Littleton City Council took the phrases “condemnation” and “urban renewal” out of the shadows and put them center stage at the city’s second annual Economic Vitality Symposium, held Sept. 19 at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema.
Guests sipping on free Breckenridge Brewery beverages and complimentary snacks from Alamo heard from representatives of Arvada, Fort Collins, Golden, Longmont and Lafayette about their respective projects.
“They are rock stars among the cities in our state,” said Sam Mamet, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League.
Each one has an urban renewal authority working on public/private partnerships to revitalize blighted areas. They use a number of techniques, including everything from waiving building fees to condemnation of property, which is often donated to a developer. A common practice is tax-increment financing, which assumes the improvements a developer makes will increase tax revenue, benefiting the city in the long run.
A short CML film explains the developers normally take the brunt of the risk, shouldering 70 percent or more of the financing.
“Developers are not out there to make wild sums of money,” explains Greg Moran of MVG Development in the film. “They’re looking for a reasonable return.”
But the path to profit can sometimes be messy, as described by Maureen Phair, executive director of the Arvada Urban Renewal Authority. Arvada recently completed projects to spruce up its downtown, which is similar to Littleton’s Main Street, and is planning more in anticipation of light rail. Both phases include condemnations. Phair said the city generally offers a fair market price, but property owners often hold out for more. When the authority condemns the land, she said, judges often order less than the city offered.
But things don’t always shake out in favor of the city. In 2004, the Colorado Supreme Court blocked AURA from condemning a private lake to make way for a Super Walmart parking lot, killing the whole project.
“Do you see how much commitment this takes, and how you have to keep your eye on the prize?” she asked the audience.
Right now, AURA is working on turning 26 acres near a future light-rail station into high-density apartments.
“This is a controversial project for us,” she said, bringing to mind Littleton’s recent Broadstone proposal, a private project just south of the Littleton Courthouse that city council ultimately killed. “We are getting absolutely crucified, but our political people are holding tight. (Opponents) think we’re going to be emptying the prisons and loading up the apartments with convicted criminals.”
Golden has used its URA for grants to improve building facades, public art, signage, parking garages and more. It also offers funds to private businesses for remodel design and demolition, and grants for them to build an Internet presence.
“This all can help prevent Golden from backsliding into a ghost town,” according to a short film the city of Littleton produced for the symposium.
One thing that seemed to impress representatives from other cities was Fort Collins’ treatment of downtown alleys. The city installed benches, art, paving and better drainage, and property owners were encouraged to divide their buildings so that one store faces the street and another faces the alley.
The symposium came just four months after Littleton City Council unanimously approved its new Economic Plan 2013, the result of more than a year of “think tank” meetings. It takes a substantially more aggressive approach than how the city has worked to attract businesses until now.
“This is really an opportunity for us to put more tools in our toolbox than just the Economic Gardening, which is all that we offered before,” Mayor Debbie Brinkman said at the time.
The city’s former director of business/industry affairs, Chris Gibbons, earned national recognition for developing the Economic Gardening program, which focuses on supporting and growing existing business rather than actively recruiting businesses.
The tools Brinkman referrred to include financial incentives, code changes, parking solutions for downtown (possibly meters), transit-oriented development, urban-renewal authorities, revitalization grants, upgrading strip malls, asking the voters for tax increases and much more.
“This is not a plan to push toward an eminent-domain program,” said Brinkman in May. “You’re looking at seven people who have no intentions of doing anything with eminent domain.”