioners submitted 4,207 signatures, according to Littleton City Attorney Reid Betzing, with the city clerk’s office finding 3,729 signatures to be valid, exceeding the needed threshold of 3,588.
“It was nothing short of miraculous to get enough signatures during the holidays,” said Holly Shilliday, one of three petitioners who led the campaign, in an interview with Colorado Community Media.
Shilliday, who lives just east of Aspen Grove, said much of petitioners’ concerns hinged on the proposal to build up to 2,000 new housing units, an amount she said would strain the 33-acre site and increase traffic. She also voiced concern over new building heights that could see a maximum of 85 feet, which she said would come in conflict with the city’s character.
The loss of commercial space in favor of housing proved to be a sticking point for community members. In the plans approved by council, Gerrity committed to preserving a minimum of 125,000 square feet for commercial use. While the shopping center is roughly 268,000 square feet, only an area of about 140,000 square feet is currently in permanent use, according to Gerrity, who saw the lack of commercial tenants as a reason to pursue housing.
Linda Knufinke, another lead petitioner, said she feared cutting down on commercial space could jeopardize any sales tax revenue produced by the shopping center, which is vital for the city’s budget, adding that 2,000 housing units is “just too much.”
A fellow petitioner and Littleton resident, Frank Atwood, agreed.
“It’s a commercial space. Every city council says we can’t lose commercial space, that’s where our tax dollars come from,” Atwood said.
That issue was one of several that split council members as they weighed their vote in November, with then-Mayor Pro Tem Scott Melin factoring it into why he ultimately voted against Gerrity’s proposal.
“Residential gets us nothing in terms of financial sustainability for our community,” Melin said at the council meeting in November, after failing to gain approval for an amendment that would have secured a minimum of around 200,000 square feet of commercial space.
Current councilmembers who voted for the proposal told Colorado Community Media they were not surprised by the petition’s success.
“I understand where people are coming from,” said Jerry Valdes, councilmember for Littleton’s District 2, who said he also signed the petition as a way to give citizens more of a voice on the issue.
“I am supporting giving the citizens an opportunity to express their point,” Valdes said. “Hopefully they’re going to support what council’s action was.”
Councilmember Patrick Driscoll, who represents Littleton’s District 1, said he understands “a lot of people are passionate” about the mall but that his vote in favor was meant to protect the businesses that are already there.
The sentiment echoes years of deliberation among councilmembers about a solution to Aspen Grove’s dwindling sales tax revenue, a concern that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Driscoll said he and other councilmembers saw Gerrity’s proposal as the current best solution to salvaging the mall’s economic activity.
Driscoll expressed concern that should council punt Aspen Grove’s future to a vote, and voters overturn the council’s decision, it could doom the shopping center.
“People need to be careful about how they vote if they want a lively, exciting, livable center,” he said. “We need to do something, or it becomes a ghost town.”
Pat Dunahay, co-president of the Littleton Business Chamber, said it’s fair for citizens to decide the shopping center’s outcome, rather than council, given how high-profile of an issue the rezoning has become for the city. Still, he believes the shopping center needs to adapt in order to compete with similar mixed-use developments in neighboring cities, such as Centennial’s Streets at SouthGlenn shopping center.
But the proposal for new housing, especially at such high density, will be the hardest for citizens to swallow, he said.
“When you start talking about 2,000 units, that gets the public’s attention in a fast hurry,” he said.
Driscoll, the District 1 councilmember, said residents ultimately do not want to see change, at least not to the extent that has been proposed.
“I think people are afraid of change,” he said. “They’re going to have all sorts of reasons. Ultimately it comes down to they don’t want to change.”
But Shilliday, one of the three lead petitioners, said the petitioners’ views have been misunderstood.
“We agree, it needs to be redeveloped, it needs to be changed, it needs to be improved,” she said, adding that she even supports some new housing. “We would be in favor of some apartments but fewer in number.”
What comes next in the shopping center’s saga is unclear.
According to Betzing, the city attorney, the issue will be presented to council once again as an agenda item during which members will either vote to rescind the rezoning altogether or choose to allow a city-wide election on it, which is the more likely situation, according to members who spoke to Colorado Community Media.
The city could then choose to hold a special election or loop the vote into an upcoming election coordinated with Arapahoe County, either in November, for the midterms, or in the next general election in 2023.
According to the city clerk’s office, the cost for the city to run its own special election could be around $70,000 or $75,000, while coordinating with the county would be around $20,000 to $25,000.
For Shilliday, she is hopeful that Gerrity’s current plans would be rejected if put to a vote. But she said she and other petitioners are still open to finding a compromise for the shopping center’s future.
“I’d prefer the middle ground and see if we can reach an amicable resolution,” she said.
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